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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Having devoted their exhibition space to celebrations of both shoes and wedding dresses in recent years to great critical and audience acclaim, it’s hardly surprising that the V&A would seek to examine the social history of another item of clothing. In fact, they’ve gone a step further, with ‘Undressed’ focusing on what we wear closest to our skin.

Has ever so much been said about bras and pants and corsets and bloomers? Perhaps not, but there is indeed plenty to say and the curators have compiled an engaging and appealing collection to enlighten us as to how undies have changed over the centuries.

It’s fun, if a bit frivolous; you come away with all sorts of useless information, that the thong was invented after Los Angeles banned nude swimming in public pools, or that at the turn of the last century the British press railed against the unseemly influence of black silk underwear from France. And some of what is on display is quite simply gorgeous, not least Alexander McQueen’s outré corset dress, Elie Saab’s lilac lingerie gown, worn to the 2011 Oscars by Mila Kunis, or a Swarovski crystal embedded corset designed especially for the burlesque artist Dita Von Teese.

‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection
Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection

Underwear may in theory be about function and containment, but over the years it has been far more about glamour, style and luxury; from the exquisitely sewn 1930s wedding night camisole. to the black silk and velvet ‘dinner pyjamas’ from the same era. Then there’s John Paul Gaultier’s conical bras – though not the one worn by Madonna – latex fetish-wear and a lingerie set by Agent Provocateur.

It’s largely about women’s underwear, despite clear effort having been made to even it out, with examples of David Beckham’s collaboration with H&M and a reminder of some of the more unfortunate developments in men’s fashion over the years, from flannels to long johns – named, apparently, after a boxer – to y-fronts. The striped boxer short, you learn, is an American import from the 1940s; before that it was mostly plain cotton.

Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset
Silk, satin, lace and whalebone corset

Really, though, this is all about what women wore and why, and how lace and satin and cotton and silk could be used to make them appear more modest or feminine or sexy, but also leave them limited in movement and usually less comfortable. There’s every type of underwear on show, from paper briefs marketed as a travel must to crinolines, stays, stockings, brassieres and girdles. Mostly, there’s corsets, some of them so painfully narrow you gasp at the idea a real person could wear them.

The display hasn’t been over-intellectualised, but nor it is merely an exhibition of pretty (or not-so-pretty) briefs, as the section on corsets makes clear. While men’s underwear has traditionally been designed to fit under tailored clothes, the curators explain, ‘the fit of women’s undergarments has been influenced by morality and medical opinion as well as body shape and fashion’.

You see how complicated the question of female body shape was in the 18th and 19th century; corsets were designed to create a set silhouette with little thought of their wearers, crushing organs and restricting breathing, often contravening the advice of medical practitioners. I was astounded to see a maternity corset from 1900 with cups that could be opened for breastfeeding; a far cry from the focus on comfort you’d expect today.

Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Cor...
Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co Ltd

While there were innovations over the years, from lighter designs to front fastening to those made from mosquito net and designed to be won in hotter climates (this was the age of Empire, after all), what mattered most was whether a corset gave a woman the shape of the moment. In the early 20th century, the s-bend corset was the height of fashion; the downside was it made woman stand in an unnaturally forward position and led to lower back problems. By the 1910s, women were seeking corsets that could contain the bust, all the better for showing off the androgynous fashions of the time.

And women had to wear them, or at least any who thought herself respectable. During the first world war, Austria and Germany made corsets from paper due to shortages of other materials, since it was seen as vital to morale that the women were kept in appropriate underwear. Yet – nothing changes – should men wish for the toned physique a corset offered, they were mocked as effeminate dandies.

It’s not all gloomy, though. For all that the exhibition successfully communicates that corsets were as much a tool of the subjugation of women as an item of clothing, one of the nicest discoveries is that, underwear actually provided business opportunities for women. In the 1780s – when they had precious few rights – women were running stay- and corset-making businesses; a century later a female designer, Roxey Ann Caplin, won an award for a hygienic corset she developed at the 1851 Great Exhibition. I’d love to have heard more about their experiences.

Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent’
Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent

Even as the corset’s influenced waned, replaced by bras and girdles and latterly spanx, women’s underwear was rarely exclusively about women’s needs. The requirements of modesty, body image and sexual allure have always come first, hence the rise of bras with underwiring or padding, to help women conform to the post-war physique (I did enjoy seeing a packet of Australian brand aussieBum’s ‘Wonderjock’ pants, designed to do for men what the Wonderbra did for women). We may not be strapping ourselves into stays or corsets anymore, but neither are we liberated from the underwear rules of the past.

Still, there’s hope. I overheard a mother and her young daughter discussing girdles and spanx. ‘Those are underwear?’, asked the girl, wide-eyed. ‘Why would anyone wear them?’ Why indeed – but maybe one day they won’t.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, from 16 April 2016 – 12 March 2017