UNDERSTANDING UNDERWEAR: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London will be opening the doors to the largest museum exhibition of underwear ever to go on display.
“Undressed” will explore the history of underwear design from the 18th century to the present, showcasing more than 200 pieces.
Through the history of underwear, the exhibit also aims to explore issues of gender, morality, sex and body image.
“I wanted to look at the ways in which underwear reveals how our attitude to sex, gender and morality have changed,” said curator Edwina Ehrman. “I also looked at the opportunities technological advances have given to women.”
A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to corsetry, which highlights both the restrictive nature of the garment and the ways it evolved to give women more freedom of movement.
Highlights include a corset from the 1890s with a waist under 19 inches, displayed alongside X-rays revealing its damaging effects to the body. A Jaeger corset from 1895 made from breathable wool and an austerity corset made of paper during World War I are also on display, next to modern-day waist trainers.
“Women who wore restrictive corsets wanted to reflect themselves as being highly fashionable but also being able to suffer; fashion was of such importance. They had the money to do it, they were going to be out there and people were going to look at them, which broadly speaking is what a lot of people want today. I think waist trainers are a case in point,” Ehrman said.
Underwear’s relationship to fashion is another key aspect. The second floor of the exhibit displays a wide selection of lingerie-inspired garments, such as a delicate slipdress designed by Liza Bruce and worn by Kate Moss, an Antonio Berardi dress which features a trompe l’oeil corset and a Schiaparelli dress from 1935 with breastplates.
“This is a fashion gallery so I had to look at the relationship between underwear and fashion and explore the underwear as outerwear phenomenon,” Ehrman said. She singled out a 1996 empire line dress, designed by John Galliano for Givenchy and loaned by the French design house for the exhibit, as a personal favorite.
The exhibit also looks at the emergence of designer underwear, from a range of Paul Smith printed men’s boxers from the Eighties to Orla Kiely’s designs for Uniqlo’s HeatTech products and Acne’s gender-neutral briefs.
Ehrman explained that the growing popularity of the ath-leisure and loungewear trends informed her choice of garments.
“It was a very lucky time to take the project on. From November 2014, we started seeing some very clear trends, which are closely linked to underwear. There was an underwear as outerwear recurrence, pajama-style clothing by Vuitton and Stella McCartney and a lot of discussion on the global loungewear model. In countries like China, where it is no longer considered wise to be seen in ostentatious clothing, luxury underwear took off because it’s not visible.”
According to the curator, there has always been an interest in loungewear.
“In the past, wealthy people’s clothes were tailored and fitted to the figure, so when people were at home, they chose loose gowns. They were all about comfort and quite decorative, so they allowed people to express themselves in perhaps a more individual way,” she said. “Today people are embracing loungewear because there is a lot of emphasis on well-being and trying to achieve a work-life balance.”
To demonstrate how undergarments morphed into loungewear over time, the exhibit showcases an 1840s man’s dressing gown alongside a 1911 silk evening dress by Paul Poiret — who famously rejected all forms of constrictions — caftans from the Seventies, as well as a printed T-shirt and pant set by British designer Sibling from spring 2013.
The exhibit’s focus on loungewear and ath-leisure has coincided with the opening of the Body Studio in Selfridges earlier this month — the British store’s largest department yet, which takes a holistic approach to off-duty clothing.
Another key section examines the evolution of the bra in women’s wardrobes, with examples of early models from the beginning of the 20th century to barely there pieces influenced by the Sixties feminist movement and Swarovski-embellished bras by La Perla which are designed to be worn and be seen.
According to the curator, the majority of the pieces were sourced from the vast archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, while a small number of garments were bought specifically for the exhibit or taken on loan from brands and private collectors.
“We bought three historical pieces and then we looked at contemporary companies, because the V&A has always collected contemporary fashion. But we don’t just want to take from them, so we have taken a few of the designers out to the archives so they can study them; that is the sort of relationship we want,” Ehrman added.
“Undressed” opens on April 16 and will run until March next year.
A series of talks with Antonio Berardi and Agent Provocateur’s Sarah Shotton will accompany the exhibit.