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.

Changes: New Year, London and Bowie

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(picture courtesy of V&A)

 

January, they say, is a depressing month. Christmas is over, money is tight and strict regimes are being imposed to tackle the festive overindulgence. Personally, I am taking the ‘Dry January’ message to mean that this month, my alcohol choices will be mainly Dry Gin. The ‘clean-eating’ trend the masses are adhering to this year also seems to me, quite sensible – if dinner is eaten in the bath, chance of inevitable spillages on clothes is eliminated. This is what they call a win win situation.

But having got used to the lights, sparkles and decorations, London looks fairly naked. Christmas away from the capital begins as a novelty, and then you realise that actually, being able to get a pint of milk in two minutes, have decent coffee on every street corner, and not be affected by insane amounts flooding is pretty appealing. In line with the depressing fact that is the rise in travel fares, a bleak sense of ‘back to work’ reverberates in the tube carriages –  the only vague source of consolation is the fact that Tottenham Court Road station is finally open (it’s the small things people).

And to top it all off, two of the country’s most talented stars sadly passed away this week: David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both at 69, sadly lost their battles to cancer. This just may be the icing on the cake, the thing to tip those already struggling with the new gym routine, the lack of alcohol, and the utterly depressing weather, completely over the edge. No wine, no sun and now THIS?  The reaction to Alan Rickman’s and particularly David Bowie’s deaths  has been phenomenal, especially in the capital: perhaps because Bowie was a Londoner through and through; perhaps because he made such an impact on music; probably, too because Bowie showed that to stray from convention and to define yourself as an individual was not only possible, but admirable and inspirational. I had the pleasure of visiting the V&A’s ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition a few years back, and to this day I think it is one of the best museum exhibitions I’ve seen.  Not only did I see the epic Ziggy Stardust bodysuit, on show were also handwritten lyrics and even Bowie’s diary entries, offering a snapshot into the innermost thoughts of the superstar. It was clear from ‘David Bowie Is’ that there isn’t a great deal that David Bowie Isn’t , or, now, that David Bowie Wasn’t.

On Monday, Brixton, where David was born, was awash with fans who wanted to show their respects to the Starman. An area which (for now, at least) exists as an un-gentrified hub of culture and colour that still maintains a sense of the ‘real London’ was suddenly centre stage and thriving. Indeed, the star and his achievements are very much tied up with his life in the city: there is even rumour of the fourth plinth being dedicated to Bowie. We can but hope…

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Not only Londoners, but the world, were and still are, devastated. Having heard the news, I couldn’t help bring it up when I met a friend at London’s Barbican Centre.

‘Aren’t you really upset about Bowie?’ I asked her, ‘I can’t believe he’s died!’

‘Not really’, she answered. ‘I never knew the man. He’s died, but my life’s not changed. I can still admire him, enjoy his music… What’s the point of wasting time being upset about someone we didn’t know – we should be celebrating him, and just continuing to listen to his songs’.

I have to say, these are words of wisdom: our lives are none the poorer for having lost an icon like Bowie. Of course when someone loses their life, especially to cancer, it is no doubt an intensely sad event: but shouldn’t we just be grateful that Bowie made his music in the first place? The fact that we all have the benefit of being able to listen to his songs, enjoy his films, just as before, should be at the forefront. The world may have lost a London born superstar, but this is not cause for tears: this is time to say ‘Let’s Dance’.