The V&A’s major new exhibition brings underwear out of the closet. Absolutely investigates
Words Pendle Harte
Can you make a corset out of paper? The wartime austerity undergarment is just one of a collection of corsets on display as part of a new exhibition dedicated entirely to underwear. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear tells the story of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day, considering the practical and personal, sensory and fashionable and exploring underwear’s roles of protecting and enhancing the body.
On display are 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 home-made ‘stays’ worn by a working woman in England in the 18th century to luxurious 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.
No focus on underwear would be complete without studying the corset
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; the sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss; and flesh-coloured leggings decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf by Vivienne Westwood.
No focus on undergarments would be complete without a look at the endlessly fascinating corset. 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. Notably, 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 One and a waist training corset, a slimming tool endorsed by celebrity figures such as Kim Kardashian, are also on display.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear explores the tempting nature of underwear through objects ranging from a vivid pink silk 1890s corset to 1930s bias cut nightwear, contemporary pieces by Cadolle, Fifi Chachnil and Agent Provocateur and an exquisite negligée by Carine Gilson, like that worn by Bérénice Marlohe in Skyfall. These illustrate that the choice of underwear for the bedroom remains intrinsically personal, and has been throughout the centuries.