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Work / Fashion

Peeking into history’s vast knicker drawer at the V&A

Underwear is the most personal part of our wardrobe, it’s worn next to the skin, almost always hidden and delicately put together. It’s practical but a little bit naughty, it supports us but can also alter our shape. Designs for it have been continually evolving and in a new show at the V&A, the museum tells the story of underwear design from the 18th Century to the present day. The whole show is a peek into history’s vast knicker draw and within it considerations around the practical, personal, sensory and fashionable are dissected.

At the beginning of the show the idea that underwear is worn for modesty, cleanliness and comfort is explored in great detail from Jaeger’s hygienic all-wool creations to modern day performance wear like sports bras and jockstraps. Yet walking around in the clean, white and sensually lit exhibition, the overriding theme is the ideal body type. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, curated by Edwina Ehrman, highlights the way cut, fit, fabric and decoration can reveal issues of “gender, sex and morality,” drawing upon examples like the whale bone corset and Playtex’s first push-up Wonderbra in the 1960s to analyse these concerns. Heavily present is the link between underwear and fashion, where underwear styles and shapes have continually changed to fit the fashionable ideal and act as a foundation for clothes.

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V&A: Undressed A Brief History of Underwear (installation view)

With mainly women’s underwear on show, fashion and society’s “gendered silhouette” is made more apparent. Painful-looking corsets, crinolines, bustles and bras have all been designed to lift, separate and exaggerate the breasts, bottom and hips of the female anatomy. Conical breasts, mono bosom, sizeable bust, scant in chest are just some of the boob-related phrases bandied about the exhibition, as we travel through time and get a sense of what shapes were desirable. For instance the flat, androgynous and child-like chests of the 1920s and the sought after big breasts and slight tummy bulge from the 1950s have all been achieved through different types of underwear.

It’s not clear whether underwear, and clothes in general, are instigators or perpetrators of these dictated body shapes, but the show touches upon the physical damage these ideals can have. During the 19th and 20th Century some doctors started to attribute many health problems to corset wearing and a display of three x-rays from a French textbook in 1908 demonstrate how wearing a corset changes the position of the ribs, diaphragm and overall body shape. What the show succeeds at is showing today’s equivalents and the waist trainer also displayed and worn by celebs like Kim Kardashian is a mildly alarming parallel.

Upstairs, the show explores underwear’s more frivolous side and highlights the transition from underwear into outerwear with slip dresses and petticoats all on display. There’s a focus on the designers and how they’ve used underwear to challenge ideas about private and public, gender, sex and nudity. Extravagant haute couture creations and red carpet dresses are displayed in red cases with pieces from Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. And there’s more casual offerings from Calvin Klein with its crop top and thong worn with low-slung denim shorts from 1994. With all the practical considerations of underwear, this is the fun part of the show and it reveals how our under garments have become more than just a modest cover up and can really be experimented with.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, opens on 16 April at the V&A until 12 March 2017

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V&A: Undressed A Brief History of Underwear (installation view)

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Detail, Silk chiffon knickers, possibly Hitrovo, 1930s, © The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

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V&A: Undressed A Brief History of Underwear (installation view)

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V&A: Undressed A Brief History of Underwear (installation view)

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V&A: Undressed A Brief History of Underwear (installation view)

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Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, c. 1936, Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate