London’s V&A Museum is world renowned for pushing to the forefront of fashion and culture with its vast array of exhibitions, and its latest one does not disappoint. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear opens tomorrow (Saturday 16th April) and looks beneath fashion and to the naked truth of why we wear what we wear today, from the padded bra to the boxer short.
The exhibition considers the practical and personal, sensory and fashionable – all the elements of underwear’s role in society. Displaying over 200 examples of underwear for men and women, it highlights the enduring themes of innovation and luxury through to the notion of politics and sustainability in underwear. It considers the relationship between underwear and fashion, health and hygiene, and addresses the huge technological advances that have been a central factor to the development of underwear.
Long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother to a 1960s Mary Quant body stocking; there are many items of cultural and historical significance on display. Alongside garments from corsets and crinolines to boxer shorts and bras there are contextual fashion plates, photographs, advertisements and display figures that all come together to provide a fascinating story of this everyday wear that we take for granted.
For fashionistas there are several stand out pieces, including that sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss and a stunning gown by Alexander McQueen that evokes the beautiful mystery of the mythological mermaid. ‘The scrolling decoration of the mask & bodice resemble fronds of sea weed & foliage. The feminine but enigmatic gown evokes sirens, mythological sea creatures whose sweet singing lured sailors to their death.’ Alexander McQueen S/S 2012
Showcasing the underwear has an important role to play in society and not just our wardrobes, the exhibition features some key pieces that have political inspirations. From Garters of the 1700s that would often have political and personal messages incorporated into their design, to the Toile de Joy style print derived from photos of 2011 London riots on loungewear created by fashion house Sibling in 2013. And as the ideas and norms of gender continue to be debated in today’s society the exhibition gives a nod to this important topic by including Acne’s gender neutral briefs from 2015.
Visitors are taken on a journey of the development of the bra, tracing its heritage throughout the 20th century. Early examples of underwear including a lace and satin bust bodice from 1910 and striking advertisements for latex corsetry by 1930s brand Chamaux, to a Spanx designs from 2010 are also on display. The world of corsetry is beautifully explored, from a restrictive 1980s whalebone and cotton corset with a waist under 19 inches to an austerity corset made from paper during World War One. Another highlight on show is a remarkably detailed pair of 1930s silk chiffon knickers, decorated in lace with a hunting scene which shows how the finest fabrics and exceptional craft skills contribute to making luxury underwear.
Downstairs the exhibition takes us through the origins of underwear, from the bra to the sports bra, and maternity wear through the ages. Upstairs it moves into the world of underwear as outwear, and the development of loungewear and fashion inspired by underwear and nightdresses. It explores female and male clothing and looks at the reason why such styles have developed and endured.
Sustainability is looked at in terms of many of the modern designs, with a set of modal pants for women by cheekfrills, playfully embroidered with the days of the week and created from sustainable sources. A long way on from the throwaway pants ‘Chukka’ on display; disposable paper briefs from 1969.
The importance of fit will be shown in a focus on men’s underwear that includes the packaging for a pair of David Beckham for H&M briefs from 2012, and a display figure for Y-front pants dating from the 1950s. These objects illustrate the way that underwear advertising often plays to the appeal of a youthful, fit, sexually attractive body.
Luxury is explored, through the use of fabrics and the exquisite craftsmanship that is seen throughout many of the pieces on display. Beautiful sets of La Perla underwear are on display downstairs, and are representing the style of viable underwear. When underwear is worn visibly as outwear it blurs the boundaries between private & public & challenges conventional attitudes towards revealing underwear. The La Perla sparkly underwear sets on display were commonly worn to informal parties in Hong Kong with open white silk shirts and black jackets in the ‘90s.
Rudi Gernreich is credited with naming the thong, designing panty thongs for women in America from 1975 – a rare surviving example in ‘golden nude’ from 1978 has been added to the collection. New acquisitions representing the close relationship between nightwear and loungewear include a La Perla menswear pyjama ensemble from 2015. A contemporary Lululemon yoga outfit, chosen to explore the link between underwear and sportswear, sits in the exhibition alongside 19th century corsets made for sport.
The progression from underwear to today’s booming market of loungewear is interestingly explored. Before the term loungewear was ever used this style of clothing was classified as ‘undressed’ and restricted for home use only. Garments that are designed for comfort are often hybrids of nightwear and daywear, and today this style of clothing is acceptable everyday wear thanks to dress codes no longer being so restricted.
A short film is on show upstairs showcasing three different perspectives on the underwear industry today, including a section from La Perla. They explain that their ideal is about all women, and they create their designs for all body types, citing their inspirations as ‘power, confidence and naturalness.’
This exhibition also showcases a number of important loans, including a breath-taking Swarovski crystal embellished corset designed for Dita von Teese by couture corset maker Mr Pearl. Worn by the burlesque artist for a performance in 2011 and never exhibited before, the corset has the smallest waist in the exhibition at 18 inches. Additional highlights include a wearable brass bra made by jeweller Helen Newman in 1970, a sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss in 1933, and flesh-colored leggings decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf designed in 1989 by Vivienne Westwood and a skin-tight laced cocktail dress by Jean Paul Gaultier from 1989.
Society as a whole is actually examined through the medium of underpants, or rather the industry of underwear. A must-see event, Undressed: A Brief History of underwear is much more than just another fashion exhibition, it is a wonderfully unique perspective of our society and how it is constantly evolving.
Curated by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, sponsored by Revlon and Agent Provocateur, the exhibition will take place in the V&A Fashion Gallery (Gallery 40), from 16 April 2016 – 12 March 2017, book tickets here.