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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear
Image Credit: V&A, London
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear
Image Credit: © cheekfrills

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

16 April 2016 Tom Faber

We get intimate with the V&A's major new exhibition of corsets, drawers and more.

There’s no getting around the fact that the V&A’s new exhibition is provocative. With words like ‘bulge’, ‘cleavage’, and ‘latex’ liberally adorning the labels, a certain titillation is unavoidable. But that’s not all that we can learn from looking at 500 years of corsets, bras and briefs. ‘Undressed’ shows that what people put closest to their skin can tell us a great deal about society, morality, and design throughout western history.

The clothes on display cover a range of eras and styles, but are always underwear - generally something intimate, to be hidden. People started wearing undergarments for modesty, hygiene and comfort, but rapidly their value as fashion objects was realised. The first part of the exhibition shows how stay and corsets were developed in order to mould women’s bodies to prevailing tastes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of these silhouettes now seem strange, such as the 1913 ‘bust extender’ which promoted the then-fashionable ‘monobosom’ look, or the 1950’s bras which would point and separate for that hip conical look. What’s more worrying to note is how the earlier designs flew directly in the face of health concerns - contemporary x-rays show the damage that corsets could do to a woman’s spine and lungs, while large and buoyant crinolines were apparently responsible for all manner of accidents.

Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890. V&A, London.

These structured garments were designed to create a gendered silhouette that emphasised a woman’s sexual characteristics, and the exhibition also covers relatively recent developments such as Spanx or the Ultrabra. The latter promised ‘the ultimate cleavage’, and was responsible for sparking off the fabled ‘Bra Wars’ against their nemeses at Wonderbra. Men have recently been included to the body-shaping frenzy, with M&S bringing the mainstream BodyMax, vests that augmented torso and bicep musculature, and briefs with an ominous-sounding ‘integral shelf’. David Beckham’s much-publicised advertising campaign for H&M briefs is tied in with male body image, as apparently the exaggerated masculinity of his ads made it acceptable for straight men to care about their pants. A final comment is made about gender image with the display of Acne’s gender-neutral underwear, a gesture toward a future where gender fluidity is a more established concept.

Over the years designers developed purposes for underwear beyond hygiene and fashion. These are explored in the Performance section, where the developments in clothing design mirror the advances in women’s rights over the last two hundred years. As women played more sports in the 19th century special active corsets were produced with new textiles and breathable fibres - perhaps an omen for the current trend of new fitnesswear boasting mystifying technology. We see corsets designed for breastfeeding and dancing the tango, mastectomy bras and thermal petticoats (the renowned Dr Jaeger believed the colour red would keep people warmer). The most charming anecdote of the exhibition accompanies a pair of silk chiffon knickers decorated with hunting scenes. They were owned by Lady Betty Holman who was stationed in Baghdad with her husband in the early 1940’s. Wanting to communicate with the locals one day but unable to speak a word of Arabic, she “decided to pull up my skirts and show [her knickers] to the ladies. They were thrilled and we all got on very well after that. They showed me what they wore, calico knickers!”


Detail, Silk Chiffon Knickers. The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

Some of the objects make an interesting point just by being shown side by side. What better example of our changing ideas of modesty is there than a barely-there negligee, familiar from contemporary advertising, next to a plaster fig-leaf that Queen Victoria had built to cover the genitals of Michaelangelo’s ‘David’? Indeed, the curators show how underwear does more than reflect social mores - it can even play an active role in changing them. See the transgressive, glittering G-string studded with Swarovski crystals, intimate wear made to be openly displayed which blurs the boundaries between private and public.

While the majority of the exhibition focuses on undergarments available to the masses, the smaller upstairs section looks at how different designers, from Vivienne Westwood to Calvin Klein have exaggerated and subverted the form and function of underwear. The show even dips a tentative toe into the world of fetishwear, a striking modern deviation from the norm, but doesn’t inspect the world too closely.

Unzipped to reveal gorgeous fabrics, interesting trivia and a few wonderful anecdotes, ‘Undressed’ can confidently claim to be a comprehensive exhibition of the history of underwear. It tends to hint at questions about body image and social pressures rather than fully exploring them, but still proves a worthwhile jumping-off point.

Is it provocative? Yes. But as you ease open the clasps, there’s a lot of serious, stimulating material to be found.

 

Undressed is at the V&A Fashion Gallery from 16th April 2016 - 12th March 2017. Tickets cost £12 (concessions available). Advance booking is advised in the first weeks - do it here. The museum is open from 10.00 - 17.45 and until 22.00 on Fridays.

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