Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear Back

Underwear, though often overshadowed by the clothes worn visibly on the body, is an essential part of the wardrobe. The garments that make up this fluid and evolving sartorial category provide a barrier between the skin and outer garments, structure and support the body, and often define the silhouette. They are intimate, yet ubiquitous; necessary, yet luxurious; banal, yet scandalous. The historic development of these weighted garments has been the recent focus of academic study and curatorial attention alike. Over the past few years, several fashion and decorative arts museums have staged major underwear exhibitions, including the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris in 2013, the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, New York in 2014, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York in 2015, and a concurrent exhibition at York Castle Museums, York in 2016. ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’, which opened 16 April, 2016 and runs for nearly a year, is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s entry to this curatorial discourse.

The exhibition includes over two hundred objects dating from c.1750 to the present. A multi-media exhibition, it situates surviving artefacts amidst trade ephemera, satirical prints, photographs and a short documentary film addressing the working practices and significance of underwear to today’s elite lingerie designers. Its subtitle, ‘a brief history of underwear’, is a playful double entendre referring to the exhibition’s chronological parameters and abbreviated, as opposed to comprehensive, narrative, as well as the short style of men’s pants introduced in the twentieth century and still dominant today. In order to tell this concise story of underwear, curator Edwina Ehrman and her team carefully selected objects from within the V&A’s collection, together with new acquisitions and loans, to form a broadly chronological interpretation, divided thematically. The exhibition draws out themes of hygiene, volume, support, eroticism, performance, leisure, and the ways in which underwear transcends its hidden place on the body, both incorporated into outerwear and revealed beneath.

Of the over two hundred objects displayed, only thirty date prior to c.1831, with the majority of the exhibition highlighting nineteenth- and twentieth-century garments. While from an eighteenth-centuryist’s perspective, that percentage may seem low, those garments on display are well worth a visit to South Kensington. While, like the show overall, the thematic narratives presented border on the traditional, if not conventional, the individual objects displayed each tell fascinating stories and bear witness to underwear’s social and cultural history. The brief, but substantial display of eighteenth-century underwear is no exception. Though the term ‘underwear’ is anachronistic in reference to garments from the long eighteenth century, categorically two types of undergarments can be distinguished as worn throughout the period.[1] Linen, which consisted of shifts, shirts and men’s drawers, acted as a barrier between the skin and outer garments. The material most commonly used in their construction, linen became synonymous with the garments themselves. For men, a shirt and drawers, like those displayed at the entrance to the exhibition, both from 1775-1800, would have acted as a barrier, absorbing sweat and dirt, and protecting the skin from the breeches, waistcoat and coat worn above. Keeping linen clean and bleached was a social imperative, though only the sleeve cuffs and collars were visible. As such, for gentlemen of the upper ranks, like the previous owner of a fine linen evening shirt, c.1830 on display, the delicate muslin frills and cuffs were detachable, able to be laundered more gently than the shirt. The third sartorial necessity worn next to the skin was stockings, of which a pair of green silk stockings with pink embroidered clocks, or the inserted decorative gussets, are displayed. These mid-century Spanish examples are typical of stockings found in museum stores, in that they are colourful and highly decorative. While colour was worn, the most common type of men’s stocking – white silk – hardly survives in collections today. Stockings were held in place, above or below the knee, with garters, of which three examples are displayed. As garters could be hidden beneath petticoats and breeches, they were often the vehicle for private messages, romantic or political in nature. Of the three pairs displayed from the second half of the eighteenth century, two are embroidered with slogans of love.

For most of the century, a shift, or long t-shaped garment of linen and later cotton, was the garment worn next to a woman’s body. Though the exhibition does not include a shift from the eighteenth century, apart from a replica made by Susan North, it does include a mid-nineteenth-century chemise, further demonstrating the narrative of cleanliness, hygiene and laundry. Perhaps the biggest progression in women’s underwear chronologies, apart from the transition from the corset to the brassiere in the early twentieth century, was the adoption of drawers or underpants by women in the 1810s. Prior to the advent of revealing muslin dresses – an 1800-1805 example of which is displayed next to the oft-published satirical print The Graces in a high Wind after James Gillray upstairs – women wore nothing beneath their shifts. The exhibition displays a wonderful example of women’s cotton lawn drawers, supposedly owned by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. They identify the drawers as specifically purposed for pregnancy due to open crotch and deep, back-lacing waistband, which may have offered the wearer more support. While the drawer’s crotchless construction may have been related to pregnancy, as women so recently transitioned from commando to covered, it begs for further investigation of early women’s drawers. A second pregnancy-related garment of note is a homemade cotton bust bodice dating from 1820-30. Its tie-front allowed the wearer to breastfeed. Alterations to the bust size reflect the fluctuating size of a woman’s breasts during and after pregnancy.

The second category of women’s undergarments is structural – those that shaped the torso and gave volume to the hips and bum. The exhibition displays a few pairs of fashionable stays, mainly from the last quarter of the century, made of silk damask or wool. Due to their complex boned construction, stays are visually arresting from every angle. Like most of the garments in this exhibition, their display would have benefited from mirrors in the cases, enabling the viewer to see around the objects. Instead of mirrors, sculptural pieces were added to the back of the cases, reminiscent of eyelet holes, parallel bars or corset lacing. Their flat design, in place of a background or mirror, adds little to the display within the V&A’s 1960s cases, which are a notorious challenge to dress. One of the three mirrors used in the exhibition is set behind a pair of working-class stays, however the curved mirror does little to enable the viewer to see the lined underside of these stays. Laid flat, these twilled cotton stays, structured with baleen and wool padding, are an important inclusion for the exhibition, and wider museum practice, which mainly highlights pieces of exceptional quality, often previously owned in elite wardrobes. Extant garments of the lower orders are rare and their prominent inclusion in this exhibition adds depth to the narratives presented. Another useful inclusion that aids visitor awareness of stays’ construction is two pieces of nineteenth-century baleen – one uncut piece and another prepared, similar to those inserted and sewn into the channels of the stays presented. Alongside, two carved wooden busks from 1755 and 1821 demonstrate both the personalised, but simultaneously purposeful role of these structuring inserts.

Below the waist, hoops and panniers added ‘volume’ to the silhouette, providing the structure over which the outer gowns were worn. The exhibition displays three such garments – one paired with a pair of stays, the other two on their own in the central case titled ‘Volume’. The case displays numerous types of volume-enhancing structures, predominantly crinolines and bustles from the nineteenth century, but also more recent derriere-defining garments, including the butt-lifter by ‘Ann Chery’, 2015. The eighteenth-century volumisers on display include a pair of whalebone and linen collapsible side hoops from 1745-60 and a hooped petticoat, made of linen, silk and cane from 1760-80. Notably, the exhibition excludes mention or example of late eighteenth-century bustles, known as cork rumps or bums, which rarely materially survive, nor the small pads of horsehair or wool worn during the beginning of the nineteenth century, which survive plentifully in museum collections.

Outwith the eighteenth century, the exhibition brings together a wide range of remarkable garments, such as an embroidered pair of hunting knickers worn by Lady Betty Holman, a Swarovski crystal corset made by Mr Pearl for Dita von Teese, and a set of Sibling loungewear featuring images of the 2011 London riots in a blue toile print. Geographically, the content of the exhibition is western-centric, with exceptions such as eastern-inspired dressing gowns and an African-influenced kaftan from 1970s London. It weighs heavily on women’s garments, furthering the traditional attribution of underwear as feminine with the baby pink, peach and tan colour scheme of the case interiors on the lower floor. However, despite these broad strokes of thematic convention, the exhibition has sourced and displayed an exceptional selection of pieces, contextualised with prints, packaging, photographs and film. It juxtaposes elite examples of lingerie design alongside practical and purposeful pieces. By presenting a ‘brief’, yet prolific history of underwear, ‘Undressed’ highlights the role each garment individually plays in defining underwear’s social and sartorial significance.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary notes the first published use of ‘underwear’ in 1873.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 12th March 2017.