By Susan T. Hessel
Through 21st century eyes, the Leona is a paradox in lace, combining slip, camisole and drawers. It was the cotton drawers portion that proved perplexing.
They are not sewn together at the bottom (crotch), but are left open between the legs. Today we find this somewhat scandalous, but in 1909 it was both practical and modest. A lady did not need to undress to answer nature’s call, thus preserving her virtue intact.
Back then, the Leona was in that class of clothes dubbed “unmentionables,” which was not universally worn when the Leona Garment Company produced it between 1907 and 1920. The end came when flappers changed to “very risky attire” that included shorter dresses baring more chest and legs. Women left their corsets at home, along with the layers of undergarments that went under and over the corset.
The Leona sales catalog claimed it would cut “your laundry bills in two.” It was lighter and easily washable, and served as a barrier between outer clothes and bodily secretions. Thus, wearers laundered outer clothing less often, something significant when cleanliness and wearing undergarments indicated higher social class.
Leona Foerster Linker designed and manufactured this undergarment and named it after herself. Linker was apprenticed to a dressmaker at age 12 in Minneapolis, and opened her own shop in La Crosse in 1895, at the age of 16. Later she also became an agent for the Gossard Corset Company of Chicago.
A 1900 La Crosse Daily Press article about her first travels abroad for Gossard carried this headline: “La Crosse Girl’s Luck: Miss Foerster goes to Paris:” It described her as “one little La Crosse girl with a happy heart. For not only will she be enabled to see the great World's Exposition at Paris and travel to other points to interest, but she will do it at no expense to herself and get a salary besides.”
Clearly, her talent went unnoted in that article, replaced by luck. In keeping with the custom of the day, she did not travel alone -- instead she had a chaperone in Harry Kirby.
Who knew The Leona would say so much about the role of women in the early 20th Century?
This undergarment is one of the objects that will be featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact, Where History Meets Art,” on display from Feb. 26 through April 16 at The Pump House Regional Art Center. It will be displayed alongside a new piece created by artist Misha Bolstad as a response to the history of the Leona Garment Company. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Public History Program, and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.