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Curiocity: ‘Underwear: A Brief History’ To Be Unveiled In May

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Minnesota Historical Society

(credit: Minnesota Historical Society)

Sara Boyd Sara Pelissero
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By Sara Boyd, WCCO

A new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center is taking the meaning “brief history” quite literally. Whatever you call them — knickers, tighty whities, bloomers or yes, even panties, if you must (I hate that word) — it’s all part of the newest display all about underwear.

For more than 30 years, the Minnesota History Center has kept thousands of records and garments from the Munsingwear Collection stashed away, waiting for the perfect opportunity to unveil its drawers to the world.

That perfect opening was a new Minnesota Historical Society Press book, “In the Mood for Munsingwear,” by Susan Marks.

“We always say, ‘we want an underwear exhibit,’ and we had an opportunity when Susan Marks proposed writing a book about Munsingwear corporation. We got together and said, well if we’re going to have a book, we have to have an exhibit, and if we have an exhibit, we have to have a RetroRama and so we got programming, a book and an exhibit, “said Linda McShannock, collections curator.”We’re all excited about it.”

Once considered a major player in the underwear universe, it seems few people know the vast role Munsingwear, a Minnesota company, had on the history of unmentionables as we know them today. McShannock said that’s why they’re so eager to share the collection.

“It’s underwear. It’s fun,” she said. “It’s all about having fun with the underwear.”

George D. Munsing, the founder of Northwestern Knitting Company (which later became Munsingwear, Inc.) created the company to finally give people comfortable undergarments they so desperately wanted.  In 1886, Northwestern Knitting Company was born, manufacturing the latest knit underwear fashions for both men and women.

The company was based in North Minneapolis and was highly successful, blending comfort with fashion. By 1923, the company became Munsingwear, Inc. — and was known as the largest manufacturer producing undergarments in the world under one trademark.

Beyond its impact on our delicates and drawers, Munsingwear was the largest employer of women in Minnesota — 85 percent of its 3,000 employees were ladies — and a leader in technological advances for making those underpinnings.

“It’s a fascinating history of technology, of women’s history … it has a history of patent records — there are machine processes and garment constructions that have been patented over the course of Munsingwear’s history,” McShannock said.

Munsingwear also kept our, ahem, privates warm in World War I, helped develop technology that would be used for making hammocks and parachutes and even had a role in creating an anti-gravity suit that would later be used as space suits.

More than classic cotton briefs, Munsingwear was in the forefront of underwear and lingerie fashions, eventually lending designs and materials for Fredricks of Hollywood and Hollywood Vassarette.

Every garment spanning this wide history — more than 70 individual items will be on display — McShannock said, plus more that are available to view online. And to celebrate the new exhibit, this year’s RetroRama fashion show will be all about the ninnies. Christopher Straub, of “Project Runway: Season 6″ will join five other local designers to bring underwear to life on the runway.

“It’s going to be fun and engaging and interesting and educational — a little bit of something for everybody,” McShannock said.

“Underwear: A Brief History” runs from May 7 to Sept. 11 at the Minnesota History Center. The RetroRama fashion show takes place on May 12. For more information, visit their website.

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