Exhibitions | Victoria & Albert’s Secret

Contemporary
dominatrix ensemble
from House of Harlot
© Sister Sinister



Undressed:
A Brief History of Underwear

Victoria & Albert Museum
London | UK
16 April 2016 > 12 March 2017



In Serge Nazarieff’s classic book Early Erotic Photography (Taschen, 1993), aside from a little gauzy chiffon, the odd petticoat or gartered stocking tops, all the women shown are totally naked, many in full frontal poses. Reminiscent of anthropological studies, with little left to the imagination, the images  – although they almost certainly did at the time they were taken – paradoxically, emote no particular sexual excitement. As the designs of lingerie company Agent Provocateur, joint-sponsors of the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition along with Revlon, exemplify, underwear contrives to be far more provocative than actual nudity could ever be.

Shorty stretch brief
designed by DaDa



Jean Paul Gaultie
underwear-inspired
dress, 1989



Wearing underwear is generally understood as a mark of civilisation, but far from being developed for practical purposes female underclothing was originally developed as a fashion aid. The crinoline depended on a hidden wooden framework and eighteenth and nineteenth century wasp waists were made possible via the use of a substantial corset. American dance pioneer Isadora Duncan shed her restrictive corset in the 1910s, and while in the following decade Coco Chanel discarded it in favour of comfort and casual elegance in her clothing designs, Karl Lagerfeld would reintroduce the corset for the Chanel Spring 2014 Couture collection. Controversially, in the 1950s, to make it possible for women to wear his New Look, Christian Dior came up with the ‘waspie’, which may have been only five or six inches deep, but was usually worn over an additional, body-shaping panty- or roll-on girdle. Rather than by the mythical bra-burning of American women’s liberationists, the new independent spirit of the 1960s women was encapsulated in Mary Quant’s body stocking.

1950s Y-front point
of sale material



Side hoop petticoat
covered in linen,
retailed by A Schabner,
England, 1778



It has existed for centuries, and entry to its world had become freely available on the internet for anyone with the appetite to search, but the 2011 publication of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey initiated the masses into the ‘kinky’ side of sex, with the result that sales at lingerie and sex toy retailer Ann Summers, according to the industry monitor Draper’s, rocketed by a dramatic 78% year-on-year. However, with around 25% of sales, Marks and Spencer’s somewhat tamer women’s underwear continues to dominate the UK market.

Nylon and lycra
girdle, 1960s



Man’s linen shirt,
Great Britain, 1775 > 1800
and underdrawers,
France, 1775 > 1799



For this show, men’s underwear, too, is coming out of the closet and women, eager to get men out of their practical, supportive, but lumpy Y-fronts and into something softer and more appealingly-streamlined, have played a strong role in popularising current styles. Calvin Klein’s spring 2015 men’s underwear marketing featuring Justin Bieber might have been a clear homage to the brand’s iconic 1992 campaign featuring Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg), but Kate Moss’s inclusion in the earlier video, wearing identical shorts to Mark, guaranteed the product’s success. In a tribute to Moss’s performance, last year Rihanna, who became a creative director for the brand’s women’s wear posed topless in a pair of men’s Puma undershorts.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the Victoria & Albert Museum will display more than 200 examples of underwear from custom-made 18th century items to pieces by designers such as John Galliano, Juicy Couture, Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller, Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli, Paul Smith, and Vivienne Westwood.

All images courtesy the V&A
All items © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, unless otherwise stated


Tell us what you think
The Blog is about art, architecture, books, design and gardens, and anything else that currently interests us that we think might interest you.

The Blog’s publishers insist that all images supplied for publication in our posts are cleared for that use before being sent to us. Whether pictures are sent to us as email attachments or made available as downloadable files, any responsibility for fees that may, under any circumstances whatsoever, fall due, must be borne by the source supplier


Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Leave a Reply