Undressed: A brief history of underwear

Undressed: A brief history of underwear

By Antonia Filmer | 28 May, 2016
British whale-boned corset of silk satin and lace, 1890-1895.

Sponsored by Revlon and Agent Provocateur (international provocative lingerie retailer) the Victoria and Albert Museum are displaying a playful romp through 300 years of underwear. Both these brands are celebrating the empowerment of women; from underwear’s practical origins to its allure,this exhibition demonstrates the influence and liberation of underwear for women. From the homemade to the luxurious, from the functional to shapeshifting, 200 examples tell the story of uncomfortable corsets from the British Empire with layers of petticoats worn with no knickers, to the seductive world of patent leather fetish wear and red satin corsets of today.

There are some quaint anecdotes such as in 1942 when Lady Betty Holman was receiving a rather frosty reception from ladies in Bagdad, as they shared no common language, to break the ice she lifted her skirt to reveal her green French knickers embroidered with hunting scenes. The ladies were thrilled and showed their own calico knickers and after this everyone got on very well.

The men’s undergarments on display relate a history but are not erotic in the same way as some of the women’s exhibits; a pair of C18th green silk embroidered stockings from Spain is the most fetching item.

Corsetry was not just structured to give the wearer the fashionable shape of the day but was also recommended to improve medical conditions and posture without damaging the body. From bustiers of baleen whalebone stays to examples of the development of the bra, which radically improved women’s mobility, and how the girdle has evolved technologically with more flexibility are traced throughout the 20th century and contrasted with sensuous feminine negligées in bias cut satin and lace, the finesse of the examples is astonishing.

Exploring the relationship between underwear and fashion, notions of the ideal body, sex and morality through three centuries, the displays show the gradual change of conventional attitudes to the blurringof boundaries between privacy and fashion, today social and cultural changes mean exposed underwear is a common sight, particularly on the celebrity red carpet where many dresses are more like lingerie than formal gowns.

The men’s undergarments on display relate a history but are not erotic in the same way as some of the women’s exhibits; a pair of C18th green silk embroidered stockings from Spain is the most fetching item. The display travels from flannel ¾ length Jodhpur like “briefs” through to boxer shorts - worn with designer label showing, to Vivienne Westwood’s nude coloured spandex leggings with a Romanesquely placed mirrored fig leaf.

Vintage advertisements support the displays and illustrate the way how underwear advertising often played to the appeal of a youthful, fit, sexually attractive body, as still to this day. There are designer names galore on show, any student of fashion or culture cannot fail to be excited by the fascinating evolution of what lies beneath.

The exhibition continues till 12 March 2017.

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