Much like its predecessor, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain the V&A’s latest offering Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear takes a functional item of personal dress and charts its progression, elaboration and inevitable fetishisation over several centuries. Undressed begins in the 18th century when few women wore knickknocks and underwear consisted of basic cloth under shirts, worn for hygiene as a barrier between the skin and clothing. Men tended to wear that stalwart of Mills and Boon books the world over – breeches (gosh such a filthy word). Women wore stays, less for practicality and more for modesty, a women who was tight-laced showed good moral character and a ‘loose’ woman was so in every sense of the word.
Moving on periodically, crinolines became de mode and are displayed in the exhibition to show the variety, specifically between the French fan style and British square style from 1740-1770. It was at about this point that I started reimaging my life as it might have been had I studied fashion history (and actually done some work) during my first degree at Goldsmiths, instead of Drama. I could have a very nice life as a costume designer or fashion historian, or at the very least be able to sew a replica Marie Antoinette outfit for a fancy masked ball that a handsome red haired member of the British Monarchy suddenly invited me to when we casually bumped into each other in Kensington Palace gardens… sorry, what was I talking about. Oh yeah, pants.
One of the most complex and controversial components of women’s underwear over the centuries has been corsetry. Many doctors of the 1700-1800s saw corsets as a preeminent cause of illness in women, including spinal and respiratory problems. However, as with the earlier stays, corsets spoke not just of fashion but also morale character, an uncorseted woman appeared bohemian and not at all the thing. The restrictive lives many women lead in this period, decency, women’s bodies as unknown shielded off entities to be feared or controlled, bound, twisted and damaged, the metaphors write themselves. The subsequent fetishisation of corsets may be seen as a reclamation by women, and now corsets are a symbol of sexuality, kink and seduction. Corsetry is often worn as outerwear and serves as an icon of the Burlesque tradition, an art form which celebrates the body by literally striping away its coverings.
The interesting recent trend for ‘waist training’ inspired most notably by the Kardashians was also covered in the exhibition. Waist training is a method of strengthening the core to create a smaller waist and more defined hourglass shape by using a specialised ‘waist trainer’ akin to a girdle belt. Waist training is prone to many of the same criticisms of its earlier predecessor, and in so doing raises all kinds of dichotomies about what women decide to do with their bodies, who if anyone has the right to debate their choices and where are our standards of beauty originate from. God, who knew unmentionables could be so political eh?
Altogether more comfortable but no less controversial upon their invention, was the trend for the basic bra or bralette, which was developed in the 1920s for the then preferred flattened chest. Much of the underwear I personally like most dates perhaps unsurprisingly from the 20s and 30s, where I have the impression that bob-haired pastel sprites skipped around in peach satin tap pants, nymphet limbed in eternal summers of chiffon and lemonade.
The girdles of the 1940s and 50s brought back the restrictive nature of underwear and with it an undeniable kink exemplified in the iconic pin up aesthetic of the era. Bras became political again in the feminist and counter culture movements of the 1960s. Hang on, has there ever been a time when women’s underwear, ergo, their bodies, wasn’t seen as encompassing some sort of political statement? I smell a rat here Scooby. One great quote I spotted in a magazine article of the time from a woman wearing a purposely transparent blouse sans bra was ‘I believe in God, that should be enough’.
The upper floor of the exhibition houses items of pure beauty where the themes of the ground floor are extended further; Kate Moss’ famous transparent Calvin Klein dress, a burning ember of the 60s which saw her as a self-styled 90s Marianne Faithful. The froufrou kitsch of the 20s flapper girls re-imagined in contemporary chiffon rompers and the Bettie Paige sensuality of the 50s in Agent Provocateur’s seductive, chic and dark style.
All in all there was a lot more to pants than I had imagined. Underwear is practical yet political, sensual yet innocent. It can, as all aspects of our aesthetic creation should, transform and also shout out loud of our identity and our wants to the world. It is underneath but oh so outer, not just in Madonna inspired cone bras, but in a VPL, a stocking top or bra strap, sometimes intentional but often not. Underwear is not undercover. It changes the way we hold ourselves, corrects our spines or trims our thighs. In some pants we can climb Everest, in others barely make it up a flight of stairs. I went to this exhibition with the hope of glimpsing beautiful things; lace and rayon and silk, but I came away with a new found appreciation for all things underwear related, M&S cotton briefs and all.