Overwhelmed at Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A

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Slip petticoat, designer unknown, 1955-1964. Photograph: V&A

The V&A’s latest offering in the realm of impressive and quirky exhibitions is one which covers issues that are usually, well, covered up. After the success of previous retrospectives including the David Bowie Is exhibition, Hollywood Costume, and the Alexander McQueen tribute, the V&A has been firmly put on the map where exciting, and often fashion-focused, spectaculars are concerned. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is no exception.

Undressed focuses on the evolution of underwear throughout history; the developments in style, shape and material, as well as the social implications and variations, of what we all wear under wraps. Both men and women are covered, or shall we say, exposed, in this comprehensive history, and a wander round Undressed is far more exciting and informative than your average trip to M+S’s lingerie section.

Whoever had the bright idea of opening the doors on an essential, yet often ignored part of our daily lives is a genius, I say. After all, underwear is our uniting staple, forming the foundation of anything we wear. It only seems right, then, to dedicate a whole exhibition to the development of what we put on underneath our clothes.

Looking at the changing styles and materials of underwear from the 18th century to the present day is more than just about lingerie. The exhibition brings up the unavoidable issue of women’s body shape, and the evolution of the ‘ideal’ silhouette. From the rigid steel-cage crinoline from 1856, to the bottom-enhancing horse-hair bustle, it is clear that wide hips and a generous behind were hugely desirable back in the day. Not only did these items, which enlarged and accentuated elements that today’s females generally want to minimise, seem costume-like and ridiculous, they make going to the loo look like an ordeal to say the least. Corsets from the 1890’s that shrunk the waist to a tiny 45cm seemed shocking in comparison to today’s 71cm average. The obvious health complications and damage to internal organs were not brushed over, and frankly made the whalebone corset seem even more undesirable.

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Corset made from whalebone and cotton c1890. Photograph: V&A

From the ideal of the voluptuous lower-half which populated the 18th and 19th centuries, the 1930’s saw a change to a slim and feminine physique. The curvy Marilyn Monroe-esque figure became fashionable in the 50s, whereas going without a bra was a political statement undertaken by many women during the 60s. This evidently changed when the conical bra clad Madonna, and later the Kate Moss waif-look were en vogue: consider this your figure-timeline.

What was noticeable, amongst other things, was the fact that a great deal of the underwear looked wholly uncomfortable. In fact, I looked at a lot of it and thought ‘give me an M+S soft-touch T-shirt bra any day’. However, as items of art, as objects of beauty and intricate design, much of what was on display was unbelievably beautiful. Hand stitched garters, detailed embroidered corsets, lace-edged robes – some of these items looked almost too pretty to wear, and certainly hours’ worth of painstaking work. On the flipside, there was no forgetting the perhaps boring-looking but utterly useful items. The functional ‘Bridget-Jones’ shape-wear, lycra sports bras and padded boxers for men that wanted, um, more to show, were more about what these bits of underwear did for what was on top. Clearly, we need a mix of pretty, but painful, and plain but practical.

The ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend was homed in on, much of which was fairly risqué and revealing, yet being from high-end designers such as Dolce and Gabbana and John Galliano, absurdly expensive. Personally, I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable donning a negligée down the red carpet, but then again, if I had the chance to walk down a red carpet, it would probably be an alternative universe, and I may have drastically different opinions in that world. But, going to back to this world, to the world where I have apparently spent over an hour looking at a variety of bras and knickers, I have come to the realisation that underwear should not be ignored. It should not be an embarrassing topic, a bottom-drawer you are ashamed of; it should not be disregarded as something that no-one sees.. Underwear should be embraced, celebrated and marvelled at. And we should all be grateful we are not laced up daily in a whale-boned corset, whilst simultaneously wearing a metal framed skirt, working out just how to go about negotiating the toilet. Amen to that.

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on at the V&A until 12th March 2017.

ENO’s Madam Butterfly: a feast for the eyes and ears

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Take several Japanese screens, a fair few Kimonos, countless lanterns and fans, and an incredibly moving score, and you have all the ingredients for ENO’s latest offering, Madam Butterfly.

Puccini once again hits the London scene, and the mix of orchestral masterpiece with stunning minimalist Japanese theatre is a feast for the eyes and ears. American soprano Rena Harms takes the title role, and is a beautifully sincere Madam Butterfly.

Yesterday’s opening night performance at the Coliseum was a success on all fronts; the talented orchestra transporting the London audience to the The opera is a classic tale of unrequited love, and of one woman’s faith that her American husband will one day return to Japan to her. This lady is one patient individual, but her three years of waiting flies by in ENO’s production. Innovative use of lights and silks as well as effective instances of puppetry ensure that not only is the audience gripped by the stunning melodies and impressive vocals, but also the visual cinematic masterpiece that is the stage. Costumes and set were equally colourful, and utilisation of shadow was simple, yet stylish.

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The characters of Suzuki (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis), Madam Butterfly’s maid, and her absent husband Pinkerton (David Butt Philip) matched up to Harms’ near-perfect performance. One of the most effective characters, I have to say, was that of Madam Butterfly’s baby son – a puppet so lifelike and so ingeniously controlled that after being on-stage for a matter of minutes, I was completely sure that it was a real person. Forget CGI, this is special effects at its finest.

Being an opera, and a Puccini one at that, the ending is an emotional culmination of three years of patience and love. A visually stunning, and musically enchanting oriental performance, Madam Butterfly at the ENO is one that may require a pack of tissues.

 

images courtesy of ENO (www.eno.org)

 

Fashion Utopias at Somerset House: where meets style meets fantasy

Utopia (noun): ‘an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect’ (Oxford English Dictionary). But what happens when these utopian ideas are applied to the world of fashion?

Fashion Utopias at Somerset House is the result of this combination; a showcase celebrating emerging designers’ visions of their imagined worlds. Coinciding with London Fashion Week and the Thomas More Utopia exhibition, which celebrates the 500th year anniversary of its publication, this exhibition is where art, fashion and (pure) imagination collide.

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Divided into separate rooms which each represent a country, Fashion Utopias navigates you not only across continents, but through dreamlike worlds and fantasy places. From the Czech Republic, where clothes and accessories are suspended from trees, to Guatemala, in which giant 3D clouds evoke a dream-like aura, each room creates a different and diverse utopian vision. Portugal’s ‘BLOOM’ concept used eco-friendly cork to raise the question of sustainable fashion, in contrast to the Philippines’ dresses which were made out of leather and real bullets. The Egyptian designers, meanwhile, inspired by the Tree of Life and the Lotus flower, made use of hundreds of origami lotus flowers hung from the ceiling, taking paper-crafts up a level (or two).

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Leather and bullet dress

Admittedly, some of the pieces on display were the fashion world’s equivalent of a TATE Modern offering – aka – huh? That said, the majority of clothes, accessories, bags and especially the innovative installation and displaying of them, was pretty stunning. Technology and digital design was put to good use, the highlight being a giant moving, video-style magazine which changed display when you turned a page, thanks to high-tech code reading projectors.

The essence of Fashion Utopias was to project an imagined world of fashion, and it most definitely succeeded. The huge variety of colours, shapes, concepts and styles on offer throughout the 14 different rooms provided constant stimulation, and following the exhibition I was even more aware of the fact that fashion is essentially just another form of art. This art, however, just happens to be based on what we wear: are we all, then, living, walking masterpieces?

The London Art Fair

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Now in its 28th year, the London Art Fair is once again attracting buyers and collectors, creatives and artists like bees to a honey pot. Housed this year in Islington’s Business Design Centre from January 20th-24th, the fair is a three floored exhibition of everything from fine art to sculpture, with all pieces available to buy. If you happen to have a spare few hundred thousand pounds you may be able to come away with a few originals for the living room wall – after all, when a painting is only half the price of a one bed flat in the city, it’s a bargain, right?

Wandering around the fair last Wednesday evening, glass of Prosecco in hand, I felt pretty sophisticated .The great thing about the London Art Fair, even for an admittedly ‘not-so-au-fait-with-art’ kind of person, is the huge variety of artists and work on display – there really is something for everyone. Original Warhols stood alongside quirky crocheted works; Barbara Hepworth pieces were displayed opposite the witty work of Grayson Perry.  Multimedia pieces were the flavour of the moment; a particular favourite was of a woman whose hair had been replaced by a multi-coloured collage-effect of people, flowers and even buildings.

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Some of the pieces I was ever –so- properly- artistically-analysing admittedly made me think ‘I could have done that’: there was also, though, a great deal there that I under no circumstance could have even contemplated creating. One sculpture that stood out was created using perfume bottles imitating the classic Chanel No 5; replacing the brand name, however, were words that revealed the darker side of the beauty industry. Instead of Chanel, the bottles read ‘depression’, ‘solitude’, ‘help’ and ‘melancolie’ (sic).  – this is what I’d call perceptive and thought-provoking modern art, and there was a lot on offer in this vein.

chanel.jpgEssentially, the London Art Fair is a mini-showcase from a lot of galleries; some of which have obvious niches and specialisms, and others that seem to take the ‘I’ll have a bit of everything’ approach – a buffet collector if you will. If money was no object, I’m pretty sure I’d take that approach: on a single lap around the fair I could pick out at least 5 works of art I wouldn’t mind having, all different, all completely clashing, but each one particularly appealing for some unknown reason. That is the beauty of the London Art Fair: despite these paintings being on sale, you are under no obligation to part with a penny once there. It’s like being inside a very big if a little pretentious art shop without the awkwardness. So if you want to be overwhelmed by a completely huge, at times incredible, at times confusing, exhibition of art, this is the place for you. It’s not around for long, though, so be sure to check out the London Art Fair before Jan. 24th.

 

 

NB: Alongside those paintings that I could have done myself were a couple that I could have done myself WHEN I WAS FIVE.

 

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The Tower of London, Agincourt, and being a Londoner

Otherwise entitled: ‘I don’t do those ‘London Things’, I live here’ and other misconceptions of Londoner’s

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It’s a strange thing, living in London, in that those that do reside in the city have rarely done the ‘London’ things. Ask any flat-sharing creative in Shoreditch if they’ve been on the London Eye, or a penguin-suited office worker in the city if they’ve ventured into Madame Tussaud’s, and the answer would probably be no. These things, these ‘London’ things, are for Tourists, right?

With regard to a number of these attractions, I would have to repeat their answer, possibly adding that I don’t actually want to see hundreds of wax people, or that being scared by blood-stained actors in the London Dungeons is hardly my idea of fun. And M&M world? If I wanted to spend £20 on a minute amount of confectionary, I’d go to Harrods, darling – at least I’d get the bag to prove I was ultra-posh-and-sophisticated (would I have to pay 5p for that now?) Tourists and visitors come from far and wide to take in what our city has to offer, but living here, we should have the advantage of knowing what is worth spending money and time on.

Despite being a Londoner for a good four years now, I had never set foot in the Tower of London, brushing it off as another ‘Tourist’ thing to spend a tenner on. How I was mistaken. Aside from the impressive nature of the building itself, the history, exhibitions and stories that go alongside the Tower are fascinating. An added bonus was visiting a) fairly early (I mean BEFORE 11am – aka – very early indeed), and b) on a weekday that was not half term. These factors made for a somewhat calmer explore around the site, and more opportunity to get up close to the various exhibits and interesting bits. Note – all of it is interesting.

I had the opportunity to go to the Royal Armouries’ new exhibition in the White Tower, which has been specially put on to celebrate the 600th year of the Battle of Agincourt. To many, The Battle of Agincourt might only sound familiar because of Shakespeare’s Henry V, or Laurence Olivier’s role in the famous 1944 film adaptation of the play. After visiting, however, I learnt that the Battle of Agincourt was one of the pivotal battles in the Hundred Years War, and is about much more than shooting arrows and chainmail.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Agincourt exhibition is the epic centrepiece; a (pretty much) historically correct model of the battle featuring over 4000 detailed scale model figures. This is model making taken to an entirely new level. A ridiculous amount of tiny men and horses are posed, mid-battle, mid-mudbath, portraying the utter chaos and destruction of Agincourt. I talked to Alan Perry, one of the modellers who took on the crazy challenge of creating the thousands of figurines, and was suprised to find out he didn’t use a single magnifying glass during the 2 years it took to create the work of art – the modelling was all done with the naked eye. This is one man that possibly should not have gone to Specsavers.

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I left the exhibition enlightened, impressed and grateful; enlightened as to the historical facts and significance of the Battle of Agincourt; impressed at the intricacies of the modelling; and grateful that I wasn’t one of England’s archers wearing 25lbs worth of chainmail on the battlefield. Clearly, we should take this opportunity, in the 600th anniversary of the battle, to learn about one of England’s most important wins against the French. I also couldn’t believe I’d never been to the Tower of London – how could I have passed the site and never set foot inside the ultimate London time capsule?

We should, as Londoners, make a conscious effort to do those bits of the city that we may have discounted as being Touristy options. Not going to some of the best institutions, exhibitions and attractions in the world just because we LIVE here seems like cutting your nose off to spite your face. This is a major misconception (No.1), my fellow London-lodgers. (See list for others).

Londoner’s Misconceptions Continued

  1. Not going to aforementioned ‘London’ things as they are for Tourists.
  2. We actual Londoners need to get to where we want to go MUCH quicker than everyone else. We are MUCH more important.
  3. That we look way cooler holding a take-out coffee.
  4. This coffee can’t be from a chain, though, it has to be from an indie-cold-brew-artisan-roasted-organic-milked caffeine house.
  5. That we live in the best city in the world and everyone else is mad.*

*this is not a misconception. This is wholly and utterly completely true.

Mamma Mia: Dancing Queens and Super Troupers

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Somewhere in the crowd, there’s you me. Aka the night I went to the ultimate Abba musical.

 

When it’s a cold, drizzly Tuesday evening in the city, a bit of entertainment is much needed. With the current steep cinema prices (enough to buy multiple DVDs from Amazon), seeing a film, albeit on a big screen, seems like bad value for money. For little more than a cinema ticket, however, you can see a real live show. Yes – one with actual people in – singing, dancing, making you feel good about the world. So, this Tuesday, I spent a reasonable £22 on going to the Novello Theatre and witnessed two and a half hours of Abba fabulousness: I saw Mamma Mia.

I remember the film Mamma Mia coming out a few years back (funnily enough, I did actually see it at the cinema – but this was back in the day when you got change from a tenner), and the stellar cast alone was enough to make the movie decent, even if the storyline left something to be desired. The London show uses the same narrative, songs and characters as the movie, and is reassuringly familiar, yet utterly different. Having seen the film, I couldn’t help comparing the stars of the stage show to Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. Despite their on-screen counterparts, these performers did a cracking job.

The music, costumes, comedy and (let’s face it) fairly very good looking cast made for a fantastic experience. Watching Mamma Mia made me realise a) just how many songs Abba wrote, and b) that I somehow knew nearly all the words to them all. That either makes Abba ridiclouly memorable, or me kind of embarrassing. Or both.

The best thing about seeing a live show is the reality that at any moment, something could go wrong. Admit it – when sitting in a theatre, there is a tiny part of you wondering what would happen if someone forgets their lines/trips over/gets drunk in the interval and changes the entire second half. That, thankfully, didn’t occur on this occasion, which was lucky as the final numbers of the show are incredible. A lot of shiny trousers, a fair few pairs of platforms, a tonne of energy and music, and you have the ultimate feel-good finale. The audience were up on their feet singing to Waterloo, and I realised that as much as my brain could have been broadened that evening by watching a BBC documentary, seeing a Shakespeare play or visiting a museum, Mamma Mia made me pretty much as happy as I could be on a weekday evening. Ultimately, the show reaffirms life’s positivity – a happy ending, a lot of singing, and a seat with a pretty good view that didn’t break the bank. This, my friend, is what London is about.

ENO’s La Bohème: A Modern Bohemian Rhapsody

enoLa Bohème at the London Coliseum

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‘We have, I am afraid to say, come across one of those technical difficulties that happen every so often in performances: we have a piece of scenery that is supposed to rotate, and due to power faults, it’s simply not rotating. But rather than exclude this part from our dress rehearsal, we have come up with a solution – we will rotate the set manually.’

So said the director of the ENO mid-way through La Bohème’s dress rehearsal last night at the London Coliseum. The second half thus opened with members of the cast, and a few helping hands from behind the scenes, pushing what looked like a very heavy piece of set so it rotated. Obviously, were it to do this of its own accord –aka fuelled by electricity rather than people power – it would have been a spectacle. The sight of a few opera singers making some substantial scenery spin, however, was priceless.

Attending a dress rehearsal of any kind comes with the possibility that things could go wrong – after all, a major aim of these runs are to make sure everything is going smoothly ready for the opening night. But despite this minor glitch, ENO’s latest production of La Bohème was a resounding success.

The production has an almost Shoreditch vibe: a warehouse style apartment which houses several creatives is the basis for the opera’s development. Lacking enough cash to keep warm (cue setting alight to the writer’s scripts) and pay rent (cue getting the landlord very drunk), the men in question muddle through on a chilly Christmas eve before braving the cold and venturing into town for a celebratory meal. Enter Mimi, the beautiful, if slightly sick, neighbour, and the start of the love story.

Far be it for me to begin to imagine what Puccini intended with his 1890’s opera, but I’m pretty sure that heroine injections, shopping trollies loaded with Tesco goods, and helium balloons didn’t feature. They do, however, make a successful appearance in this new interpretation; bringing the production right up to date and appealing to a slightly younger and arguably more ‘hipster’ audience.

As would be expected with a Puccini opera, the music is exquisite. This is the sort of music you’ll be humming on the tube home, and the accompanying translations were, on occasion, unforgettable (look out for the landlord’s ‘I’m sixty and sexy’). Walking out of the Coliseum after this show, I felt like I’d simultaneously been to a classical music concert, watched a dramatic soap on TV, attended a cinema screening of the latest tragic film, and admired a moving and atmospheric art installation. In short – this is value for money. This modern performance turns expectations of Puccini on their head, and I urge even avid opera-avoiders to watch this fantastic production (Shoreditch hipsters included).

https://www.eno.org/