During the Blizzard of '99, when other Clevelanders were slogging across the downtown tundra, Sue Berry didn't go into work. She stayed home and washed dead people's underwear.
While the storm pelted the windows, she soaked negligees in the kitchen sink. While cars spun out across four-lane highways, she hung silk stockings over her bathtub. And when the worst was over, she brought in the stacks of sparkling-white unmentionables to show to her co-workers. They ironed them, mended them, and put them on plastic likenesses of Nancy Reagan.
Berry and her assistants weren't out to break several Louisiana laws, nor were they rehearsing an act for this month's Performance Art Festival. Though the panties were crotchless, their intentions were modest: setting up Of Corset Matters, an exhibit of underwear through the ages in Cleveland at the Western Reserve Historical Society. The show gives the skinny on skivvies from 1830 to 1930.
Cleveland underwear? The connotations aren't exactly classy: Pappy buttoning up his holey long johns for another day at the mill. Big Dawg scratching his balls. Praise the Lord, and pass the bologna.
Of Corset Matters may not be sexy, but it is rather refined, because the bulk of the historical society's 20,000-piece costume collection has come from Cleveland's well-heeled. Fruit of the Loom isn't on the vine, but a red satin wedding corset from the 1880s and an ivory velvet cape with green lining are. And it's not just any ivory velvet cape: This one was designed by Lucille, a.k.a. Lady Duff Gordon, Titanic survivor and godmother of the naughty nightie.
As Berry and her assistants dress mannequins for the show, silver slippers and powder-puff mules glimmer along one gallery wall. A cardboard box is filled with hand-embroidered stockings from Paris. On the plainer side, everyday things like cotton chemises and grandmotherly pantaloons are amply represented.
Dressing modern mannequins according to the Victorian silhouette is no small task, says Berry, the historical society's costumes and textiles supervisor. She made do with what she had: tall, slender shopping-mall models and ten Nancy Reagan types (bigger hips, smaller chest) left over from a show of gowns by First Lady designer Galanos a few years back. Berry also dug up a few smaller mannequins that conformed to the standard waist size for a corseted young woman in the 1870s: 18 inches.
Berry says she found most of the underwear stashed away in boxes in a third-floor storage room, undisturbed for years. A few men's pieces turned up, but their tee-hee ratio was a little too high to put them in glass cases with seriously confining hoop skirts that look like birdcages and push-up brassieres that practically stop at chin level.
"We have a couple of things," says Berry of the men's department. "We do have long underwear, and then we have some gold underpants [from the 1980s] with frogs on them with googly plastic eyes." She holds up a pair of pre-BVDs: a yellowed pair of cotton briefs, with laces in front to adjust the fly.
Berry says that the historical society hopes to make its collection more representative of Cleveland at large: They're seeking Cleveland Browns wear for a show in the fall and recently acquired a collection of working women's suits from the 1980s. "A big, big gap I know we have right off is the '60s and early '70s," she says. "The bell-bottom blue jeans and the patched blue jeans."
But for now, it's back to laundry duty. Some of the exhibit's peignoirs and teddies were frail in their prime, let alone a century later. But that doesn't mean they can't benefit from a little warm, soapy water. As our foremothers used to say, back in Abe Lincoln's day: hand wash, line dry, cool iron.
Of Corset Matters runs through August 31 in the Chisholm Halle Costume Wing of the Western Reserve Historical Society, 10825 East Boulevard. Admission is $6.50. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; call 216-721-5722.