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: Fashion on the Ration

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I spent my International Women’s day with one of my favourite women on Earth, my friend Nell. We trotted off to the Imperial War Museum to see Fashion on the Ration. When I was working at the museum last year, I heard about the exhibition and I couldn’t wait to see it come to fruition.

As the name suggests the exhibition looks at the adaptations to clothing in the face of the restrictions of rationing from 1941. It begins by looking at the uniforms, which appeared in abundance on Britain’s streets after the outbreak of war. Of course it wasn’t only soldiers or the Women’s Auxiliary Services who were eligible to wear a uniform, there were a raft of new civilian organisations which adopted them, such as WVS. Apparently the most desirable uniform was that worn by the Women’s Royal Naval Service or Wrens, due to the double breasted jacket buttons fastening on the ‘women’s side’ and the standard issue black stockings being more attractive than those handed out by other services. Incredibly, one-quarter of the British population were permitted to wear some form of uniform and the exhibition hints at the blurring of gender and class divisions this standardisation would induce.

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After the standard issue attire, the exhibit moves on to look at the functionality of civilian clothes, from hard wearing jumpers to specially designed Siren suits and gas-mask handbags. I have to say, forget functional I think the Siren suit is pretty darn stylish all of its own accord and it certainly wouldn’t require an air raid to get me to wear one. I love the two-tone piping and strong structured design, it looks really rather chic.

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Rationing was officially announced in June 1941 and with it came a new level of creativity and ingenuity in fashion. Within the exhibit a screen plays government information films from the time highlighting how women could dig out old clothes and turn them into nifty new blouses or topper hats. Being the bonefide ham-fisted dullard that I am when it comes to all things sewing related (I can do buttons and Wonder Web and that’s about all), it was heartening to see a cut-to of a fifty-something woman looking a bit cross at the film camera that had just arrived in her front room saying, ‘but I’ve never turned a pair of trousers into a skirt in my life!’. ‘Don’t fret! Go along to your local make do and mend class’, comes the voiceover in reassuring received pronunciation. I stupidly assumed that everyone knew how to sew in the good old days because my Grandma could. But it was nice to see that lots of these crafty skills would have been as unknown to women of the 1940’s as they are to me today, which makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Imagine suddenly having to knock up shorts and dresses for your kids without ever having wielded a needle before – the pressure! And you couldn’t just do what my mum famously did one school bake sale which was buy a load of jam tarts from Marks and in her words ‘bash them about a bit’, because you didn’t have the coupons for it.
In an attempt to standardise and in doing so equalise fairness within the clothing market, coupons were introduced and clothes given points dependent upon how much fabric was used in the garment. 66 coupons were issued to each adult in the first year of rationing. However, as the information plaques tell us, clothes were issued with points based on the amount of cloth they required and not necessarily their quality. As such, a wealthier person could by an expensive suit which would last a long time for the same number of coupons as a cheaper and less hardy suit. As ever necessity is the mother of invention because the CC41 Utility Clothing Scheme was launched by the Government in 1942 in order to ensure that quality clothing could be purchased by all. To combat the inevitable Orwellian overtones (even though 1984 was published seven years later but you know what I mean), of a government issue clothing uniform for the masses, top notch designers were brought on board to jazz things up a bit and ensure style and choice as well as durability. I would say they did a darn good job because the detail and creativity of the CC14 items on display are quite extraordinary; graphic prints, beautiful structuring and elegant hardware such as moulded buttons are all in evidence in the display.

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Along with CC14 clothing, patriot prints were also developed in an array of styles by companies such as Jacqmer.

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The final section of the display is dedicated to beauty or Beauty as Duty as it is titled. It’s no news to anyone that a well kempt appearance was seen as another way a woman could do her bit in the war effort. It was a method to keep morale high for both men and women and a sign of defiance in the face of adversity.

Overall I think the exhibition is great and showcases some real treasures such as a the silk map underwear set made by Patricia Mounbatten. The videos are funny and informative and the audio recordings of first hand experience are really touching, ‘you were never cold in your uniform that’s for sure’. It is a charming exhibition however, for those with an existing knowledge or interest in the era, it may feel a little light on detail. It is also a little bit small considering that it is the only paid exhibition in the museum. It would have been nice to have had a little more substance concerning the wider impact of the era upon subsequent decades and the social impacts of this, which as I mentioned is touched upon but not explored deeply. However I imagine that this was never the brief or the intention of the exhibition and that has to be respected, beyond whatever I may have liked it to contain. Beyond this it’s great to see an exhibition in a museum which, although not wholly dedicated to women’s fashion, does explore the story of war from a largely female perspective and succeeds in sharing their stories, ingenuity and hard work.
All in all an entirely apt place to spend International Women’s Day xx

 

P.S.

Competition time! I’m running a competition on my Instagram page, giving you the opportunity to win this gorgeous 100% silk Blackout scarf from the IWM shop in celebration of the exhibition. Please go over an take a look (link can be found up and right with all the other social media icons).

prod_21740Good luck! xx

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Wardrobe Reports: The White Blouse of Dreams

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Families, you can’t pick ‘em. You also can’t pick your partner’s family and so it is by miraculous good fortune that T brings with him some of the sweetest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They do really nice things, like buying me a 1930’s satin blouse of dreams. It is the sort of thing that despite working perfectly with 90% of my wardrobe I would never actually buy for myself because it would seem too luxurious. I am afflicted by a terrible case of the talk-myself-out-of-itsies and I always let beautiful things like this pass me by in lieu of that entirely needed but significantly less pretty new car headlight/5 pack of thermal pants/other practical purchase (delete as appropriate). Therefore, it’s useful that I have a fabulously stylish sort of mother-in-law to do the hard part for me.

I know it is a cliché but I cannot help but think of the woman or women who wore this before me; what they felt, who they kissed, how they laughed. It is the sort of piece that looks best by candlelight as the shadows skim and shimmer over the quilting and buttons.

 

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I am wearing it here with a skirt I have had for many years. Funny story- back in 2008 I was in work and a few hours away from catching a flight to Marrakesh. I realised that I didn’t own a single long skirt and really fancied one for the hot weather. I didn’t think there was much chance of finding anything in the short window of time I had before my flight but nevertheless nipped out of work and into the charity shop and few doors down. Literally, the first thing I saw when I walked in was this skirt. It might not have been the most practical article of clothing for the searing heat of Morocco because it has three layers of fairly heavily ruched crepe and linen, not to mention the beaded waistband that weighs a ton. However, I loved it, bought it and wore it non-stop during my stay. It still remains one of the most dependable items in my wardrobe. I don’t think I believe in fate, but you know…FATE!

So here, we have two different items of clothing, from different times and different people, both of which came in to my life via a happy occurrence. They are the perfect odd couple together.
xxx

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