It’s incredibly good timing for London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to delve into history’s underwear drawer just when the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend is big news on the high street. With slip dresses, bra tops and silk pyjamas all being worn unapologetically for Spring/Summer 2016, ‘Undressed’ is fashionable in its very nature, and Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear truly is the most fashionable of fashion exhibitions.
The show’s first few cases of exhibits quickly send up our stereotypical British prudishness: huge bloomers, explanations as to which parts of a shirt could be exposed in public, and a well-preserved plaster fig leaf that the V&A made to cover a statue of Michelangelo’s David during royal visits. Think of it as the Victorian equivalent of pixelating a scantily-clad celebrity on the beach.
Queen Victoria might not have appreciated gratuitous nudity, but she did approve of wearing crinoline. This hooped skirt made you fashionable in the mid-1800s, but it could cost you your life. Highly flammable and easy to snag on nearby objects, it was also tricky to sit down in, so the ‘Crinoline Stories’ section of the exhibition makes for interesting viewing. A set of light-hearted stereoscope photos demonstrate just how awkward the crinoline could be. Bizarrely, Brian May (of Queen fame) has just published a book on crinoline, and it’s the subject of an upcoming special event at the V&A.
Dress etiquette from the past can feel mind-boggling in 2016, but way back when, your reputation and social standing really could rest on whether you wore a corset properly. If you didn’t wear one at all – or you laced it loosely – you were basically considered a loose woman. Should you wear a style like the shocking S-bend corset with gusto, you’d probably end up with ‘unnatural pressure on your reproductive organs and skeleton’, not to mention ‘risk of lower back pain and walking problems’. To fully illustrate this, a dramatic exhibit of 1908 x-rays reveals a corset wearer’s ribs left distorted by her garment.
Specific corsets were eventually available for cycling, horse riding, summer weather and colonial life, but the invention of the bra must have left women the world over – with squashed diaphragms and distorted skeletons -breathing a sigh of relief. Though it’s noted that a few men did wear corsets and waist belts, they were the exception rather than the rule.
The rest of the ground floor are of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear covers staple items of later eras, like stockings, slips and Y-fronts, but it also branches out into important niches, like maternity wear through the ages. A breastfeeding dressing gown from 1820 shows that function could overtake fashion for once. Meanwhile, a ‘shelter suit’ from WWII – resembling a smart woollen jumpsuit you might find in COS – would have been invaluable for dressing quickly when the air raid signal sounded.
Further on, a mastectomy bra by Nicola Jane is another brilliant inclusion, showing the curator’s attention to detail and really making you think. This exhibition isn’t all about being ‘sexy’, and nor should it be. The more we find products tailored to our needs, the more comfortable in our own skin we can feel.
Upstairs, the exhibition isn’t all contemporary, but it mainly contains 20th century loungewear and clothing inspired by underwear. Look out for a traffic stopping crinoline-style Dolce & Gabbana dress evoking Sicilian weaving, and a warrior-like Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress with a woven bust section. Less elegant is the area devoted to the ‘whale tail’, a.k.a. the thong, and Calvin Klein’s über-trend of flashing your waistband. Alexander McQueen’s bumster trousers don’t get a look-in here, however his work is represented elsewhere in the exhibition.
If you can clearly recall the days of celebrities wearing their Juicy Couture tracksuits as a status symbol, be warned: some exhibits will make you feel old. For, as it turns out, the Pepto Bismol pink affair on show here, with a lime green ‘Choose Juicy’ slogan, dates from 2004. It may feel like tracksuit pap shots were being taken yesterday, but they really weren’t. Likewise, an Antonio Berardi trompe l’oeil dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow looks reassuringly recent, but it dates from 2009; Kate Moss’ iconic gold slip dress is somehow 23 years old.
A lot of the 20th century underwear and loungewear in Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear doesn’t feel dated at all, mainly because fashion is so incredibly cyclical these days, and we constantly revisit past trends, but also because many designs really are true classics. In a series of video projections on the first floor, lingerie brands such as Agent Provocateur take viewers behind the scenes, and their products do look timeless. Likewise, a small video screen on the ground floor shows Carine Gilson making a slip in her Brussels atelier just last year, and it’s unlikely her work will date.
There’s so much to absorb from ‘Undressed’ and it rightly deserves your undivided attention, regardless of its current relevance to the catwalk. Be prepared for shocks, and cast aside your inner prude to see why underwear is worth making a fuss about.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear runs from 16 April 2016 – 12 March 2017 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon. For more information and to book tickets, see the museum’s website.