Installation view of Undressed A Brief History of Underwear exhibition, 16 April 2016 – 12 March 2017, co. Victoria and Albert Museum London

London - The V&A Museum exhibition “Undressed” is an involving narrative of the underwear. Spanning from the 18th century to present days, the exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” is focused on the protective character of the underwear, but also its improvement of the body, at the V&A Museum, London.

The V&A Museum exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” displays more than 200 examples of underwear for men and women. It presents the continuing topics of innovation and luxury, from the custom-made, such as a unique model of home-made corset worn by a working woman in England in the 18th century, to examples by designers, including Stella McCartney, La Perla, Fifi Chachnil, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith.

Though the V&A Museum exhibition is focused on underwear, it considers also the correlated fashion - not only in London. Consequently, it is the notion of ideal body that is explored, and how tailoring, materials and shapes can reveal about gender and sex, so of ethics and morality, passing through the development of design and technology. Another topic that “Undressed” exhibition explores is the health and hygiene, together with the design and technological advances of underwear.

On display there are corsets, crinolines, boxer shorts, bras, hosiery, lingerie and loungewear alongside contextual fashion plates, photographs, advertisements, display figures and packaging. Highlights includes long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother; an 1842 man’s waist belt used on the wearer’s wedding day; a 1960s Mary Quant body stocking; a pair of gender neutral briefs by Acne; a sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss; and flesh-coloured leggings decorated with a mirrored glass fig leaf by Vivienne Westwood.

Underclothes are the most personal garments in our wardrobe. Worn next to the skin and usually hidden, even the most practical garments are intrinsically erotic. Their cut, fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing attitudes to morality, gender and sex; shifting notions of private and public and innovations in fabric technology and design.

Underwear plays several roles. It is worn for modesty, cleanliness and comfort. Some garments such as corsets and contemporary shape wear, mould the wearer's body to match the fashionable ideal. Others are designed to be flattering and alluring.

Men's and women's underclothes from about 1750 to the present day are displayed in this exhibition, alongside garments which have been influenced by underwear or developed from it. Most of the clothes were made in Britain, France and North America.

The exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” is in Room 40, at the V&A Museum, London, on two floors. It opens with a “Fashion, health and hygiene” space. Underwear’s main purpose is to cover the body. Firstly, underclothes worn next to the skin were made of natural fibres which were not coloured and could be washed at high temperatures. This changed with the development of man – made fibres and advances in dyeing and laundry technology.

Until the 20th century women of all backgrounds wore corsets over their body linen. Appearing in public without a corset, or in a loosely laced corset, was considered indecent and immoral. Few men wore corsets to modify their figure or for sport and exercises purposes. Most people accepted corsets as a necessity. However, doctors and reformers constantly tried to discourage women to wear corsets for health reasons, because of breath restriction.

Another space is dedicated to “Volume”. Fashion and underwear are strictly connected. Underwear shapes the body to match the fashionable ideal, together with clothes. The function of structural garments is to separate and exaggerate parts of female anatomy, particularly breast, rear and hips. Nowadays, also male underwear is designed to enhance body parts, such as torso, buttocks, genitals, by using high performance fabrics.

“Lingerie and hosiers” are important underwear. The current use of the word lingerie dates to 19th century and it indicates delicate female underclothes. Before ‘Linge’ is a French word for linen, and it is was used for male and female. The term ‘hosiery’ derives from ‘hose’, which means stockings. Until the 17th century they were made of hand- knitted or woven clothes, and after they were industrially produced. In the 1920s, hosiery started to be produced with artificial silk, nylon and Lycra, so it improved its elasticity. In 1950s pantyhose were launched.

The search for a comfortable alternative to corset ended up in advances to specific garment for women breasts. “Support: bra and girdles” is, in fact, the next space at the V&A Museum exhibition. Patents for ‘bra supporters’ were registered since 1863. The term ‘brassiere’ was introduced in 1940-45. The transformation of corset into fully elasticated ‘girdles’ happened with the introduction of Lastex (1931) and it was surpassed when DuPont patented Lycra (1958).

“Performance underwear” is the next space. New high performance fabrics are constantly being developed. Innovations in design and technology are central to the development of functional, comfortable and attractive underwear.

At the first floor of Room 40, at the V&A Museum, London, the exhibition presents four spaces. “Temptation” relates to the possibility that our underwear might be seen, by accident or design, affect us. The potential presence of a viewer is compelling for both designer and wearer. Nowadays, eroticism and sexuality are predominant aspects, and while some believes women are demeaned and objectified by the explicit use of underwear, others argue that those garments give women control and confidence to express their desires.

“Relaxation” explores the meaning of ‘lounge wear’. Used before the 20th century to indicate clothes worn at home to undress, dress codes today are not so rigid and loungewear is now worn both indoor and outdoor.

About “Revelation” space, in Western fashion there is a long history in revealing underwear. Today is widely considered acceptable to show underwear and to display parts of the body. Since 1960s designers have pushed the boundaries between public and private, decent and indecent, by experimenting with visible underwear and underwear worn as outerwear.

The last “Transformation” focuses on how the role of underwear is socially changed. In the past, the shapes, fabrics and techniques used to make underwear were occasionally reflected to in outerwear for decorative or functional reasons. More recently, underwear has been recast in more provocative ways. For example, it has been used by the Punk movement; in pornography and fetish; and to challenge conventional attitudes to nudity, sexuality and gender.

“Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” presents numerous highlights, spanning from the 19th century until present day. It explores changes and developments in fashion and health, practical and functional underwear, types of fabrics used, approach to anatomy, and the aspects of nudity, gender, and sexuality.

“Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” is curated by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A Museum. 

A version of the exhibition previously toured to three Australian venues, the Bendigo Art Gallery, Queensland Museum and Powerhouse Museum

The exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” is sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon.

The exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear” takes place in the Fashion Gallery (Gallery 40) of the V&A Museum, London, from 16 April 2016 until 12 March 2017.