Review: Undressed at the V&A

Back in April, I was lucky enough to be invited to the private view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s been open for a while, but you still have plenty of time to catch the exhibition as it’s on until 12th March 2017. This post comes with a couple of disclaimers: 1) Although I was allowed to snap away that evening, photography and sketching are now forbidden in the exhibition; 2) It’s a very long review!

Undressed is, inevitably but rather disappointingly, situated in the temporary exhibition space that sits in the centre of the fashion galleries at the V&A. Inevitably, because it’s not a huge blockbuster with broad appeal like Savage Beauty, and disappointingly because… well, have you seen the temporary exhibition space in the fashion galleries? Even with my limited knowledge of curation, I know that this is a particularly tricky space to work with so I was intrigued to see how this exhibition would compare to others I have seen there.

undressed-rwl-6Visitors are first greeted by a cabinet of eighteenth century men’s undergarments. It might not look like underwear to twenty-first century eyes, but the white linen shirt on display here would definitely have been classified as something rather risqué at the time. It sits alongside some white linen drawers (aka underpants) and a pair of brightly coloured embroidered stockings. To your right is another cabinet with a more familiar eighteenth century story, corsets – called stays at the time – plus a reminder that women went commando under all those petticoats! I was drawn to the shorter Regency stays, designed to be worn under empire line dresses and looking remarkably like a longline quarter cup bra, plus the working woman’s stays with their untidy stitching which contrasted nicely with all the other pristine examples.

When you walk out of this area, it’s a bit difficult to work out where to go next, as there is a cabinet in the centre of the exhibition space focusing on Volume – panniers, crinolines, bustles and padded bras (see photo above) – plus another to your left which looks at Hygiene & Health. I moved to this one next as the focus on laundry, moving to easy care and then sustainable fabrics was of interest to me. However, although it was lovely to see more menswear already, I was rather confused by the inclusion of Paul Smith silk boxer shorts in this display. The 1960s disposable paper briefs fitted the theme rather better though!

Of course, the vast majority of visitors will probably be fascinated by nineteenth century corsets and there are two cabinets of them here. There are also a couple of men’s ‘waist belts’ and one twentieth century S-Bend corset which was potentially the most uncomfortable to wear due to the pressure it puts on the spine. However, this doesn’t stop some visitors gasping over the tiny waists of the Victorian corsets and how painful they must have been. Sadly the x-ray images next to this cabinet do nothing to dissuade these visitors, despite there being no ‘before’ images. Ribs are designed to move, so I suspect x-ray images from before, during and after corset wearing would show that no damage is done, but still the myths persist. In addition, at a curator’s talk I discovered that the tiny yellow corset in this display is believed to be a shop display model, which would explain its slender and oddly elongated proportions.

undressed-rwl-2The wall text is badly positioned in the majority of the lower level of the exhibition, probably due to the strange layout of the fixed cabinets, and so it can be tricky to get all the background information when visiting at busy times. However, the case with the theme of Volume was pretty self explanatory and is interesting to me for a couple of reasons – the striking objects within it span a number of centuries, and one of the bras from the collection I donated to the LCF Archives is displayed here. The progression from giant hooped skirts to Gossard’s Ultrabra and Aussiebum’s EnlargeIT briefs is certainly an interesting visual journey even without a wider context.

The ground floor also features cabinets on Performance Underwear, with maternity corsets and nursing bras sitting together in one, and thermal petticoats featuring alongside breathable summer corsets in another. Again the menswear caught my eye, with a photo of George Bernard Shaw in his Jaeger combinations and a pair of 1969 bright red fishnet briefs, but I couldn’t quite figure out why the siren suit was included when the text clearly states that these were worn over clothing when heading to air raid shelters in WW2. This annoyance at the inclusion of outerwear was to be tested to the limit upstairs!

The sports underwear cabinet on the ground floor displays nineteenth century corsets for riding, cycling, tennis and golf alongside an original box and a catalogue, plus more modern items such as a jock strap from the 1940s, but sadly not an original sportsbra (which was made out of two jock straps!) as the V&A was unable to locate an original example. There’s an entire cabinet of men’s underwear here too – featuring an 1850s knitted undershirt, Wolsey long johns, plus Y-fronts, boxers and briefs from 1950s to 2015 – and the curator mentioned that she chose to display some of these in their illustrated packaging as that’s how men choose their underwear, whereas women need to feel the fabric.

Next, we move on to Support: Bras and Girdles. These two cabinets show the emergence and development of the bra, new stretch fibres like Lastex and Lycra, plus the changing fashionable body shape from the 1910s to the 1960s. There are some utterly beautiful pieces in these display cases (including the other bra from my collection) and it’s easy to get carried away, with a high potential to overlook the hosiery and lingerie* cabinets that lead visitors towards the stairs. I would recommend keeping an eye out for the embroidered stockings and the ‘hunting knickers’ though. You’ll know them when you see them! The lingerie in the final cabinet before the stairs actually leads the viewer to the change of approach for the mezzanine level rather well, with a mix of historic and contemporary garments that it’s tricky to guess the year of without reading the accompanying text.

undressed-rwl-4However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the upper level the first time I visited the exhibition. Don’t get me wrong, there are some utterly beautiful objects displayed here – arranged in three themes: Temptation, Relaxation and Transformation – but there is so much outerwear that it annoyed me even on my sixth visit. This is supposed to be an underwear exhibition, after all.

If you head for the bright pink corset that adorns the cover of the catalogue, the garments themed around Temptation will be your starting point, with stunning early twentieth century loungewear standing alongside twenty-first century lingerie and a custom made latex set. The mannequins wearing the contemporary garments have red ‘lips and tips’, courtesy of one of the exhibition’s main sponsors, Revlon, but the other main sponsor has a surprisingly subtle appearance here. I was very disappointed that there is only a single Agent Provocateur set in the entire exhibition, and it’s one that is currently available to buy. Are AP afraid of their past, or do they simply not have an archive?

Frustratingly, this and the Relaxation cabinets – which include a banyan, dressing gowns, lounging pyjamas, a kaftan and a tea gown – only allow a single view of a lot of the objects and it would have been so lovely to see the side and the back view. Not that I needed to see the back view of the Juicy Couture tracksuit, a garment which was worn out of the house by so many women in the 2000s that most of us know what every inch of one looks like. And the outerwear theme continued in the Revelation part of the displays, with many items of clothing included because they were inspired by underwear or were made from lingerie-like materials.

undressed-rwl-7I did enjoy the inclusion of more menswear here (who doesn’t love a Westwood corset and fig leaf leggings?) and will never turn down an opportunity to look at some more couture McQueen up close, but was disappointed that the beautiful Mr Pearl corset from Dita Von Teese’s stage wardrobe wasn’t mounted on a rotating stand so that we could see all that sparkle and detail a little better. My favourite bit of this theme was the sheer embroidered Galliano for Givenchy dress from 1996-7 which was displayed next to the type of Regency gown that would have been its inspiration, plus a cartoon from 1810 that highlighted how indecent these dresses would have appeared to be at the time.

The upper floor has some very good points, with many wonderful garments and interesting video content – especially the catwalk footage as you don’t often get to see underwear on the runway – but it felt a little bit sparse compared to the ground floor. Overall, I think the space could have done with a better balance between two floors and more seating for visitors to sit and ponder, as there really is a lot to look at! It’s a thought-provoking exhibition which touches on many aspects of underwear design and use over the last few centuries through 220 objects, a fifth of which are menswear. Although I thought it was a shame that there was no mention of controversial topics such as menstruation, or any real discussion of underwear and gender identity – gender neutral briefs were included, but not binders or tucking briefs** – I think that I was perhaps expecting too much from a very traditional institution like the V&A!

This exhibition was limited to the topics covered by Eleri Lynn’s 2010 book Underwear: Fashion in Detail and so, although not groundbreaking, it is still a beautiful and interesting introduction to a particularly fascinating aspect of dress history that is often sidelined. Wandering around and hearing visitors of all ages commenting on the pieces to their companions reveals a lot about society’s rarely voiced views on underwear, and it’s always lovely to overhear memories of mothers, grandmothers and youthful fashion exploits as people point and smile at the objects behind the glass. I wonder if, one day, that Juicy Couture tracksuit will be just as interesting to me as a 1930s rubber girdle?

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*Interestingly, lingerie used to be a word that was used to refer only to loose fitting garments like slips, petticoats and chemises. Bras and shapewear would be described as corsetry.

**For those who are interested in how underwear helps to fashion self-shaped gender identities, I would recommend a visit to the Museum of Transology at the Fashion Space Gallery next year.

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