Book Review: Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota’s Claim to Underwear Fame

In the Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota’s Claim to Underwear Fame.

By Susan Marks

Minnesota Historical Society Press (April 2011).

Review by Jane Farrell-Beck

Jane Farrell-Beck is a Professor Emerita, who taught in the apparel program at Iowa State University for 26 years. She has published widely, and has three co-authored books in print, including “Uplift: The Bra in America” (Penn Press, 2002) and “20th-Century Dress in the United States” (Fairchild, 2007). Her current project is “Her Infinite Variety: Dress and the Adult Woman,” being prepared for Texas Tech U. Press.

Ms. Marks has created a pictorial history of the Northwestern Knitting Company, which became the Munsingwear Company in the late 1910s and went public as the Munsingwear Corporation in 1923. Four chapters trace the 1886 inception of the company through its demise in 1981. The tone of the writing is popular, with numerous anecdotes about Munsingwear’s innovations in products and advertising, and the ups and downs of employee relations. Ms. Marks’ early experience in selling Intimate Apparel for Dayton-Hudson, and subsequent work as a costumed and corseted interpreter at the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul, undoubtedly helped her relate to the vast Munsingwear  Collection held by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Chapter 1 chronicles the rise of Northwestern Knitting Company from 1886 through the early 1900s. The firm launched in business with extensive improvements in material and styling  to the basic union suit—a conjoined undershirt and underdrawers much in demand in the late 19th century. The covering, or “plating” of wool yarn with silk relieved the itchiness of the jersey fabric generally used for union suits. George Munsing held patents for this fabric and for the types of covering stitches that gave the garments a durable and neat finish.

Northwestern Knitting claimed to be first to photograph an undergarment on a live model, starting with a child’s image in 1897. Normally, line drawings were used to present undergarments, or the products were held up by fully clad adults[i] or were shown on a marble sculpture of a woman.[ii] It is not quite true that no other undergarments were shown on “live models,” because Kabo Corsets showed their corsets and “bust perfectors” on live figures and Classic Corset Company presented its “Grecian Girdle,” a proto brassiere, in photographs.[iii]

The company prospered, but employees did not fully share in the benefits. A labor activist  writing for the St. Paul Globe, Eva McDonald Valesh, went undercover at Northwestern Knitting Co. in 1888. She documented bullying by a “forelady” who appropriated workers’ lunches, plus the more serious complaints of inequitable distribution of work and poor physical conditions in the plant. Although the exposé did not immediately change conditions, the general labor ferment in the needle trades nudged Northwestern Knitting to build a more hygienic, pleasanter  and much larger plant in 1904 in North Minneapolis.  Chapter 2 documents this growth, explains  succinctly the continuing need for “union suits,” and reveals the systematic thievery of products by Northwestern Knitting employees. Exposed by a detective, the ring was shut down. Such surveillance helped curb union-organizing efforts.

Chapter 3 explains in detail the benefits provided to “Munsingites,” as employees were called.  Medical care was free, there were resting rooms for any woman who was indisposed, and social opportunities abounded, including picnics and sports events. An on-site library and evening classes in English, math, history and sciences assisted foreign-born employees to become assimilated to America. Advancement often meant leaving Munsingwear, however, because promotions generally went to native-born workers. This chapter was the most frustrating in the book, because the text concentrated on the social milieu of the company, whereas the photos and their captions dealt with workers at their machines.  More extensive analysis of production would have helped “knit” the components of the story together.

By 1923, Munsingwear also was diversifying from union suits—no longer in demand because of improvements in central heating—toward lighter “step-ins” and camisoles for women, briefs for men, hosiery, sleepwear,  loungewear and swimsuits.  With the aid of the synthetic elastic “Lastex,” and the genius of Ruth Kapinas, designer of “Foundettes” brassieres and corselets, Munsingwear survived the Depression of the 1930s, and went on to produce uniforms for the U.S. Government during World War II.  Building on wartime systems, Munsingwear returned strongly to consumer products after 1945. Munsingwear produced alluring and fashionable undergarments from the 1950s to the 1970s, under the acquired labels of Vassarette and Hollywood Maxwell. Inevitably, changing tastes and nimble competitors drove the company from business in 1981.

Occasionally, Ms. Marks slips into incautious generalizations.  For instance, rayon did not quickly become a popular fiber for apparel. Developed in 1885-1892, it went through many changes and trial products (braid, linings, stockings) before consumers would accept it in lingerie and outerwear.[iv] The Sweater Girl was a American image in 1940, well before the 1950s proliferation of nylon apparel. It would have enhanced the discussion in Chapter 3 to trace changes in the company through the contents of the in-house newsletter, The Munsingwear News. Finally, captions were needed on the 1950s-1960s fashion illustrations that open each chapter (incongruously, in the first three chapter).  In sum, this is a lively book, to be taken as a popular introduction to the Munsingwear Company, and enjoyed for the many tidbits it provides.

[i] Wisconsin Knitting Company.  Haberdasher, February 1903, 17.

[ii] Oneita Mills.  The Delineator, October 1903, 603.

[iii] The Delineator, April 1900, 573; Ladies Home Journal, April 1901, 46.

[iv] Susannah Handley, Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

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