Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Ended 12 March 2017
The exhibition at the V&A looks at the place of underwear in society (both behind closed doors and out in the open) from the Eighteenth Century to the present day.
This is a wonderful exhibition that studies this item of clothing in terms of its many roles and functions in private and public life, social and political spheres and from simple to high-end fashion.
It is presented in a very even way, refusing to give in to temptation and poke fun at easy targets (the Y-front, string pants and bloomers) but presents every piece respectfully on an equal footing, informing the visitor of its importance within the exhibition’s remit. As a result, you avoid any sensationalism and view the exhibition as informative with the occasional humorous observation.
Grouped into themes, such as Volume, Lingerie & Hosiery Support and Transformation, a lot is packed into each area. There are the mechanics of underwear, which covers historical pieces of crinolines, stays and even collapsible bustles through to ‘waist-trimmers’ and ‘butt-lifters’ which seem to be the modern-day equivalent of structured underwear.
Corsets straddle many different areas of the exhibition and reappear from start to finish, proving its enduring appeal. Whether labelled as an instrument of torture (from the x-rays of corseted ribs), a symbol of the male oppression of women or a fashion tool from the s-bend corsets of the early Twentieth Century to the stunningly beautiful outerwear reclaimed by women today, the variety and workmanship of corsetry cannot be ignored. Especially when examples of them, such as Dita von Teese’s Mr Pearl corset, studded with crystals (see picture earlier in review) and with a tiny eighteen inch waist can vie for attention with the Alexandra McQueen gown a few places down from it and is lauded as the star of the show.
Wonderful shapes are created using the influence of underwear fabrics, line and concepts. This becomes particularly apparent in the section of the exhibition that is upstairs, where things become a lot more colourful. It deals mainly with the progression of underwear and nightwear being developed fashionably as outerwear. From crystal-studded bras and thongs by La Perla (designed to be worn and seen), a Paul Poiret flowing dress worn by his wife (he eschewed the idea of corsets), some amazing black velvet Dinner Pyjamas made by Baroque (what’s not to like?) to the lingerie-inspired fairytale dress by Elie Saab in lace and chiffon and worn on the red carpet, these pieces are part of a larger dialogue taking place about the evolution of underwear into contemporary thinking about what fashion is.
Even some of the more outlandish pieces, such as a latex rubber ensemble by House of Harlot was juxtaposed with the delicate and cheeky ‘Knickers and Sleeves’ by Strumpet & Pink on one side and the beautifully-shaped Agent Provocateur (who co-sponsored the exhibition alongside Revlon) ‘Tamila’ set on the other and allowed the visitor to see each piece within the context of each themed section.
This exhibition cannot be labelled as one thing or another because underwear has taken on many guises through its journey over time. Worn for health, hygiene, protection, fashion and social comment, you have on display beautiful embroidery, delicate fabrics, cheeky ideas, formidable structuring or letting it all hang loose.
It comes under the umbrella of ‘underwear’ but this exhibition shows that it is as limitless as fashion itself and constantly evolving as tastes and needs change.
Most interesting about it is the inclusion of contemporary pieces, taking this subject matter right up to the present moment whilst at the same time highlighting the importance of maternity wear, mastectomy bras and Juicy Couture tracksuits to their place in history. This is fascinating stuff and not to be missed. Don’t forget to wear your Days of the Week pants when you go (they are a museum piece…).
All photos © Victoria and Albert Museum, London