Society and Culture

Virtual exhibit explores blurred lines between private and public fashion

”Innerwear” for people working from home may seem new, but a U of A exhibit shows how it’s been done over the last 200 years.

  • November 30, 2020
  • By Bev Betkowski

Anne Bissonnette, curator of the U of A's Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, and her human ecology students have culled a collection of artifacts showing how innerwear has evolved over the last 200 years. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

As COVID-19 restrictions keep people working from home, our wardrobes have morphed from suits and skirts to comfy sweats and T-shirts, even as we continue to hold video meetings and conduct business.

It seems like new fashion territory to negotiate the blurred line between private and public during the pandemic, but a new University of Alberta virtual exhibit shows that history holds some lessons for how it’s been done before.

Innerwear: Liminal Dressing 1820–2020, assembled by material culture professor Anne Bissonnette and her fourth-year human ecology students in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, explores garments worn in the home over the past 200 years.

“These garments may not be seen as central to the fashion system, so we don’t really think of them much,” said Bissonnette.

The exhibit features 42 artifacts including artwork, clothing, photographs of interiors and even contemporary garments being sold online. They were carefully selected by the students from the U of A’s Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection and from leading North American and European institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Ary Jan Gallery in Paris, as well as clothing businesses like Montreal’s La Vie en Rose.

“Our mixed home-office environment leaves us with a sense of ‘neither here nor there,’ or liminality,” Bissonnette said, though functionality, comfort, modesty and social status all played a role in how innerwear evolved in the past, she added.

“The exhibit is addressing this weird situation where we don’t think of the home as a public stage, yet certain rooms are, and we are trying to get people to think about what they wear at home and how it’s part of a system we’ve inherited from others before us,” Bissonnette said. 

Take, for example, the Victorians, who dominated culture from 1837 to 1901 while Britain’s Queen Victoria reigned. They excelled at blending comfort with style, drawing clear lines between public and private spaces in their homes, with front parlours to receive guests and back parlours for family relaxation. That also meant wearing clothes with “hybrid” features like fitted dressing gowns of rich fabric worn with corsets and bustles in the front parlour to navigate that duality.

“They had this concept of formal undress that is foreign to us: that you could have a garment that is only worn at home but is meant to be seen by a wide array of people not close to you.”

Another example dating further back to 1820, called a pelisse—a fitted coat worn by fashionable women—was originally fur-lined to keep them warm outside, but a quilted version was also made that became popular for indoor wear.

Dijon Pelisse from the Exhibit Liminal
The pelisse, a fitted coat that fashionable women could wear indoors or outdoors, dates back to 1820. (Image: Emilius à Baerentzen, 1799-1868, ca. 1810-1820, Musée Magnin, Dijon, France, 1938E537)

“They had this garment they could wear indoors or out that was fashionable, warm and comfortable.”

That type of flair is missing from the sweats and leisure wear we’re all wrapping ourselves in, she suggested. 

“COVID has made it apparent we dress at home in very interesting ways that we haven’t thought of before; we are making dress history right now.

Danielle Klatchuk, human ecology student

“We can’t show up on a video call wearing a floppy housecoat. We need more proper, chic yet comfy garments we can wear at home—things that make us feel and look good. The garments we have don’t fit the bill; they don’t make us feel fantastic.”

The exhibit also shows how some loungewear misses the mark. Take the case of a flame-orange terry cloth men’s robe with no front opening. The gown-like garment was seldom worn by its owner—it may have been too extreme, Bissonnette said. Even cocooning at home away from the gaze of others, clothing is part of our identity, she added.

“It would be too much of a change with traditionally masculine dressing gowns, like the ones (Playboy magazine founder) Hugh Hefner cherished. The fact we are at home doesn’t mean people will wear just any garment.”

Despite its at-home floppy vibe, innerwear is a legitimate fashion style—something made clear by the pandemic, said Danielle Klatchuk, one of the students who worked on the exhibit.

“COVID has made it apparent we dress at home in very interesting ways that we haven’t thought of before; we are making dress history right now.

“We have used it and still use it as a way to express ourselves,” she added, noting that aprons and a banyan—an old-fashioned version of a man’s bathrobe featured in the exhibit—are still fashions used today.

It’s unclear whether or how our COVID dress habits might spill over into the office once everyone goes back post-vaccination, but the exhibit is a reminder to enjoy the pleasure fashion provides us, even at home, Bissonnette believes.

“The stuff worn at home is as complex and interesting as what we wear in public, even though we are trying to be comfortable as we hide away. That transformational power should not be underestimated, even when dressing for comfort. It’s important to understand the joy that fashion can bring.”

An example from the Exhibit Liminal
Some loungewear may have been comfortable but wasn't fashionable enough to be worn often. (Photo: Anne Bissonnette. Woman’s robe by Claire Haddad, Edmonton, Alberta, ca. 1970, Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, donated by Sheila Kelcher, 1998.33.6; Bathrobe, Edmonton, Alberta, ca. December 1970, on loan courtesy of Harold W. Sellers)

Given its long history, innerwear probably isn’t going anywhere, added Klatchuk.

“It shows that you don’t mess with a good thing, because innerwear is something that works, whether it’s sipping tea in a bathrobe or reading a book in a banyan.” 

“Innerwear: Liminal Dressing 1820–2020” was supported by individuals who donated to the students’ Community Funded crowdfunding campaign and Cloud Nine Pajamas.

The free exhibit opens Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. MST with a virtual pyjama party. RSVP to attend.