MASSILLON A contraption with steel hoops that resembles a birdcage, or a torture device, is one of the first artifacts you’ll see in “Fashion Outlaws” at the Massillon Museum.
When you consider that this was worn under a woman’s voluminous skirt in the 1870s, the new exhibition’s theme — about confinement, mobility, women’s rights, rebellion — begins to coalesce.
Next to this daunting crinoline is a corset-like garment that is tightly laced and tiny. “You would not have been able to raise your arms,” said Heather Hayden, the museum’s curator, who organized the exhibit with items from the museum’s collection.
Nearby are displays of bustles, another curious 19th-Century device. The era’s fashions, Hayden observes, “were about treating women as furniture.”
An x-ray of a corset illustrates the effects of such a confining garment on the human body. Visitors may stand on a circle on the floor, to get an idea of just how large a hoop skirt with a 69-inch diameter would be.
“Women had these hourglass figures that they wanted to accentuate,” Hayden explained. “But I wonder how much of this was about women having their space?”
During the heyday of hoops, “there was a very real concern about having your dress catch on fire,” Hayden said. To prevent this, some of the skirts had a water-filled tube around the bottom “that you could puncture like EpiPen.”
Hayden, who earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion from Kent State University, said she was inspired to mount a “Fashion Outlaws” exhibition after learning about Ohio native Virginia Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927).
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Woodhull “ran for president but she had sent obscenities through the mail so she was imprisoned through the election,” Hayden said. “I was so in love with this woman — I thought, ‘What an outlaw!’ And I started investigating other women in our collection who were rebels in their own way.”
A side gallery has a collection of fashion illustrations from 1842 to 1908, one of them depicting a wasp-wasted man in a corset. Hayden pointed out how the tailoring of the women’s clothing in these prints was progressively more male-influenced. “This woman in the 1890s is wearing a progenitor of the 1980s power suit — and holding opera glasses,” she said.
“I think ‘Downton Abbey’ fans will parallels with some of the rebellion here. Think of the Lady Sybil character,” Hayden said.
Also on display in the compact yet far-ranging exhibition is a women’s silk basketball uniform with bloomer-style underwear from 1905. (“When women’s basketball started, they were wearing long skirts,” Hayden said.) There’s a Rosie the Riveter-style denim factory uniform from World War II, on loan from The Timken Co.; a mannequin garbed in crushed-velvet bellbottoms from the 1970s; and watercolor illustrations of Isadora Duncan, the free-spirited dancer who died in 1927 when one of her trademark free-flowing scarves became tangled in the wheel spokes of a moving car.
“The undercurrent is mobility vs. immobility,” Hayden said.
“Fashion Outlaws,” located on the Massillon Museum’s second floor, will remain on display through April 24.
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