A Brief History of Underwear: V&A announces revealing Undressed exhibition in 2016

By Culture24 Reporter | 13 November 2015

Pants you can count the days on, Queen Victoria's mother's cottons and more heading for the V&A

A photo of Gwyneth Paltrow standing in front of photographers at a film premiere
Gwyneth Paltrow wearing a trompe l’oeil corset dress, designed by Antonio Berardi (2009)© Sipa Press/ REX Shutterstock
Home-made “stays” worn by a working woman in 18th century England, the sheer dress worn by Kate Moss and designed by Liza Bruce, flesh-coloured Vivienne Westwood leggings biblically decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf: these are the briefs from the V&A, where Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear has been announced as the revealing new exhibition next April.

A photo of two young men posing for a fashion photo wearing jeans and underwear
Jennie Baptiste, Brixton Boyz (2001). Lith print© Jennie Baptise, Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund
Fashion and fashion history combine here, from the revolutionary to the ridiculous. An austerity corset was cast from paper during World War One, almost a century before the introduction of the waist training corset, used as a slimming tool and endorsed by Kim Kardashian.

A photo of an advertising card showing a male doll figure posing in y-front underpants
This fellow is a display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants, made during the 1950s© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“Marketing has always played a significant role in the underwear industry and, in promoting a particular design, always sells an ideal body, lifestyle or comfort,” suggests Susanna Corder, a lover of sparkle who also worked on the V&A’s queue-inducing Wedding Dresses and Club to Catwalk displays.

A photo of a design for a crinoline against a black background
This cage crinoline, known as the Princess Louise Jupon Patent, was made in around 1871© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“The exhibition roughly covers the period from 1750 to today, focusing on underwear designs from Britain, France and America.

A photo of a pink and black silk satin, lace and whalebone corset
This silk satin, lace and whalebone corset was created in 1890© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“We approach the history of underwear specifically from a design history angle. With that in mind, we are interested in the innovations and inventions of designs, dyes and materials, and their resulting impact on the garments we wear, the ideal bodies they often promote, and the way they make us feel.

A photo of a young female model posing in a set of lingerie in front of green leaves
Agent Provocateur made this Tamila lingerie set as part of this year's Soirée collection© Photographer: Sebastian Faena, Model: Eniko Mihalik
“Fashion has often returned to and reinterpreted underwear, playing with the viewer’s, and wearer’s, expectations of the seen and the unseen. We will be displaying some striking examples where designers have transformed iconic items of underwear into outerwear.”

A photo of a design for a corset showing a silhouetted nude figure
An advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd in around 1936© Courtesy Hans Schleger Estate
Part of the debate surrounding corsets involves how to make them supportive and healthy. A restrictive 1890s whalebone and cotton corset with a waist under 19 inches in circumference will be displayed alongside x-rays and illustrations revealing the dramatic impact on the body of wearing such a garment.

A photo of a mannequin wearing a flamboyant blue and white set of clothing
A colourful set of top and pants for a man, designed by Sibling in 2013© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“One of the core cultural debates which has always influenced underwear design springs from contemporary concepts of health and hygiene,” adds Corder.

A photo of a set of colourful underwear pants with the days of the week written on them
Not sure what day of the week it is? Try these Monday to Friday pants© Cheekfrills
“They might sound odd to us, but designs from string vests to red flannel drawers and ribbon corsets have all been championed for their health giving properties in their own times.

A photo of a lacy detail from a pair of knickers showing various figures riding on animals
These silk chiffon knickers may have been made by Hitrovo at some point during the 1930s© The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove
“Today the focus on organic materials, such as bamboo cotton, answers similar concerns. The intrinsically personal nature of underwear inevitably provokes debates involving gender, sex and sensuality.”

Designers in the show will include Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith.


Ten exhibits in A Brief History of Underwear

  • Long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother.
  • A remarkably detailed pair of luxury 1930s silk chiffon knickers, decorated in lace with a hunting scene.
  • Floral embroidered stockings worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII.
  • A contemporary set of modal pants for women by cheekfrills, playfully embroidered with the days of the week.
  • A homemade bust bodice for a nursing mother in the 1820s and a contemporary set of maternity briefs and bra by Hot Milk.
  • The packaging for a pair of David Beckham H&M briefs from 2012, illustrating how underwear advertising often plays to the appeal of a youthful, fit, sexually attractive body.
  • Men’s briefs by aussieBum from 2015 - designed to enhance the genitals - and a woman’s push-up bra from the 1990s
  • A woman’s pink Juicy Couture tracksuit from 2004 and a man’s T-shirt and pant set by Sibling, demonstrating the continuing desire for comfort at home.
  • An exquisite negligée by Carine Gilson, like that worn by actress Bérénice Marlohe in the film Skyfall.
  • A skin-tight laced cocktail dress by Jean Paul Gaultier from 1989.

Three museums to follow fashion in

Chertsey Museum
Fashionable women’s wear dating from the 1960s to the present days selected from the Olive Matthews Collection, ranging from the tight waists and full skirts of the early 1960s right through to the darkly imaginative designs of Alexander McQueen in the 2000s. Until September 3 2016.

Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, Cumbria
Beautiful dresses and elegant waistcoats are displayed with a rich array of accessories from the 1780s to 1900 in the current exhibition, Georgian and Victorian Fashion. Learn how the fashion for the changing shape of the female silhouette was made possible by delving into the mysterious world of historic underwear, with crinoline cage frames, petticoats and bodices.

Lotherton Hall, Leeds
The launch of Dior’s ‘New Look’, in 1947, saw a style emerge that completely captured the imagination of the nation. As the restrictions of the Second World War came to an end the population felt ready for something new and glamorous. This desire and Dior’s designs helped the 1950s to truly become an age of glamour. Find out more in the hall's swanky exhibition, Age of Glamour – Fashions from the Fifties. Until the end of 2015.
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