Our fashion expert Bertie Bowen seemed the perfect person to send to the V&A’s latest exhibition – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Here’s what she made of it.
“This exhibition explores the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in moulding the body to a fashionable ideal, with cut, fit, fabric and decoration revealing issues of gender, sex and morality.” The V&A
I don’t know about you but one of the most sumptuous feelings in the world is the removal of my bra at the end of a long day. I get through my front door and it’s whipped off before I put the kettle on. I wouldn’t go braless, I respect (and need) the lift and shape my bra gives me but taking it off is one of life’s great pleasures.
Undressed showed me how lucky we are today: with the technology we have, plus the differences in etiquette, fashion and gender discrimination, we have been able to slowly disrobe from these cumbersome layers over the years.
On a rainy Friday afternoon Undressed at the V&A was surprisingly busy. The collection, spanning the last three centuries, is divided into two sections over two floors. The ground floor displaying functional drawers and the first floor a selection which takes a more ‘fun’ approach to under-crackers.
What first struck me was the sheer size and quantity of the older underwear. Much more was involved in getting dressed a few centuries ago: layers of petticoats, hoops, bustles, corsets, drawers, slips and garters – and that includes the men (imagine the laundry!)
One of the first displays I came across was from the early 1700s, a beautiful sky blue, delicately embroidered, over the knee pair of men’s silk stockings in pristine condition. But most of the women’s underwear looked like a form of torture.
I liked seeing how fashion and underwear went hand in hand, especially in the way women’s shape had been disfigured, exaggerated and slowly liberated from the 18th century to the modern day.
Until the 20th century, all women wore corsets, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding, even though they were detrimental to one’s health (and, I imagine, killer to wear).
Some men also wore corsets (although ridiculed as ‘dandies) and more recently pants which augment and enhance the male genitals have become available to buy on the high street but I just don’t believe this obsession with altering the shape of the body has truly caught on in the same way for men.
Boobs alone have gone through several idealised shapes just over the last 100 years, from the fuller ‘mono-bust’ of the 1910s, the suppressed chest of the 30s, the 50s conical shape and the cleavage enhancing push up bras some of us will remember (with mortifyingly tiny-chested teenage angst) from the 90s.
It is still mostly women who have to face daily analysis and criticism of their bodies. Compared to our fashionable ideals of how a woman should look today (i.e. very slim: waist-trainers are gaining in popularity and are basically the modern corset) at one time women’s hips and bottoms were made to look much larger, which would be refreshing if it wasn’t just basically the same unachievable ideal in reverse.
I realised all the fuss and controversy about how women ‘should’ look had been raging for years. It was a stale argument that we had heard over and over again. When are we going to be accepted, in all our vastly diverse ways? There is no single ideal; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that beauty can be dressed up in all sorts of imaginative and erotic ways, which brings me to upstairs…
Personally, upstairs was more of a thrill for me. It covered relatively modern fashion, where the technology has much improved, plus the rules and conventions have relaxed beyond recognition. Designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano experimented and shocked us with erotic punk influences, underwear as outwear, latex and bodycon.
I particularly enjoyed the series of short films interviewing successful lingerie designers who explained the process behind their collections. Their passion was palpable and reminded me that my first job, aged 17, had been in the lingerie section of a large department store and I too had adored fancy pants. I thought about my greying, comfy mismatched undies at home – where had I lost my way?
Finally, there was a section dedicated to underwear ‘Worn at home’ which was right up my street: I have several (OK, many) outfits that are worn to lounge at home in. But my trackie bottoms and hoodies are incomparable to the elaborate tea gowns, ornate kaftans and silk house coats worn in the 18th and 19th centuries; so impressive, lavish and eccentric. Now here was where I could up my underwear game – I’d love to flounce about the house in one of those!
When it comes to my underwear, comfort will always win out for me but perhaps there is room to add a touch of sophistication and luxury to my drawers – even if it’s just a new pair of fancy pyjamas.
Undressed is at the V&A until March 2017. More information can be found here.4331 Views
Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com