BY STEPHANIE LEFEBVRE
It’s a small exhibit, with about 50 pieces on display. But the objects being viewed are ones few were privy to see.
From bustles to corsets and girdles to pantyhose, the Waist Management: A History of Unmentionablesexhibit at the Guelph Civic Museum, that opened Jan. 11, is one that sheds a little light on the lengths women went to for beauty.
Jonathan Walford, curator and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum, created the exhibit with pieces he had been collecting for the past two years.
“A lot of it was finding pieces that were missing in the collection,” said Walford. “It’s relatively easy to find a corset from 1900, but it’s very difficult to find an older one because the style didn’t change quickly enough. Women wore them until they wore out.”
Still, he managed to find enough pieces in decent condition to logically put together an exhibit. And he found them everywhere.
“I’ve taken things out of houses that are being torn down, I’ve bought things on eBay, I’ve bought things from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I’ve rescued things out of the garbage, I’ve had gifts from little old ladies,” Walford said. “I’ve found things everywhere I’ve looked.”
And he’s always had an interest in fashion and history. Both of Walford’s parents were involved in the fashion industry and he majored in Canadian history and minored in museum studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
So when the idea for an exhibit focusing on underwear through history came to mind, he ran with it.
“There’s been a lot of interest in underwear,” said Walford. “People like to look at underwear.”
He also did all of the research and write-ups for each piece in the exhibit. The museum he curates has a large collection of books and he pulled all 18 that focused on underwear. Walford also said he uses the Internet to get a jump-start on his research.
“And, of course, there’s always Wikipedia. It’s a good place to start. You never finish on Wikipedia but you start on Wikipedia.”
From there, in order to get his exhibit into the Guelph Civic Museum, Walford had to talk to its curator, Bev Dietrich.
She looks after the collections and figures out the exhibit schedule and has been doing so since 1991. But she didn’t design the layout. That was Walford.
“He knew how he wanted to highlight his collection,” said Dietrich, “including having the crinolines and that figure right there in the door that attracts everybody’s attention.”
Dietrich did take a special interest in Waist Management though because she has always had an interest in costume.
“I think just showing the underwear, which is what’s worn under the costume, is kind of a different route to go,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that the costume shape is because of the underwear.”
Dietrich also said the exhibit showcases the unmentionables in a way that is legitimate and respectable. And sometimes shocking.
“Seeing the rubber girdles. I didn’t realize they were rubber,” Dietrich said about the one thing that surprised her the most. “Women wore those because they felt they had to.”
She added it was gross imagining wearing them in the heat.
And though Guelph is not the typical spot for an exhibit based on historical fashion, Dietrich said that since it opened, the number of people coming into the museum has almost doubled.
Waist Management: A History of Unmentionables will continue at the Guelph Civic Museum until April 14 from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday to Sunday.