Undies, lingerie, underwear. The articles of clothing we all purchase and wear beneath our clothes, and yet we often forget that just like other pieces of fashion, they too have a history of their own, and have also been through many changes to get to the Victoria’s Secret, Agent Provocateur, or Wonderbra we all know and love today.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, reminds us of just that. Set over two floors, the collection includes both male and female garments from the 1700s to the present day, chronicling the changes of the ideal body image, the functionality of underwear, and social movements associated with lingerie.
Set over two floors, the collection boasts over 200 articles of both male and female garments from the eighteenth century to present day, with the first floor chronicling the historical aspects and changes in attitude to underwear. Beginning with the formfitting, and highly damaging corsets and girdles of the 1700s, accompanied by X-Rays that show the lasting effects of what wearing these pieces does to the ribs and spine, the exhibit then continues to the formfitting underwear made to extenuate an “S” body shape and the change in body ideals that larger breasts were much better enhanced than covered up – enter the Wonderbra.
The collection hosts a number of pieces, such as the first string underwear made from fishing nets by Henrik Ruben, disposable underwear of the ‘40s, and the “no bra bra” favoured by feminists of the 1960s.
Moving upstairs, we enter the contemporary realm of underwear and how it has influenced fashion; models adorned with the latest fashions and images of celebrities wearing these trends on the red carpet. Underwear is more than something which is slipped under clothes – it has been redesigned and can be used as outerwear, accessories, costume jewellery, as a means of bondage, and gender-blurring.
A screen playing three short videos from a trio of top lingerie brands – Fifi, La Perla, and Agent Provocateur – showcases their very different ideals of underwear, from being seductive, to the idea of fantasy, and being based on which women are looked up to at the moment in cultural history.
Overall, this exhibition opens your eyes to the rich history underwear has, and shows that it is more than just a necessity. Underwear is fashion. Underwear is a political statement. Underwear is jewellery. Underwear is representative of identity. But most of all, underwear is very, very personal.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on display at the V&A until March, and is £10 for students.