Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear tells the story of garment design, considering the practical, personal and sensory roles it plays in protecting and enhancing the body. The exhibition consists of more than 200 examples of items made for men and woman, highlighting the enduring themes of innovation and luxury. Exploring the history of design, from the 18th century to the present day, the show includes a rare example of home-made “stays” worn by the working class centuries ago, to pieces from fashion icons such as Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith.
The relationship between fashion and underwear is revealed, evoking notions of the ideal body, the ways in which cut, fit, material and decoration can expose issues of gender, sex and morality. Through a display of corsets, crinolines, boxer shorts, bras, hosiery, lingerie and loungewear, a shift in the nature of underwear becomes apparent, the emphasis moves from the functional to the fashionable. Health and hygiene are also addressed, with the role of technological advancements in textiles, production, and manufacturing depicted as essential to the progression of the industry.
One of the most important pieces in underwear history is the corset, the show proposing vigorous debate around the controversial item, alongside its use in medicine and modern perception. A whalebone and cotton example from the 1890s is set alongside x-rays and illustrations portraying the dramatic physical impact resulting from continued use of such a restrictive garment. The exhibition also examines the corset’s contradictory use to improve medical conditions and posture, including a 1985 lightly boned version made from aertex, showing the alternative results of tight lacing. Progressing from the 19th century to include an austerity corset made from paper during world war one, and its use as a slimming tool endorsed by contemporary figures such as Kim Kardashian, the show sheds light on the impact the corset has had on fashion.
The role of advertising in underwear is pivotal to its cultural significance. The pieces illustrate the way in which garments are marketed, a method that often plays to the appeal of a youthful and sexually attractive body. With a focus on men’s underwear, including packaging from David Beckham’s briefs for H&M in 2012, Undressed poses important questions about the issues surrounding the promotion of an unhealthy body image.
From commenting on the history, design, and the change from functionality to materiality, the exhibition reveals the influence underwear has on fashion, the body, and society.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 12 March. Visit: www.vam.ac.uk
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1. Item from Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria and Albert Museum (2016).