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Underwear at the V and A Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

May 8, 2016

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V and A has been derided by some reviewers as simply not sexy enough and even “coy” – I’m not sure if they were expecting a peep show or more tits n ass on display, but this is an excellently thorough raiding of the V&A archives with some articles on display that made me full of desire – not erotic desire but simply the desire to own such gorgeous fripperies.


The display is so closely related to the V&A’s excellent book “Underwear: fashion in detail”, that it must have been a reference point. Either that, or the clothes photographed in the book were still lying around after the photography session and were closest to hand. I’m joking, because I know how much effort and preparation goes into a show like this.

Published in 2010

It’s only strange because that book was published in 2010 and is not strictly a catalogue for the show. Still, that’s given me plenty of time to study it minutely ( it’s highly recommended by the way) so that the pieces in the flesh, or the fabric so to speak, feel like old dear friends. There are a few nice surprises in seeing them in real life, like how very tiny the summer ribbon corset is, or how very large a Victorian cotton chemise is, seeing as it was designed to go under the same little corset.

Underwear at the V and A – for male and female

The exhibition covers the dates from the early 19th century right up until the present day and includes both male and female underwear, striving for fairness, so it’s not just knickers and bras but jockstraps and shirts, too.


Shirts used to be seen as underwear, as the essential purpose of the shirt for men or chemise for women was to go next to the skin and mop up sweat. So they were of the plainest, washable fabric, like cotton, unlike the harder to wash layer that went on top. But shirts came with detachable collars and cuffs, as they were the bits which actually showed, for more frequent washing and replacement.


The fact that shirts were underwear explains why the froths and frills of a dandy’s shirt front was a little risqué. An 1819 George Cruikshank cartoon, “The Dandies Coat of Arms” near the start of the show skewers male vanity with depictions of the corsets, padding and spaniels needed for a man to show a truly fashionable (feminine, Cruikshank suggests) shape at the time.

Underwear at the V and A – magazine article style

I’m used to the kind of upmarket jumble sale effect of the V&As exhibitions now, in that they don’t like to put things in chronological order but prefer to put a whole date range in one case under a loose heading like “Hygiene” or, I don’t know, “Bum Shaping” (not a real title, just the nearest I can get to approximating one case).


In this way at Underwear at the V and A you don’t get a comprehensive and easy to follow idea of how body shape fashions altered over time, or how technology or work and leisure pursuits affected underwear flowing right across the exhibition from beginning to end, but rather little vignettes – almost as if there is one curator per case. In fact, maybe there is which would explain why ideas, information or similar objects are sometimes repeated in different displays. But I’m happy to ignore this slightly disjointed effect and see each case as a brief magazine article on the subject.

Underwear at the V and A – may different areas of interest


Topics include:

Hygiene, from those washable shirts to a fad for disposable undies of the 1960s.

Volume, with bustles, bum padding and padded bras from the Victorian to the modern and including an eye-catching bottom exposing ensemble.

The folly of fashion – i.e. tight corsets. Here too, are some fascinating x-rays of the effects of those corsets on a person’s innards.

Performance underwear – maternity corsets and vests, moisture wicking fabrics.

Underwear for warm and cool weather and climates.

Lightweight underwear and sports undies.

The evolution of men’s underwear.

Underwear at the V and A – Bras

Support – Bras and girdles, and how a vogue for diet and exercise in the 1930 rather than constricting clothing affected the ideal body in the 1930s. This new perfect women is illustrated in the shape of the mannequin commission from sculptor Frank Dobson for underwear brand Charnaux, displayed in Selfridges and promoted as the perfect blend of art and commerce, the “Charnaux Venus”.


Underwear designed to been seen – Underwear at the V and A has some Swarovski encrusted bras to be worn under an open evening jacket, 90s style, and beautiful silk garter ribbons decorated with rosettes from the 18th century. These garters, worn just above the knee, weren’t strictly designed for show but the concept that it was a possibility, or simply a beautiful secret must have been enticing for the wearer and the eventual viewer alike.

Underwear at the V and A – shocking stockings

A case of stockings, including a gorgeous pair from 1900, meticulously hand stitched with iridescent sequinned serpents. Again, how much of this wonderful detail was to be seen by the casual viewer is in question, but a flash of a twining serpent up a woman’s legs must have been quite intoxicating.

Underwear at the V and A – No bras

50s and 60s lighter weight, stretchy and “invisible” girdles and bras. Here are Mary Quant bodysuits with the famous flower logo and 70s net bras that were so flimsy that they must have been invented more for the psychological comfort of the wearer who wanted to wear a bra than for any possible support. Included here is a great article from Nova magazine in 1969 about women dumping their bras, complete with alluring snaps of bra-less (not topless, I hasten to add) women in peasant blouses, with a quote from a psychologist saying “A bra rebellion is doing one’s own thing, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.” The display card explained this mini revolution as been concerned with women being more in touch with their bodies, or sticking it to the patriarchy.


A dainty display of silk camisoles and French knickers. This includes my own particular object of desire, a hand-made pair of midnight blue cami knickers improbably decorated with inserts of mounted horse riders individually created out of machine-made lace. One expects rose buds in such a delicate place, but the wearer, Lady Betty Holman, obviously a horse women, delights in telling that her knickers broke the ice when she was in Baghdad in the 1940s, sitting in a gathering of other women with no language in common. On whipping up her skirt and showing the her drawers, everybody had something to smile about.

Scandalous underwear

Controversial outfits follow, including black silk underwear from the turn of last century, and Janet Reger creations from the 1980s that were objected to by the author Angela Carter on the grounds that they were objectifying of women: however, it turned out that women wanted to be objectified as the retro suspenders and frothy lace boudoir styles, coming right after sensible and comfortable tights had been invented and bras abandoned, were very popular.

Underwear at the V and A – upstairs

The upstairs of the exhibition has a lighter and more dynamic feel, with more contemporary outfits modelled on full-scale shop dummy mannequins which were missing downstairs. In fact, presumably to avoid any accusations of titillation, representations of actual humans modelling the clothes were mostly missing from the more historical selection. I would have filled the place with cheeky postcards showing Victorian beauties in states on undress, but apart from a few comical stereoscopic scenes of suitors hiding behind enormous crinolines or ladies toppling out of buses due to the ridiculously large size of their skirts as well as those x-rays and occasional magazine articles, pictorial representation is scarce.

Underwear at the V and A – sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon

However, upstairs we have more contemporary boudoir outfits, dressing gowns and night gowns, a dressing gown from a Bond Film and modern underwear: AP, La Perla, rubber outfits and half cup bras. Even though the exhibit is sponsored by AP their presence is discreet, limited as far as I can tell to one outré outfit (and some silk knickers in  the shop) and there are plenty of lesser known and boutique brands represented, including Strumpet and Pink, and Fifi Cachnil. The show is also sponsored by Revlon, and this brand isn’t over-represented either, just a few of the modern mannequins sporting their matching red nail and lip colours.

Gaultier, Schiaparelli and Givenchy

Next at the Underwear at the V and A exhibition we have underwear as outerwear, including of course the master of it Jean Paul Gaultier, one of Elsa Schiaparelli’s witty dresses and an absolutely stunning silk satin scarlet cuirass dress bodice of 1786, displayed separately upstairs which was actually outerwear designed to so closely follow the lines of the corset beneath that it shocked plenty of contemporary 18th century onlookers. Another piece I fell in love with was a 1997 John Galliano for Givenchy muslin dress in the high-waisted diaphanous “Greek” style popular in the 1820s, which he said was inspired by both the pregnant popstar Madonna and Empress Josephine.

A short film about the designers and makers completes the experience. A really good exhibition for anyone interested in fashion history, and one which can be re-visited to refresh salient points as it’s on for almost a whole year.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A Museum until 12 March 2017.



Silk ribbon corset ca. 1895 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Feather filled petticoat of 1860. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Frank Dobson, Charnaux Venus 1933–4

1920s garters by Lucile. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stockings, about 1900 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mary Quant bodystocking, 1960.

1932 silk camisole

Exhibition view 2 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exhibition view. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

1936 Elsa Schiaparelli dress

The Dandies Coat of Arms, George Cruikshank 1819. British Museum.

The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard (1767)