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.
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.