In this week’s blog Lorraine Smith, fashion historian and part of the team behind the Underpinnings Museum, explains how what started as a few eBay purchases back in 2014, soon developed into her collecting an extensive historical underwear collection. Ultimately, this is what resulted in her involvement in the museum; a free-to-access online resource dedicated solely to the history of underwear. Discover Lorraine's fascinating 9-year collecting habit through her post.
Last month I found an original 1920s bra on eBay. Not a particularly rare occurrence, as I do search for them every so often, but what usually crops up are beautiful garments made from delicate silk and lace which are far out of my price range. I've also seen many of these more luxurious garments in museums and other collections, so I was less interested in acquiring one for myself. Instead, I wanted the type of early twentieth century bra that I had viewed in the Symington Collection — made from a sturdy tea-rose-pink cotton coutil and showing some evidence of the undergarments that it evolved from.
The brassiere that I found in my most recent search was exactly what I had been looking for. It features back lacing (like a corset), with those new-fangled hook and eye fastenings down the side (instead of a busk down the centre-front), some boning to help the fabric below the bust sit flat against the body, and a little elastic strap to fasten it to the rest of your corsetry. This bra has lots of the structural details that are of interest to me, but none of the pretty embellishments which appeal to many other fashion historians and collectors. I'm more fascinated by the job that underwear did than its aesthetics, in the silhouette rather than the surface details. How did these early bras smooth and flatten, before they evolved to lift and separate?
My collecting habit started back in 2014 when I was beginning research for my Master's dissertation at London College of Fashion. I had visited a few archives in order to view some of the bras in their collections, but the styles and technological developments that I was reading about in books didn’t always feature in garments that were available for researchers to view. An academic at my university had mentioned scouring eBay for particular examples of twentieth century dress for an exhibition, so I thought I'd try searching the auction site for some of the things I was looking for. I was lucky enough to be that year's recipient of the Costume Society Yarwood Award — one bra may be an inexpensive acquisition, but enough of them to inform research on a 70 year period of history is a more considerable investment! — and I was determined for my collection to continue to be useful to others once I had completed my project, so I donated it to the Archives at London College of Fashion after I graduated.
The strange thing about collecting is that it’s a mindset which seeps into the core of your being and so it becomes very hard to stop. Collections, especially of dress, are rarely ever completed and it's always tricky to resist the urge to add one or two more pieces. Those saved searches I had set up on eBay kept returning brassieres I'd never seen before and, because they were often selling for less than £20, I'd buy them out of curiosity. I soon realised that I was collecting again, although I was constantly disappointed that I had no one to show them to. When I was asked to do a guest lecture to students on my old MA course, I started looking at my new acquisitions as a collection rather than individual objects and began trying to track down bras that would fill the gaps in the stories I could tell with it.
More recently, things have escalated as friends and strangers have started offering me donations. An interesting thing about having a research interest in the history of the bra is that people are happy to tell you all sorts of stories, and they always remember what your research is about. Anyone who knows me and uncovers a vintage bra in a wardrobe, attic or charity shop will often send a cheerful, “saw this and thought of you!” In addition, I had set up a new Twitter account to live-tweet academic conferences and a friend suggested I rename it "Master of Bras", which meant I was memorable and easy for strangers to contact. I've had several very kind offers of donations in recent years and each has filled a little gap in my collection in some way.
One of the sad things about collections, however, is that they are often locked away with no one other than their keeper looking at or learning from them. I was discussing this with lingerie designer Karolina Laskowska back in 2016 and we pondered how our collections of fascinating little glimpses into this fashion history niche could usefully be shared with a wider audience. Those discussions led to the founding of The Underpinnings Museum; a free-to-access online resource dedicated solely to the history of underwear. The online nature of the project allowed us to reach people all over the world with our collections and exhibitions. The museum is funded purely by the kind donations of our supporters who include fashion historians, sewing enthusiasts, re-enactors, students, academics and lingerie designers.
However, much of the joy and beauty in objects can be found from viewing them in person, and part of the thrill of looking after collections is seeing what other people select to look at more closely. In a strange way, they are curating their own personal exhibition from the things that pique their interest. And so, the dream of a physical location for the Underpinnings Museum — and a place for me to temporarily display objects from my own collection, telling some of its many stories — continues to linger at the back of our minds. Until then, the internet will remain our lifeblood; allowing us to find objects to acquire, to connect with people who share our interest, and to share images of these fascinating glimpses into the undergarments of the past.
Make sure to check out Lorraine’s Blog, Rarely Wears Lipstick.
Follow Lorraine on Instagram, @masterofbras, on twitter @MasterOfBras and on Mastodon @MasterOfBras@fashionsocial.host
Lorraine was a recipient of The Costume Society’s ‘Yarwood Research Grant’, That allowed her to engage with high quality research and supported her at the very beginning of her collecting. The costume Society offer several Grants that look to support and enhance research. Take a look at what other grants we offer here.
Are you a garment collector too? Do you have a passion for fashion history? Are you studying a fashion related subject? Or perhaps a reenactor? Become a member of The Costume Society today and join a friendly and passionate community that look to celebrate, explore and engage in researching the world of fashion and costume history.
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