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

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

Patterns in Nature: Drawing & Printmaking Workshop

Patterns in Nature: Drawing & Printmaking Workshop

Learn the art of drawing and printmaking in a day-long workshop hosted by Woodberry Wetlands.

PROJECT2017 at Gallery Elena Shchukina

PROJECT2017 at Gallery Elena Shchukina

A ten day exhibition of abstract art from emerging and established artists.

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Don't miss these three unique exhibitions with over 200 artworks celebrating the art of drawing at RWA Bristol.

The Temenos Academy Foundation Course in the Perennial Philosophy

The Temenos Academy Foundation Course in the Perennial Philosophy

A two year part-time Diploma Course in Western and Eastern Philosophy

Karigari London

Karigari London

A celebration of handcrafted creations from the talented artisans of India

This Week 8-14 May

This Week 8-14 May

May is starting to kick into gear. It may be taking it’s time, but we’re sure it’s starting to get warmer, which means it’s time to crack…

Euroart Open Studios

Euroart Open Studios

Meet established and up-and-coming artists in their unique workspaces and buy affordable original artworks directly from the makers.

You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred - Zabludowicz Collection

You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred - Zabludowicz Collection

We visited the Zabludowicz collection in North London to take a look at their latest exhibition featuring 14 international photographers, over a 40-year period, who…

Summer Short Courses at Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts

Summer Short Courses at Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts

Long summer days mean endless possibilities at Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts, with over 140 courses on offer.

Picturing Hetty Feather at The Foundling Museum

Picturing Hetty Feather at The Foundling Museum

A family-friendly exhibition exploring how Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather has brought the history of the Foundling Hospital to life.

Most popular

Museums at Night at The Bank of England Museum

Museums at Night at The Bank of England Museum

Enjoy talks, demos and explore this fantastic museum by dark.
The Engine Room: International Sound Art Exhibition

The Engine Room: International Sound Art Exhibition

Celebrating the most exciting sound art being produced right now.
Top 5: Rooftop Bars in London

Top 5: Rooftop Bars in London

From cosy chilled-out spaces to high-end glitzy restaurants overlooking the city’s skyscrapers, we pick out some of the best rooftop bars you should be spending your summer evenings at.
Pre-General Election Tours of the Houses of Parliament

Pre-General Election Tours of the Houses of Parliament

Explore the history-steeped Houses of Parliament before the General Election this June.
Top 5: Gelato and Ice Cream Parlours in London

Top 5: Gelato and Ice Cream Parlours in London

We may be tempting fate, but we've rounded up freshest frozen treats London has to offer in time for the Spring sunshine
House of Burlesque: 2.0

House of Burlesque: 2.0

House of Burlesque push aside the pretence of fluff & feathers in their strong, sassy and thoroughly modern show.
Euroart Open Studios

Euroart Open Studios

Meet established and up-and-coming artists in their unique workspaces and buy affordable original artworks directly from the makers.
Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

Human toes and maggots buried in reindeer skin? We explore one of the weirdest museums in London before it closes for three years…
The Secret Garden - London Children’s Ballet

The Secret Garden - London Children’s Ballet

This May, The Secret Garden is performed by a stunningly talented all-child cast at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Don't miss these three unique exhibitions with over 200 artworks celebrating the art of drawing at RWA Bristol.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!