phone mail2 facebook twitter play
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  | Art Architecture Design  | London Life

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.

Tell us what you think

You may also like

This Week 27 March - 2 April

This Week 27 March - 2 April

The days are getting longer and (very gradually) getting warmer, so it’s time to go outside! Follow along the path of nature to discover Moomins and…

Deutsche Börse Prize Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

Deutsche Börse Prize Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

Opening in the Photographers’ Gallery this month is the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition. The prodigious award, now in its twentieth edition, celebrates a recent…

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

You might think you know Amy Winehouse. The caricatured, instantly recognisable figure in tiny 1950s style dotted dresses with a colossal beehive of black hair,…

Australia’s Impressionists at The National Gallery

Australia’s Impressionists at The National Gallery

The Australian Impressionists of the late 19th Century attempted to depict a country undergoing huge changes, a nation searching for an identity, a land with…

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

Collating and comparing the work of two artists from different generations can sometimes feel laborious and ultimately unconvincing, but this certainly isn’t the case for this…

Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts at the Whitechapel Gallery

Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts at the Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery has teamed up with the National Museum of Women in the Arts to present Terrains of the Body. The photography exhibition explores various…

Tsuyoshi Maekawa at the Saatchi Gallery

Tsuyoshi Maekawa at the Saatchi Gallery

Seventy years on and it still doesn’t feel like we’ve completely accepted Abstract Expressionism. Remove names like Pollock or Rothko and the movement as a whole…

Electricity: The Spark of Life at the Wellcome Collection

Electricity: The Spark of Life at the Wellcome Collection

‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ The sound of thunderous bolts, cracks, currents, and this famous line from 1931 film adaption of Frankenstein ring through the exhibition rooms, live…

Passage/s at Victoria Miro

Passage/s at Victoria Miro

One imagines for some the idea of going to an art exhibition about the home seems completely paradoxical. We came to this gallery in order…

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at The Royal Academy

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at The Royal Academy

Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this latest exhibition at The Royal Academy tells the story of The Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rule through the…

More inspiration...

‘Being haunted by the past is something I’m creatively turned on by’ - An Interview with Brian J Smith

‘Being haunted by the past is something I’m creatively turned on by’ - An Interview with Brian J Smith

We spoke to Stargate Universe and Sense 8 actor about his latest role in the Glass Menagerie, the roles that most inspire him and the surprising purchase he made with his first acting paycheck.
Free Fire - An Interview with Ben Wheatley

Free Fire - An Interview with Ben Wheatley

Ben Wheatley’s films are sick and twisted in the best way possible. We talk to him about his latest film, Free Fire.
This Week 27 March - 2 April

This Week 27 March - 2 April

We find out what will be keeping you occupied in the capital this week.
The Best Places to Watch the Boat Race in London

The Best Places to Watch the Boat Race in London

Whether you're Oxford, Cambridge or (literally) somewhere in between, find out the best places to watch the Boat Race 2017.
Deutsche Börse Prize Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

Deutsche Börse Prize Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

This diverse exhibition takes in landscapes, travel diaries and post-modern self-portraits.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!