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Originally published Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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'Suffer for Beauty' catalogs women's fashion extremes, from corsets to cones

The White River Valley Museum's "Suffer for Beauty" exhibition — subtitled "A Retrospective on Women's History as Evidenced by the Evolution of Undergarments" — is a behind-the-seams look at the ways women have worked to match their appearances to cultural ideals.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibition preview

'Suffer for Beauty'

Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, today through Nov. 8, White River Valley Museum, 918 H St. S.E., Auburn; $2 for adults, $1 for seniors and children (free on Wednesdays) (253-288-7433 or go to www.wrvmuseum.org).

In the 1880s, it was bustles and corsets. In the 1950s, it was girdles and cone-shaped brassieres. These days, it's Spanx and liposuction.

The White River Valley Museum's "Suffer for Beauty" exhibition — subtitled "A Retrospective on Women's History as Evidenced by the Evolution of Undergarments" — is a behind-the-seams look at the ways women have worked to match their appearances to cultural ideals.

Housed in a small space devoted to rotating exhibitions, "Suffer for Beauty" takes an intimate look at the evolution of women's ideal shapes from about 1880 to the 1950s, reflecting women's changing roles and attitudes. Each section includes a stylish outfit from an era, a silhouette of the ideal woman's shape of the time, photos of trendsetters and local women doing their best to live up to the standard — and, of course, examples of the underwear that made it possible.

The curators (the show is co-curated by Michelle Marshman, who teaches women's history at Green River Community College) took a lighthearted tone with the accompanying commentary.

"Where, oh where, should the ideal breast be?" asks one sign that discusses how women have used clever engineering to mold their bosoms anywhere from squished, in the flapper era, to lifted and separated in the Donna Reed days.

Another points out that women in the Victorian age had to put their shoes on midway through getting dressed because once their petticoats and skirts were in place, they couldn't bend over.

The show allows curators to display some of the museum's extensive accumulation of clothing, which, like the rest of its collection, came largely from the region's residents.

"Like any museum, we have a small number of things on display and a whole warehouse full of things waiting for a chance to come out and tell a story," said museum director Patricia Cosgrove. Most of the pieces are from the museum's permanent collection, though a few — including some primitive electrical beauty implements — were borrowed from the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle.

"Suffer for Beauty" is about more than letting visitors see a few authentic examples of women's clothing. It's also intended to get them thinking about why women were willing to take such measures to achieve the beauty ideals during their time — and what we're willing to do in ours.

We might think the straps and stays on display seem extreme but they're not compared to, say, breast implants, Cosgrove notes. Looking at a mannequin wearing a Grace Kelly-style gown, she said, "Most of us don't wear those undergarments, but wouldn't we all want that shape?"

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