What Lies Beneath: Undressed at the V&A


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.

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.



Audio Transcript: Mastery by Robert Greene



It is Audiobook of the Month time! It has been a while I know but this bad boy is back with a vengeance now that I again have time to listen to said audiobooks regularly.

To kick things off I went with Robert Greene’s Mastery. Reading the blurb, I was drawn to the case studies of historical figures such as Darwin, Mozart and Di Vinci who Greene profiles in order to illustrate the various positive characteristics necessary in order to gain mastery. ‘Well’ I thought ‘that sounds a bit Bill Brysony, I did like a Short History of Nearly Everything after all so I might as well give this a go’. However, I rather underestimated the self-help and business strategist element of the work, which is very stupid considering Greene’s previous titles, especially the 48 Laws of Power and the Art of Seduction. Much of Greene’s work has previously been adopted by successful business types, largely male and largely in the entertainment industry. The Art of Seduction has in part filtered into the ‘Seduction Community’ and is referenced by Neil Strauss in The Game *shudders*.

Whilst the titbits of historical biography are interesting to a point the heavy overlay of strategic guidance sits rather awkwardly and not entirely coherently on top. The rules that Greene advocates seem often overlapping and not altogether logical – ‘have a mentor you trust, look up to and are inspired by, but wait, don’t like them too much, have tense and sometimes stressful relationship and eventually leave them’. Similarly, to short hand another message – ‘go your own way, break all the rules, but also follow rules’. It’s all a bit jumbled and hard to follow. At one point, I had to leave the room with the audio still playing and when I came back and tried to find my place I literally had no idea where I was or if I had heard this stuff before. I’m still not sure. All in all I guess it’s just a bit dull and incredibly repetitive. All of the advice is so laboured that to follow the guidance accurately you would probably need to sit in a white room and just constantly think about your actions, reactions, demeanour and practices 24/7 leaving little time to actually achieve anything.

To be honest this book left me feeling a bit ick. I’ve generally stuck to the principle of know your stuff and be nice to people to get along in life and that’s served me pretty well up until now. All of the tactical game playing in this book feels contrived, manipulative and pseudo-Machiavellian. I don’t want every interaction I have with another person to be prescribed by certain rules and ultimately geared towards further self-promotion. But maybe that’s why I’m going to die alone covered in cats rather than from head injuries after driving into swimming pool of gold coins Duck Tales style.

Overall, it’s worth a listen/read if only for the historical bits as well as profiles of contemporary ‘masters’ such as Teresita Fernandez. Also some of the Zen Buddhist teachings about acceptance of others gelled with my own outlook (well I try) and perhaps I’ve let the more manipulative nature of the advice overshadow some actually quite sound pointers on life. If you happen to live in a particularly cutthroat environment then maybe the tactical aspects of this work may serve you as well. However for me, being as I am a resolutely British death before discourtesy type, it’s all just a touch to self-affected.

Next Month I’m going to dive into:

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime written by Judith Flanders. Sounds jolly doesn’t it?



April Bookmarks

April Bookmarks


The clocks have leapt forwards, the daffs are out and you can’t move for Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, its official peoples, we are but hours away from being in April. Despite me spending most of the year idly kicking rocks until Autumn arrives I suppose it is a little bit nice to have more sunlight and everyone to generally be in a better mood. Of course it does mean I am but a few short weeks away from having to source, purchase and then wear the dreaded summer clothes **shudders** (why can’t some enterprising retailer come up with a range of summer clothes in anything other than floral, pastel or neon for us goth-bohemian-1920’s-dustbowl-circus-waif-B-movie-noir-loving-minimalist-exectutvie-witches out there??? But that’s a rant for another post).
In honour of this new month here are some of the best things April has to offer! Some monthly bookmarks if you will. (Editor’s note: I have refrained from filling this with bank holiday goings on because on Thursday I am going to do a Easter Bank Holiday special for you all – keep your peepers peeled).

1st April – Defining Beauty: the body in Ancient Greek Art is at the British Museum. This actually opened last week but if you’re such a Johnny-on-the-spot that you have already seen it, you really don’t need any tips from me about how to spend your time!

1st April – All this Belongs to You at the V and A. The launch night is tonight (if you’re at a loose end) with the exhibition proper opening tomorrow. It is a free exhibition looking at the role of public institutions in society and obviously rather apt in this election year.

1st April – Vivienne Westwood: Cut From the Past at Danson House. This exhibition, as the name suggests, explores how the designs of the past have influence Westwood, particularly those of the 18th Century.

8th April – Heroes from the dark or light side? Ancient and modern heroes versus the Minotaur at the Petrie Museum. A screening and talk by Amanda Potter focussing on the role or hero in Theseus and the Minotaur legend.

9th April – Liz Tregenza will be signing copies of her latest book, Style Me Vintage 1940s at IWM London.


Montage of Heck

10th April – The eagerly anticipated and apparently definitive documentary about Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck is released nationwide.

10th April – Sherlock Holmes Film Night at the Museum of London. Dressing up, drinking and watching Sherlock Holmes films in a museum, well this sounds terrible.

11th April – The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race takes place (I know, it’s come round again – where does the time go?) For the best spots to watch from follow this handy guide…

11th April – The Renegade Craft Fair is in town, more specifically at the Old Truman Brewery.

18th April – Snap on those bicycle clips and button up that waistcoat, it’s Tweed Run time! Tickets for the ride itself have all gone but there are still spaces available for the end of race shindig at the Bloomsbury Ballrooms.

Amy Shore Tweed RunImage: Amy Shore via Tweed Run

25-26th April – Forensic Television: Crime Scene to Courtroom at the BFI. A two-day event looking at the symbiotic relationship between forensic science and television dramas. This looks really interesting especially for anyone who thinks they could solve a murder after watching CSI religiously for the best part of ten years. What? Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not one too, we can smell our own kiddo.

26th April – “Residents of London stay in your homes! I repeat, please remain inside your homes and do not attempt to make any unnecessary journeys. 40,000 people in fancy dress are running through the city and getting around is, not to put to finer point on it, a total f-ing nightmare. Stay in your homes and watch it on the telly because after all it is for a very good cause. Thank you for your co-operation”.

Book of the Month:

Last but not least I thought I would recommend a book to read this month, because, well, I like books.
This month I am recommending Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology by Fabio Silva. Needless to say I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but the premise looks fascinating. Exploring the lived experience of past environments is what I am interested in in my own research and this kind of stuff is just generally very cool and groovy.

Right, let’s do April peoples!