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Victorian fashion show will be a cinch

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Hiwan Homestead to exhibit a conglomeration of corsets

By Stephen Knapp

Ladies!

Want to lose 10 inches off your waistline — in seconds?

Wish you could regain that youthful hourglass figure without resorting to pills, fad diets or tedious exercises?

If you’re ready to eat as much as you want, whenever you want, and then slide into your high school prom dress with the help of just one reasonably strong friend, you’ll want to check out the “Corset-Out Fashion Show,” which hits the runway at 1 p.m. March 8 in the Timbervale Barn directly behind the Hiwan Homestead Museum.

“You’ll be amazed!” promises museum director John Steinle, quietly adding, “by the remarkable variety and restrictive qualities of those things.”

Steinle’s talking about the late 19th century’s answer to lipo, the Victorian corset. Rigidly constructed of luxuriant and often ornate fabrics reinforced by stout “stays” of wood, horn, ivory, metal or whalebone, the corset has been falling in and out of fashion since Elizabethan times, and derives its name from the 12th-century French term for “laced bodice.” The elaborate accessory was originally intended merely to improve the wearer’s posture and, possibly, to provide back support. Those almost-sensible undergarments underwent numerous alterations in subsequent ages, finally arriving in Colorado on the heels of the gold-seekers as the strait-laced and torturous Victorian corset, a remarkably slimming cruelty that accentuated the hips, lifted the bust, and played havoc with even the most robust pioneering digestions.

“The ‘rational dress’ movement that started in the 1890s emphasized more comfortable, less-restrictive styles,” explains Steinle. “Corsets started falling out of favor.”

To nobody’s chagrin, one can well imagine. Still, forcefully imposing unrealistic contours upon nature’s perfect design is an idea that never goes out of style, and modern mavens are sure to find “Corset-Out” as enjoyable as it is instructive. The event is being produced by the folks at Monarch Productions of Lakewood, the state’s premier presenters of Western spectacle and experts at stitching together accuracy and entertainment.

“Monarch is a really good group to be connected with,” Steinle says. “Historical events are their specialty, and we’re really happy to have them.”

The stars of the show will be a diverse selection of corsets from the extensive collection of Shereen Johnston of Woodland Park, plus an antique closetful of her less-inhibiting, if equally involved, old-time outerwear. Hence the name “Corset-Out.”

“Shereen’s been sewing and consulting about Victorian clothing for 20 years,” Steinle says. “She does exquisite reproductions of clothes, hats, purses and other articles, always using original patterns and authentic materials. They have to be reproductions because originals would be far too fragile to wear, and because no one alive today could fit into a real 19th-century corset.”

And fitting into the iron-ribbed unmentionables is essential to making “Corset-Out” way more fun than, say, browsing the “Fashions for Her” section of the 1889 H. O’Neill and Co. mail-order catalog. Any fashion show worthy of the name requires models, and Monarch has enlisted a breathless bevy to demonstrate exactly why you never see on a corset rack at T.J. Maxx.

“They won’t be Chippendale models, but they’ll be wearing the clothes.”

For the supporting cast Johnston has assembled a small troupe of 19th-century “basic gentlemen’s wear,” including frock coats, waistcoats and the odd chapeau.

“Men wore corsets, too,” Steinle clearly likes pointing out. “Military men often wore them so they’d look good in their uniforms.”

The cost to attend “Corset-Out” is $10 per person, which price includes refreshments and a timely tutorial on 19th-century fashions, from the heaving hoop skirts of the 1860s to the scandalously boyish bloomers of the early 20th century. Because the show is designed to be both casual and comfortable, Steinle invites guests to dress rationally.

“I think everybody will leave with a sense of relief that they don’t have to wear corsets.”

For information or tickets to the “Corset-Out Fashion Show,” call Hiwan Homestead program coordinator Meghan Vickers at 720-497-7650 or Lee Michels of Monarch Productions at 303-975-1151.