The V&A present a new exhibition entitled Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, the exhibition tells the story of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day. Over 200 examples of underwear for men and women are featured which explore the various aspects of underwear including the practical and fashionable which are highlighted by home-made ‘stays’ worn by a working woman in England in the 18th century to pieces by designers including Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith.
Other 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-coloured leggings decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf by Vivienne Westwood.
The exhibition explores the often troubled relationship between underwear and fashion, a section on corsets illustrate that though they may have some uses in medical conditions and posture, the restrictive 19th century corsets often led to serious health problems for the wearer. Later corsets tended to be less restrictive and more supporting leading to the development of the bra, the exhibition has a lace and satin bust bodice from 1910. Bras, girdles, shapewear and advertisements for latex corsetry by 1930s brand Chamaux, to a 1950s Playtex rubber girdle and Spanx designs from 2010.
There was a softer side to women’s underwear and nightwear which were often made from luxurious fabrics , on display is a pair of 1930s silk chiffon knickers, garters and hosiery 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.
By the 20th century, the connection between fitness and practical underwear becomes more obvious, underwear advertisements began to feature the appeal of a young and fit, sexually attractive body. This became especially important for men’s underwear illustrated in the show by a pair of David Beckham for H&M briefs from 2012, and a display figure for Y-front pants dating from the 1950s. Often a feature of underwear was to exaggerate parts of the anatomy, a display of men’s briefs by aussieBum from 2015, designed to enhance the genitals and woman’s push-up bra’s offer some examples.
Towards the late 20th century and early 20th century, the relationship between underwear and outerwear becomes increasingly blurred. Many designers began to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and began to expose more underwear for public view.
Designers also began to use corsetry and lingerie to express sexual desires and fantasies. Contemporary pieces by Cadolle, Fifi Chachnil and Agent Provocateur, a negligée by Carine Gilson, like that worn by actress Bérénice Marlohe in the film Skyfall, all illustrate the appeal of underwear for the bedroom.
Moving from the private to public, designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier and Antonio Beradi have used underwear for performance with the ability to provoke and shock.
This intriguing exhibition exposes the often contradictory nature of underwear moving from the restrictive fashions of the 18th and 19th centuries to the public displays of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is a story that deals with health and hygiene aspects but provides plenty of evidence of the way underwear has often transformed cultural norms about morality and sexual freedoms. The wide range of underwear on display which includes corsets, crinolines, boxer shorts, bras, hosiery, lingerie and loungewear with contextual fashion plates, photographs, advertisements, display figures and packaging offer the opportunity for visitors to understand underwear’s often strange and bizarre development.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
Admission £12 (concessions available). V&A Members go free
The V&A is open daily from 10.00 – 17.45 and until 22.00 every Friday
For more information or book tickets, visit the V & A website here
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