A Brief History of Underwear: V&A Undressed Exhibition Review

We recently visited the V&A Undressed exhibition, where we were drawn into a world of provocation and exotica, contrasted against modesty and cleanliness. The curators took us on a journey through the underwear ages, from 1750s corset boning to the noughties catwalk pieces. Over the years, underwear has played a surprisingly important role in, not only fashion and sex, but also sport, hygiene and body imagery. We were seduced to learn more.

Without creating a crude statement, the curators toyed with concepts of gender, sexuality and the shifting notions of public and private spheres; engaging and challenging the audience to think beyond the conventional uses of underwear, to explore the underlying notions of morality, gender differences and stereotypes. Although underwear is inextricably linked with sex and sexuality, the exhibition encouraged more consideration, presenting underwear as an artifact rather than an accessory.

Through exploring ideas such as the natural and artificial, contemplating the use of underwear for external aesthetics, and touching on the practicalities of carrying out ‘women’s work,’ the exhibition inextricably referenced gender and gendered stereotypes. Although much of the discussion around aesthetics focused on the health considerations, there were anecdotal references to how woman may, or may not, have challenged gender norms – for instance references to William Henry Flower’s (1831-99) ‘fashion in deformity’ in which he urged women to defy convention and respect natural form. These references encouraged the audience to delve deeper into the notions of gender and the role of women, and of course feminism, over the years.

With feminism being such a hot topic in current debates – lauding the likes of Emma Watson and Lena Dunham as poster girls for all things equal (stressing equality, and NOT the counterproductive approximation of dominance often associated with the word ‘feminism’), the exhibition dabbled with the notion of underwear, influencing the role and expressions of women.

For instance, a section of the exhibit covered registered designs, illustrating what appeared to be copycats of famous undearwear styles, and a common thread emerged: the manufacturing industry and top women’s underwear moguls of the time (we’re talking 1700s here) were male. Men, influenced by contemporary societal stereotypes, were designing such intimate items, at a time when sexuality and partner relationships were closed off to public realms: men prescribing the function and aesthetic of one of the most intimate and private elements of a woman’s body, and making a profit.

The curators provocatively explore the notions of public and private realms, discussing the notions of the viewer’s presence as compelling in the private sphere yet demeaning and objectifying of women in the public sphere. The curators boldly identify an inherent conflict within feminism debates – some believe that the allure and evocative nature of underwear gives women control and confidence to express desires, whilst others believe that sexually explicit underwear can demean and objectify.

‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection, SS 2015, Photographer Sebastian Faena, Model Eniko Mihalik

‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection, SS 2015, Photographer Sebastian Faena, Model Eniko Mihalik

But women were not complete bystanders, and the exhibition celebrates this in exploring the tireless efforts women undertook to lift, separate and exaggerate various body parts through the use of shaping bodywear and substructure underwear. The exhibit demonstrates that although in the early ages underwear design and manufacturing were perhaps predominantly driven by male-dominated companies, women played a pivotal role in determining the latest trends in terms of the changing attitudes to women’s shape, with gendered silhouettes emphasising both the sexual preferences and fashion preferences of the time.

Through examining invisible, structured, and revealing underwear, the curators took the audience through the different shapes and sizes of women over the years and explored how the changes in worldviews of women have driven changes in the how the female body and silhouette is represented by underwear. From the 1700s voluptuous and curvy corsets and boning, to the youth culture revolution in the 1960s introducing an ideal body shape of tall, skinny and long-limbed.

As a result, more recently clothes, alongside underwear, have become more revealing and tight-fitting, with the curators highlighting a revelation since the 1960s where designers have blurred the boundaries between the public and privates realms by experimenting with visible underwear worn as outerwear – think sheer, flimsy bralets and bandeaus from Urban Outfitters, engineered for the willowy, androgynous-looking counterculture followers. Such designs are often used to emphasise parts of the body that wouldn’t have been displayed in the past, as the Victoria Secret models stand in stark contrast to the fact that until the 20th Century, appearing in public without a corset was considered indecent and immoral.

And it wasn’t all about women! Shapewear has also been used widely by men to enhance certain body features (take a guess…) and dating back to corset days, some style-conscious men would also wear corsets to modify their figures. Changes in gender views have also influenced men’s underwear and today high performance fabrics are engineered to define, augment the musculature of the torso and firm up men’s bums. And it’s not only women that suffered with corsets: men’s underwear has also affected freedom of movement and gait. We’ve also seen a rise in androgynous underwear styles since the 1980s, which may be representative of the changing attitudes towards gender norms and stereotypes.

Overall we were really impressed at how the curators have poked at and delved into much deeper issues of societal values and gender roles in an exhibition in which we honestly thought we’d have a giggle at all the sex. The exhibition eloquently defines how the cut, fit, fabric and decoration of underwear throughout the ages reflects the changing attitudes to morality, gender and sex – educational twists, turns and nuances which certainly made it worth the trip.

Words by Sarah Donachie