What Lies Beneath: Undressed at the V&A

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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.

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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.

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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.

jSilk knickers from the 1920s showing a riding scene.

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’.

cDita’s Mr Pearl made corset from her Canary act.

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.

bThat Kate Moss dress.

dA 1930s net dress and in the background a Dolce and Gabbana wicker corset dress.

leA dress owned by Denise Poiret. Poiret was against corsets and instead preferred the natural flow of the body as highlighted in the design of this gown.

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.

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Culture Dossier: Riviera Style at the Fashion and Textil Museum

Culture Dossier

I chose to spend my birthday last year on the French Riviera for the simple reason that it is gorgeous. It is a hazy dreamlike place which truly feels like you’ve skipped over the clouds like a Care Bear and reached a unique sunlit oasis. The Riviera in the 1930s would be one of my top five places to visit if I had a time machine. The stories of Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald have made that slim strip of coast magical and legendary. In my mind, it will always be the most glamorous place on earth, home to platinum blonde swans in bias cut gowns and dashing blazer cloaked men driving MGs. I rarely want to visit the same place twice, I think life is too short for that – but for the Riviera, I would willingly make an exception.

So, understandably, when I saw that the Fashion and Textile Museum were hosting an exhibition dedicated to the fashion of the Riviera from 1900 to the present day, I literally let out squeak. When I walked into the exhibition itself, my heart started beating a little faster. Everywhere I turned there were the garments of my dreams. The loungewear and bathing suits that I envisaged as teenager growing up in Essex and reading The Mystery of the Blue Train for the fifth time, were right there in front of me. Mint green, black and white geometric prints and floaty beach pyjamas. The chic lithe lines of the swimming capped 30s models, through to the corseted forms of the 1950s, more akin to underwear than swimwear. Bathing dresses and pantomime black and white bloomers, beach slippers and frilly bonnets, at one point I had to have a little sit down when I spied a stunning yellow and black loungewear set.

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The British obsession with bathing began in the 18th century with the notion that a brisk dip in the chilly surf was good for the heath. With the expansion of rail travel in the 19th century more and more people were able to visit the seaside for a short break. However, it wasn’t until 1938 with the emergence of the Holidays with Pay Act that working people could expect to receive one week’s paid leave by law. For those who could afford it the French Riviera became the go to holiday destination, but for the majority of the population it was UK beach towns, such as Eastbourne and Bournemouth that became traditional holiday resorts. With the boom in air travel in the 1960s and as well as affordable package holidays, summer clothing became staple part of most wardrobes.

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The staging of the exhibition is fabulous and evocative, with a large mock lido taking centre stage, peopled by graceful white mannequins looking like a beautiful army of deco water babies. Upstairs you walk through the bathing beauty contestants of the 1950s and the ever more revealing and inventive fabrics of the 60s and 70s styles. The Day-Glo high-legged costumes of the 80s and 90s reminded me of those my mother wore to Centre Parcs or Portugal on our own summer holidays. There seemed to be an awful lot of neon pink in the early 90s.

The exhibition is a small chocolate box in the middle of a bustling city. Visiting last Saturday morning it was refreshingly quiet and tranquil, a sharp contrast to most London museums at the weekend. I wish I had had more time to visit the rest of the museum because it looks equally dreamy but I will have to save that treat for another day.

I did however manage to pop into the lovely shop (because you know I can’t resist a museum shop). There I picked up this gorgeous print, which I am giving away to one lucky reader over on The Vintage Notebook Facebook page. Don’t forget to enter!

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Good luck peoples!

xx

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London Burlesque Festival 2015

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I do lots of things on my own. I go to exhibitions, take myself out for lunch or to the cinema. I have no qualms about being alone and really miss solitude if I spend too long without it. However, I realised yesterday that I had never been on a night out alone. I mean I’ve attended dinner parties by myself or gone to a party but I had never been to a club or bar without having the intention of meeting a friend later.

Due to a series of unfortunate events I found myself flying solo last night at the London Burlesque Festival. I felt a bit ‘blah’ about going. Not because I was particularly shy or embarrassed about being alone but more because I would have no one to natter and laugh with. No one to coo in awe at the outfits with or discuss the music. In short, I would have no one to have fun with. It even crossed my mind not to both dressing up. What was the point? It was a Monday night and I felt lazy. It would be easier to just wear all black and slink in at the back somewhere inconspicuous. But then I thought, ‘who the hell do I dress up for anyway?’. I love my girlfriends dearly and I adore that we make an effort to look fabulous when we see each other, but my mantra has always been that I dress for myself – always. If I pulled on some boring outfit and scraped my hair back in a bun it would be as if I was saying to myself that I wasn’t worth dressing up for. Just me being alive in this big weird world wasn’t reason enough to celebrate. No! No I say to you good sir. I decided to get up, dress up and show up.

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I went for a frivolous and fun look in this new spider web print dress and chartreuse cardigan, paired with my Siouxsie Bolan heels, and these fabulous glittery bat clips by Roxie Sweetheart that I picked up at MCM on Saturday.

The London Burlesque Festival runs for just over two weeks at various venues and showcases a fabulous array of international burlesque talent, culminating with the closing Gala on 31st May. Last night’s show at the Fiddlers Elbow was a romp of classic, golden-era burlesque and comedy performances. Kicking things off was Turbo Cherry and her wildcat routine. I’ve been reading Ulrika’s blog for years so it was great to see her do her stuff live. She’s a great performer, with lots of tiny yet perfect glances and gestures to draw you in. Next up was Lady Lolly Rouge looking the epitome of showgirl glamour in pink feathers and sliver sparkles. Following this was a Coco Patchouli, a tiny French firecracker with a magical and enticing routine full of fun and humour.

After Coco came Helene de Joie who rocked up like the spawn Jean Harlow and Pamela Courson, becoming her very own whiplash girlchild in the dark to Venus in Furs. Next was Tinker Bell being Samba fabulous, closely followed by Ginger la Rouge who was a force of nature. Then came the Itty Bitty Tease Cabaret doing a hilarious fan dance to the Bird is the Word. Closing the evening was the glorious Knockout Noir, who was simply fabulous and captivating.

I love seeing Burlesque. Every time I leave a show I’m reminded of how much I love being a woman (yes I know there are also male burlesque performers, however every show I have seen has been solely female, hence my connotations). Last night felt like a true celebration of the fun, frivolous and fabulous experience of being a woman. The ability to make people laugh and lust in one foul swoop is a pretty powerful skill and when displayed on stage for two hours in all of it’s glory, as a spectator you can’t help but be inspired and uplifted. I’m so glad I went, and I’m even more glad that I dressed up for myself, because I kinda’ like me a lot and it’s nice to do nice things for the people we like.

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xx

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