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Oct. 15, 2021 | Friday
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Revealed: Underwear and what lurks below
Rita Brown will be giving a talk called Exposed - A Brief History of Underwear on May 16 at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

The practical, whimsical and seductive aspects of history’s unmentionables will be showcased during Exposed – A Brief History of Underwear.

Rita Brown is exposing culture through fashion and revealing the history of underwear during a lecture at the Niagara Historical Museum and Society on May 16.

Brown says undergarments have played a crucial role mirroring culture and the societal norms of the age.

Her career in costume design earned her experience working with and studying these often forgotten clothing items. She spent her career as a cutter for costume design and as the head of wardrobe at the Shaw Festival. While she says she wouldn’t call herself a fashion expert, she will admit to being more knowledgeable about fashion than most given her lifetime in the field of costume design.

When she was asked by Amy Klassen, acting managing curator of the museum, to put together a talk about whatever she wanted for the museum’s arts and fashion lecture series, Brown says she thought it would be interesting to showcase “what happens underneath.”

“As Christian Dior famously said, ‘Without foundation, there can be no fashion.’ He was a designer in the 1940s and 1950s. Right after the war he decided to bring back femininity with a bang,” she says.

With a focus on the feminine side of underwear and its evolution over the years, she will touch on the difference between functional and ornamental designs during her talk.

She says the seductive side is also prevalent.

“What the culture of the time dictated, and how close a man could come to a woman. It became almost subversive like underwear peeking underneath clothes, and that was great allure for men – ‘What are those women wearing and how do we get to the bottom of it?’ That kind of thing.”

She says underwear played an important role in our culture throughout history. People need something next to their skin and, over and above the hygienic reasons, underwear has become almost a second skin – “to have a garment between you and your outer garment.”

“I just thought it would be interesting to show people what has been worn under clothing for centuries. I went back to the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans, but just in a way to show how it has evolved.”

During the war, fashion centered around utility and necessity, Brown says. Function and minimal material outweighed the desire for creativity with clothing design at the time. Styles of undergarments followed the same concept.

“So, when the war was over, (Dior) decided that he was going to do something very grand. They were wearing bras and girdles in the 1940s, but he went back to understructure. Almost like a built-in corset, to push up the bosom and to really emphasize the body.”

Underwear adapted and changed over the years, but it has been prevalent throughout most of history, and Brown is looking to shine a light on its evolution over the years.

The May 16 lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the public and free for museum members. Reservations are required as seating is limited.