I usually love going to the V&A – it is one of my favourite places in London. So an exhibition of underwear had lots of appeal. It is impossible to study the history of fashion without also studying the history of underwear. As the exhibition explains:
This exhibition explores the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in moulding the body to a fashionable ideal, with cut, fit, fabric and decoration revealing issues of gender, sex and morality.
It is a marvellous exhibition in terms of the variety and quality of the garments. There is so much to see – 200 items include corsets, stays, bras, suspender belts, a mono bust enhancer, tights, hosiery, pyjamas, a siren suit, jockstraps, cage crinolines, X rays of corsets, Y fronts, underwear as outwear, sports bras, Gwyneth Paltrow’s dress, a lovely quilted petticoat in red paisley, long johns, garters, as ever a “swarovski crystal” embellished bra (do these people product place everywhere? is there one on the moon?) modern Spanx type products, nursing bras, petticoats, the Wonderbra, red bloomers that were said to warm the body. Plenty then to titillate and surprise.
I went with my husband and another couple – none of whom knew much about the history of fashion – and the exhibits stimulated the conversation. How must it have felt to be laced in to a corset? Oh look, this one fastens at the front! Did the breasts get squashed, uplifted or ignored? Whalebones? Look at how tiny the waists are! Jaeger made vests originally? What is your favourite (a toss up between the pink corset and the black knickers – both below). And so on. It is presented in such a random way we all left with a feeling that design, originality and fabric can be endlessly fascinating, but I didn’t learn what I would really have liked to know. Here is a nice review.
Take the history of ladies’ lower underwear.
Until the end of the 18th century none were worn. In the early 19th century each leg was encased in a separate cotton garment (unjoined) – a pair of drawers (they were “drawn on” as a pair). These gradually morphed into knickers or bloomers in the late 19th century having more form (but still open) and they came down to the knee – usually made from fine white cotton or linen (the origin of the word lingerie) so they could be boil washed for hygienic reasons. In winter wool would be used too.
In the 20th century knickers got gussets. In the 1920s knickers, like hemlines, rose coming up from the knee to the mid-thigh. Now in colour – usually gorgeous pastels and patterns were found in peach, light green and pink. They were often bias cut and fastened with a button or press stud. In the exhibition there is a card with “Celedon” in lovely soft shades. This new fabric (artificial silk) was often now used for underwear. From the 1950s onwards pants were made from nylon too. From around 1940 onwards women started wearing briefs similar to the standard worn today with the thong coming along in the 1970s. In the 21st century knickers are used in high fashion as outwear in a final ironic twist.
We needed this information – and the history of the corset, the stay, the bustle, legwear, etc to understand what we were looking at. As ever I wanted it
- in date order
- associated with the fashions of the day
For me a cabinet of “transparent” items – including a Jane Austen type dress, Kate Moss’s gold dress and a modern designer dress with visible knickers just didn’t really make sense. The maternity cabinet was quite interesting in that a corset with side lacing and buttons on the princess line for nursing, a 19th C blouse with discreet openings for breast-feeding and a sweet, striped pregnancy corset for a tiny woman.
A fun exhibition yes, but if you want to know the history of underwear it won’t really help. You have to do the work.