'In the Mood for Munsingwear' explores Minnesota's connection to intimate apparel

Categories: Books
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Black lace merry widow, 1960
In the early '80s, the Minnesota Historical Society must have suddenly looked like a depot for a very lucrative panty raid. It was at this time that they acquired 3,500 garments, which included union suits, bras, silk stockings, briefs, and everything else that men, women, and children wear "under there." The collection and related historical documents came from Munsingwear, a company that, in its heyday, employed over 3,000 Minnesotans (and was the largest employer of females in the state).

Susan Marks, local author (Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food) and documentarian (Of Dolls and Murder), found herself in awe of the unmentionables. "Back in the day when I worked for the Minnesota Historical Society, I was always fascinated with the huge donation the society received when the Munsingwear factory closed down," Marks says. "I wanted to see the garments on display, so everyone could see the 100-year evolution of underwear from the 1880s through 1980s from the perspective of one company."

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Union suit, 1895

And so, 10 years later, Marks's wish is coming true. Not only will there be an exhibition at MNHS this May titled "Underwear: A Brief History," but Marks has also written a brand new book about Munsingwear. A photograph inspired her to start the project. "I was struck by a photo I found at the Historical Society of the Munsingwear women's basketball team from the 1920s. And as simple as it sounds, I suddenly realized that the women making the underwear side of the story was likely just as interesting as the underwear itself. So I talked to the Minnesota Historical Society Press and they loved the idea of me writing a book."

In the Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota's Claim to Underwear Fame is that book. It details the history of the Munsingwear company, from its humble beginnings primarily manufacturing itchless long underwear which were popular during Minnesota winters, to the company's rise to the top of the underwear industry as a result of its continued innovations in the world of intimate apparel.

In her book Marks also follows the progression of underwear advertising, pointing out the gradual ways in which rigid Victorian standards subsided in favor of more modern images. At one time, for instance, it was considered too provocative to show live models wearing underwear. When that changed, the faux pas fell on showing the backs of women's knees. And, whether it was intentional on behalf of Munsingwear's ad designers, or a result of their naivete, Marks also points out how some ads winked at homosexual culture in the 1940s.

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"Toulouse" bra, girdle, and half slip, 1961

Marks provides readers with an in-depth look at what it was like to be an employee at the company during threats of worker strikes, and how the company embraced workers who volunteered round the clock for the Red Cross Surgical Dressing Unit during both World Wars.

Munsingwear also actively built a community among its workers. There were planned social events such as picnics and company baseball games; self-improvement programs were available, too. Conversely, with so many workers, there would inevitably be some dissent. Marks has included a very interesting story about a disgruntled worker and an underwear detective.

The history of Munsingwear is a great story, but let's not forget the pictures. In the Mood for Munsingwear is a veritable scrapbook chock-full of underwear illustrations and photos from decades past, and they are hypnotic. As Marks writes in her book's preface, "There's something so intriguing and even taboo about the thin layer of fabric closest to our skin."

In the Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota's Claim to Underwear Fame is available for purchase through the Minnesota Historical Society. "Underwear: A Brief History" is scheduled to open on May 7, 2011 (read the A-List blurb here).


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