Undressed – a brief history of underwear – opens today at the V&A

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
  • explained

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.

V&A underwear exhibition
Maternity corset

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.



13 Responses

  1. Anne

    So, interesting but ultimately rather disappointing? I got the info through and will certainly go later in the year. I’ve missed a couple of exhibits at the V&A that I would’ve wanted to see as the timing didn’t work out but this one’s on for a while. Thank you.

  2. Thesewingmiserablist

    Really interesting post. I didn’t know women wore no underwear until the last couple of centuries, but then again I’m not very good on the history of clothing before 1900. I wasn’t that impressed with their Fabric of India either. It was presented really boringly, but I’m still glad I went. There isn’t anyone else doing this stuff so I guess I will still go, when I can get down to London.

  3. thedementedfairy

    Hmmm yes well. Lovely stuff, and I don’t consider myself any kind of expert fashion historian, but the ‘no knickers’ thing really has been getting a hammering for quite a while. These are not matters that a well-bred person would have written much about of course, and such intimate apparel would not have been kept for best, or preserved for future generations, so it’s not surprising that we don’t have many examples of early knickers or bras. But there is enough evidence to suggest that women did indeed wear bras or some form of breast support way earlier than we think, and it isn’t much of a stretch to realise that life would have been easier during a period if there was some form of underpinning to help you out…
    In my steampunk SWAP adventures these last few months, I have discovered the necessity of wearing a shift/chemise under a corset, and the joys of divided drawers and combinations. And corsets are VERY comfortable, as long as they fit, much the same as a bra.
    I do agree with you though, that putting things in date order is so much more informative, and seeing underwear in its relationship to outerwear is essential. For starter reading, I highly recommend every costume fanatic’s bible: Nora Waugh’s ‘Corsets and Crinolines’. Wonderful stuff!

    • fabrickated

      Well isn’t that interesting DF? I wish I could have taken you with me (instead of the rabble I went with). And I think the most interesting thing is that you have found your well made, well fitted corsets to be comfortable. I admit a good (unfortunately rather expensive) bra is a delight, especially when it is “strong” enough for the job (defying gravity!), so maybe I will try on a corset one day. Thanks for the book suggestion – one more on the Christmas list.

  4. Kim Hood

    An interesting post, and good to get your opinion on the exhibition. I am going on Friday so will get to form my own then, but I will make a point of doing some reading in advance.

  5. Sew2pro

    I’m going in early May and will possibly report on my findings – if I find it inspires. I’ve never been particularly turned on by underwear though would possibly kill to get to the secret of knickers that stay where you need them to (without toupe tape).

  6. SJ Kurtz

    As a former art history major and pal to museology majors, I just BUST when there’s an opportunity to teach a bigger lesson (or clarify something) in an exhibit and it’s not taken. Or stuff is mislabeled. Or not enough label. Or the lighting is crap so you won’t see what bad shape the objects are in (I’m talking about YOU, Experience Music Project, Sci Fi Wing!)

    (oh tell us how you really feel, kid)

    I know, we don’t want to clutter it up, but for those of us who want to know more, it would not be too hard to make it available. And the V&A is usually pretty good with that. Lord knows they have the archives for it. Is this more of the dumbing down of exhibits?
    Still regretting not going to see the Kylie Minogue show there awhile back….

    • Maggie

      I prefer if they include all the information somehow. Even if it is as a handout that goes along with the exhibit if they do not want to clutter the displays. If the info is there, we can choose to read it or not. But we have no choice if they do not include it.

  7. Summerflies

    I saw this exhibition maybe 18 months ago at the Brisbane Museum. I too was was disappointed. I found it small and (at this museum) underlit and not informative at all. The most interesting thing for me was the video talking about the history of the bra and construction involved throughout the whole process. I had just been to the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in Melbourne and although I was not a fan of his clothing before, it was probably the best exhibition I have been to. So well done, nothing hidden, very well lit, lots of information and back story stuff and enormous. Such a contrast.

  8. fabrickated

    Yes, Summerflies, I noticed a smaller version of the exhibition was shown at Brisbane. The JPG sounds great. I saw the Valentino in London, and again, while I didn’t start out as a fan I ended up loving it. There were some great videos showing the seamstresses making rouleaux and other delicate operations. Marvellous. And both you and mention the lighting – I think we are always told it has to be dim to protect the clothes, but surely modern technology has found a way of lighting so we can see detail without harming the exhibits?

  9. jay

    Thanks for the review Kate. I do think, like Demented Fairy, that there may be things we don’t know about clothing in times long past.

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