Published: May 4, 2016
LONDON — The Victoria and Albert Museum tells the story of underwear design from the Eighteenth Century to the present day, considering the practical and personal, sensory and fashionable and exploring underwear’s roles of protecting and enhancing the body. “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear,” on view through March 12, displays more than 200 examples of underwear for men and women, highlighting the enduring themes of innovation and luxury, from the custom-made, such as a rare example of homemade “stays” worn by a working woman in England in the Eighteenth Century to pieces by designers including Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith.
The exhibition explores the relationship between underwear and fashion, notions of the ideal body, and the ways that cut, fit, fabric and decoration can reveal issues of gender, sex and morality. It considers health and hygiene and addresses the design and technological advances central to the development of underwear. On display are corsets, crinolines, boxer shorts, bras, hosiery, lingerie and loungewear alongside contextual fashion plates, photographs, advertisements, display figures and packaging.
Highlights include long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother, an 1842 man’s waist belt used on the wearer’s wedding day, a 1960s Mary Quant body stocking, a pair of gender neutral briefs by Acne, a sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss and flesh-colored leggings decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf by Vivienne Westwood.
“Undressed” explores the vigorous debate about corsets and how to make them supportive and healthy. A restrictive 1890s whalebone and cotton corset with a waist under 19 inches in circumference is displayed alongside X-rays and illustrations revealing the dramatic impact on the body of wearing such a garment. Conversely, corsets were also recommended to improve medical conditions and posture. The exhibition includes a lightly boned 1895 version made from aertex, an innovative cellular woven cotton, showing an alternative side to tight lacing. An austerity corset made from paper during World War I and a waist training corset, a slimming tool endorsed by present-day celebrities, are also on view.
The development of the bra, which enabled movement and mobility, is traced throughout the Twentieth Century, showing early examples including a lace and satin bust bodice from 1910. Bras, girdles and shapewear illustrate the importance and variety of support, and the exhibit includes striking advertisements for latex corsetry by 1930s brand Chamaux to a 1950s Playtex rubber girdle and Spanx designs from 2010.
Examples of lingerie, women’s underwear and nightwear made from sensual or luxurious fabrics are on display. A very detailed pair of 1930s silk chiffon knickers, decorated in lace with a hunting scene, shows how the finest fabrics and exceptional craft skills contribute to making luxury underwear. Garters and hosiery are shown, including floral embroidered stockings worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, Schiaparelli nylon stockings from 1953 and embroidered stockings exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900.
The exhibition also surveys practical and functional underwear. It examines the types of fabrics used, from a 1850s cotton chemise to examples of artificial silk from the 1920s to a contemporary set of modal pants for women by cheekfrills, playfully embroidered with the days of the week. The importance of performance is presented in displays of maternity wear, of underclothes designed to keep the wearer warm or cool, or comfortable and supported during sport. Highlights include a homemade bust bodice for a nursing mother in the 1820s, a contemporary set of maternity briefs and bra by Hot Milk, a 1970s pair of men’s red string briefs by Brynje of Norway, a “Cyclist Corset” and its box from 1900, and a 1990s sports bra from Marks and Spencer.
The importance of fit is shown in a focus on men’s underwear that includes the packaging for a pair of David Beckham for H&M briefs from 2012, and a display figure for Y-front pants dating from the 1950s. These objects illustrate the way that underwear advertising often plays to the appeal of a youthful, fit, sexually attractive body.
Garments devised to lift, separate or exaggerate parts of the anatomy and to provide a structure for the fashionable shape of the day are shown. Rare Eighteenth Century hoops are displayed alongside crinolines and bustles. Some were designed in response to consumer demands for more practical undergarments that did not compromise movement, such as an ingenious collapsing bustle, presented alongside its original advertising materials. The use of underwear to add volume to the body in other contexts is also shown through displays of men’s briefs and a woman’s push-up bra from the 1990s. A series of colored humorous stereoscopic images of the hazards of wearing crinolines is also on display.
“Undressed” also demonstrates how underclothes and nightclothes morphed into lounge wear; dressing gowns were transformed into informal garments for home entertaining such as tea and hostess gowns. The exhibition includes an 1840s man’s dressing gown, a silk evening dress by Paul Poiret from 1911 that anticipated the chemise dress of the 1920s, a 1970s kaftan for home entertaining, a chic 1930s jumpsuit by the London fashion house Baroque and embroidered lounge pajamas from the 1920s. A woman’s pink Juicy Couture tracksuit from 2004 and a man’s T-shirt and pant set by Sibling (spring/summer 2013) illustrate the continuing desire for comfort at home and a blurring of the line between underwear and outerwear, public and private.
Many designers are fascinated by the relationship between underwear and outerwear, and underwear and the body. Garments on display show how designers have challenged accepted ideas about private and public, gender, sex and nudity. Underwear is by definition worn beneath other clothes. While shirts, chemises and petticoats were sometimes partially revealed before the Twentieth Century to indicate quality and the wealth of the owner, today social and cultural changes mean exposed underwear is a common sight.
Much as underwear can be revealed, it can also be designed with the intention to transform or provoke. Alongside Vivienne Westwood’s ironic flesh-colored leggings are a skin-tight laced cocktail dress by Jean Paul Gaultier from 1989, a delicate lingerie dress by Ellie Saab (spring/summer 2011), a Dolce & Gabbana dress featuring a large cage crinoline (spring/summer 2013) from its Sicilian Collection, and Antonio Beradi’s monochrome dress (spring/summer 2009), worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, featuring a trompe l’oeil corset revealing the underwear worn beneath.
The V&A has published Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear written by curator Edwina Ehrman to accompany the exhibition.
The museum is on Cromwell Road. For more information, www.vam.ac.uk or +44 020 7942 2000.
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