Suffering for Beauty: History through Undergarments at White River Valley Historical Museum

For anyone keeping a list of “Cheap Entertainment” — and you all should! — make sure you file the White River Valley Historical Museum in Auburn, WA under the following categories: Less than $5, Family Friendly, Educational, and Yeah-Go Local!

For Mom’s birthday celebration, The Family met for coffee and pastries, cuddled the brand spankin’ new baby (three weeks–his head is still soft!), and headed over to the museum for a few hours stroll through the past.


I haven’t been inside the WRVH Museum since I was a senior in high school and helped hang Christmas lights on the mini buildings on the replica “Main Street.”

What drew me back was their main summer exhibit, “Suffering for Beauty: A Revealing Look at Women’s History Through Undergarments.”
~Exhibit runs through Nov 8 2009

It’s a small exhibit– just one room. But what a story that little room tells!

The exhibit takes you from the bustle silhouette of the 1870s to Dior’s “New Look” introduced in 1947… and the “contraptions”  that build all the shapes between.


You’ll see the strictest and the prettiest corsets (18-inch waists? I measured… That’s my thigh). There’s a huge image of the famous “loose” (uncorseted) dancing troupe, (so that’s where “straitlaced” comes from… straight-laced into your corset!). There are Gibson Girl S-Bend corsets and the sturdy skirts and loose undershirts for the unbound, mountain-climbing early feminists who bucked the corsted trend in the late 1900s.

You’ll see flattening bodices for the 1920s and roomy and “womanly” soft brassiers and pettipants in the 30s. Then comes a return to entrapment in the bombadier-bras and  steel-sprung girdles of the 40s and 50s.

Psst: You can peruse some wonderful illustrations, photos and period advertisements in  this presentation.

I only wish it had kept going through the years… the introduction of sports bras, the Wonderbra phenonemon of the 90s, and the latest rage: “Sculpting shapeware” like Spanx for “everyday” and the non-girdle girdles thriving in the current mega-million dollar bridal industry. (Hey, I wore a strapless, padded, backless, and boned “slimming bustier” … and considered myself lucky for skipping the control-tops!)

For ShowMy niece Banana had a particularly good time with the themed activities. She  measured her own nine-year old waist (even she wouldn’t fit the ideal wasp-waist!), dressed the period fashion-paper dolls, and played “match the shoe” to the outfit. I think the “wow, look what women have gone through for social acceptance” aspect was a bit lost on her, though…

We explained to Banana that the funny looking thing called a “Bodice” was what ladies wore before the brassiere was invented.

“They wore it like an undershirt,” said Mom. “Instead of a bra?” asked my very grown-up and training-bra-clad niece. “That’s dis-gus-ting!”

You try arguing with a modern nine-year-old. So I showed her the horsehair “rump enhancers” to really gross her out.

The rest of the Museum’s permanent collection is also very cool. For 2$ a person, you get right up close to the history of my hometown. The museum tells the story of all the settlers in the White River Valley, including the Japanese immigrants, the Native Americans, the Lumberjacks, the Rail-Road folks, the Farmers. You can walk down Main Street and stop in the Haberdasher, the General Store and the Foundry, and you can walk through several homesteads and a caboose! Dad even found Harry Tracy’s “suicide gun,” fatally discharged in 1902 after the outlaw escaped from prison, killed several law-enforcement officers, and took some Kent Valley residents hostage.

Local history is everywhere. Photos of families my mom knew or went to school with, artifacts from legendary town businesses, and recreations of old hotels and the first schoolhouse.


Good ol' Sandy! So this is where you went!

My favorite part of the museum? Sandy!

Sandy is the dime-a-ride mechanical horse that lived outside Massey’s Grocery when I was a kid. When my mom was a kid, too! Her ears all worn off from where we all hung on tight.

This museum is exactly what a community is all about: teaching, remembering, and giving new generations something to hang onto, something familiar that lets them see themselves as part of a story that just keeps going.


Model Citizens. nyuk nyk.

A big thank you to the museum’s volunteer staff! We had a wonderful time!

P.S. Make sure to see some of the upcoming events associated with the Suffering for Beauty exhibit!


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