Back in their heyday, corsets literally took a woman's breath away. More than a century later, they're doing it again as beholders gasp at their exquisite beauty.
In a revealing new exhibition, the Textile Museum of St Gallen explores the history and significance of ladies' underwear.
"Secrets – the Lure of Lingerie" is the creative child of Parisian designer Chantal Thomass and Belgian scenographer Bob Verhelst. As guest curator, Thomass was in town on opening day to help with some final touches on the exhibit.
"It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, too!" said Thomass. In addition to having her own line, she has designed lingerie for Wolford, Kenzo and Victoria's Secret.
Spread over three floors, the exhibition covers the time period from 1890 to the present day. Embroidered corsets, delicate slips, silk chemises and ruffled bloomers grace the display cases, along with some no-nonsense girdles.
Brassieres and bustiers in all shapes and sizes are the stars of the show. Complete with sweat stains, a few items were clearly old favourites. In contrast, some pieces are so current that they aren't even in the shops yet.
Boudoir meets boutique
Part boudoir, part boutique window, the show is beautifully presented. Clever "keyholes" transform visitors into "Peeping Toms" while old photographs offer a glimpse of what once was considered sexy. Films showing fashion shows and production techniques are both amusing and educational.
In a room pulsing with pop music, mannequins clad in lingerie-inspired couture rock the catwalk. The miniature fashion show features big names like John Galliano, Christian Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood, as well as the Swiss label Akris.
St Gallen is truly a good fit for the international exhibition. For centuries, the region has been adorning the female form with its delicate fabrics.
"I've been to St Gallen many times," said Thomass, citing the city's international reputation for top-quality lace and embroidery.
At "Secrets", a 17-metre wall draped in Swiss lace and embroidery provides colourful evidence of local talent. Indeed, the core business of most textile companies in eastern Switzerland is in the underwear sector, according to Tobias Forster, exhibition project manager.
"This sector sets the highest demands by far, not only in terms of fashion, but also from a technological point of view," said Forster, the recently retired art director of embroidery manufacturer Forster Rohner.
"These smallest and most varied items of clothing must be as wear-resistant and washable as possible while providing comfort and functionality. It's a huge challenge."
For some, the exhibition means more than an interesting look at items that are normally kept under wraps. It's also about revealing a hidden aspect of the Swiss identity.
"As we all know, sensuality is not exactly a characteristic readily associated with us Swiss," said Max R. Hungerbühler, president of the Swiss Textile Association.
"But with 'Secrets' we are showing that - contrary to the common image - we have a lot to offer regarding sensual pleasures."
Each year, the association presents the Swiss Textiles Award to a promising young designer.
Shortly before rushing to her next appointment, Thomass pauses to laugh at an old TV commercial for French lingerie. In it, a businesswoman describes her underclothes in great detail – only to inform her listener that he won't be seeing a single thread.
Not so with the "Secrets" exhibition, thanks to Thomass and her team in St Gallen.
"Secrets – the Lure of Lingerie" runs until December 30, 2008.
Open daily from 10am-5pm; check online for guided tour schedule.
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The Swiss film "Late Bloomers" (Die Herbstzeitlosen) provides a humorous take on underwear. It tells the story of an 80-year-old widow who opens a lingerie shop, much to the shock of her neighbours.