Polish Museum Unveils Exhibit on ... Underwear

Victoria has no secrets in this Polish town.

In an exhibition that's making some Poles do a double-take, the Museum of Industry in Opatowek has chronicled the evolution of women's underwear from the knee-length knickers and tight corsets of the early 20th century to the skimpy thongs of today.

"Undergarments were pretty much kept well out of sight in the old days," said Ewa Sieranska, curator at the Central Textile Museum in Lodz, which loaned 140 items to the exhibit called "From Pantaloons to G-Strings."

"At the beginning of the 20th century you couldn't show them at all, and later only a little bit, whereas now they're everywhere," she added.

Female underwear evolved as women's role in society changed.

The frumpy drawers of the early 20th century gave way to more modern styles in the 1920s — including garter belts to hold up the stockings of women entering the workplace.

Among notable items on display in this town 150 miles east of Warsaw is a white garter belt with pink hearts and clasps to attach to silk stockings, a style popular before pantyhose were developed in the 1960s.

There are also pantaloons (knee-long cotton underwear with lace fringe), day shirts, night gowns and two-piece corsets.

Nylon rose in popularity in the 1970s, while natural materials like cotton hold sway today.

In the 1980s, when Poland's then-communist regime was staggering from one political and economic crisis to the next, so-called "tygodniowki," which came in packages of seven — a pair for each day of the week — were the standard cotton undies for women.

The exhibition, which opened in January and runs until the end of March, is sprinkled with a few items of male clothing — boxer shorts, robes and a jock strap from the 1930s.

But male underwear has changed little over the years, and the vast majority of the collection is made up of what once was known as women's unmentionables.

"When people came to see the exhibition after it first opened, it caused a range of different reactions," said museum curator Ewa Klysz. "But these items are subject to historical research, and this is a serious exhibit."

Serious it may be, but it is also proved entertaining.

"It's great," said Klaudia Kepa, 15, who visited the museum with her high school classmates.

"You're not just learning about art or something that you can read about in a history text book, but something that's important, well, every day."

The underwear did generate a fair amount of giggling among the three other groups of students that visited the museum on Valentine's Day.

Older visitors, however, tend to take a different spin on things.

"They want to see some things they aren't familiar with, or remember items that they once wore," Klysz said. "Sometimes they say, 'Oh, I used to wear that, or, ugh, those were horribly uncomfortable."'

A frequent source of such memories: a magenta nylon nightgown with pink frills around the chest.

"Those were terrible," Klysz said with a laugh. "Women hated wearing those things."

And where does underwear style go next? Klysz looked around the room and shrugged.

"Oh, I don't know what'll come next," she said with a laugh. "Maybe a return to what we wore before underwear — nothing."