Lift and separate – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria and Albert Museum, April 2016

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Undressed: A brief history of Underwear, V&A 16th April – 12 March 2017

I am feeling uncomfortable and before you ask, no, it is not my underwear causing a problem. It is my first press preview at the V&A, I am here for Undressed: A brief history of Underwear and good lord it is busy. Bursting at the seams and yes this blog will be full of puns.

It is hard to get near cases and read labels, I squeeze between, press, bloggers and fashionistas. Camera phones are primed, key pieces draw attention and there is a buzz that I have not really experienced before at other previews. It is not often that I long to visit on a ‘normal day’ – perhaps being a museum blogger is not all it is cracked up to be? But the exhibition runs for 11 months, plenty of time for me to return for a ‘proper’ look.

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House of Harlot 

I can’t deny previews are exciting an early glimpse of a show that has yet to be opened to the public. Undressed opens on Saturday 16th of April and here I am desperately trying to get a blog out before it does. The thrill of an early view is as enticing as the lace, lycra, silk and (rubber!) are designed to be.

There is a lot to see, over 200 exhibits, some beautiful loans, and an interesting by-product of the largest museum exhibition of underwear ever to go on display is 60 pieces have been added to the V&A’s permanent collections – men’s briefs designed to enhance the crotch and a woman’s panty thong included. I am not sure how they could have been missed off the collection.

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Crotch enhancing Aussiebum briefs

The exhibition begins by looking at the history of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day and there is an incredible amount to cover (or not as the case may be). I do love the older historical pieces, you forget in today’s washing machine/dry cleaning world that underwear was more about health and hygiene than fashion and sex appeal. If you look at some of the stunning historical pieces that Museum of London Fashion Curator Tim Long has been sharing on Twitter (I am thinking of the beetle wing dress in particular), they are not easily washed and underwear functioned as a barrier to keep outer garments clean.

The whole concept of what is acceptable and appropriate really comes through when you see the corset designed for golf, cycling and tennis. Whilst women were allowed to participate they still had to keep to society’s norms and expectations and wear a corset. I would love to see Serena Williams win a grand slam in one of those.

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Cycling Corset, Charles Bayer, 1895-1900, Museum of London

The mind boggles at a restrictive 1890s whalebone and cotton corset with a waist under 19 inches. Yet for all the talk of underwear to empower women to see Dita von Teese’s 18 inch Swarovski crystal corset by Mr Pearl and waist-training corsets endorsed by modern day celebs have we really come so far?

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Whalebone corset, 1890s
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Corset designed for Dita von Teese, Mr Pearl, 2011

The exhibition is informative – ‘lingerie’ comes from the French word ‘linge’ meaning linen, not a department to ‘linger in’ which has always been my husbands definition. There is good fun too, it is not often you get to read labels entitled ‘Porno Chic’ and admire a great pair of ‘butt lifters’. Star Wars fans too can swoon over Helen Newman’s 1970 wearable (debatable) ‘Princess Leia-esque’ brass bra.

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Butt-Lifter, Ann Chery, 2015, V&A
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Helen Newman’s brass bra, 1970s, V&A

I found myself being draw to the weird and wonderful, a fabulous one piece shelter or ‘siren suit’ from World War II that could quickly be put on over night clothes or underwear for a night time trip to the Anderson Shelter. A box of disposable ‘Chukka’ men’s briefs catch my attention, wasn’t it David Beckham who said he never wears the same pair of pants twice? No doubt that helps in selling his own range of underwear.

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Men’s Shelter Suit, Simpson Ltd, V&A, 1942-45
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Chukka, throwaway briefs, 1970s

One of my favourite pieces was a pair of red string pants from the Museum of London inspired by Norwegian army commander Henrik Brun who made the cool lightweight pairs for the military from old fishing nets in the 1930s. I bet there are few ‘Shoreditch Hipsters’ who would like a pair of those and some not dissimilar in Agent Provocateur’s latest collections.

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Men’s Briefs, Bryjne, 1969, Museum of London

Upstairs in the exhibition we hit high fashion, Kate Moss, John Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Alexander McQueen, underwear revealed as daywear. Whilst I love the 1930s black velvet ‘dinner pjs’ and a kaftan for entertaining that takes me straight to ‘a little bit of Demis Roussos’ and Abigail’s Party, it is the social history stories that pull me back downstairs.

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Fig leaf, around 1857, V&A

I sidle up to a giant fig leaf made to cover the genitals of Michelangelo’s David during royal visits of the V&A’s Cast Court. It is fab, and reminds me it is the stories and attitudes and underbelly of underwear that I crave. Whilst it is touched on with some labels, I am left wanting more. I want to know more of William Henry Flower (1831-1899) and the corset controversy where he likened the tight lacing of corsets to the tribal practices designed to alter skulls. I want to know what got Angela Carter so riled up about Janet Reger’s 1970s collections that seem positively puritanical compared to the House of Harlot’s rubber number.

 

If you are going to have Agent Provocateur as a sponsor why not use their expertise, I want to know how long it takes to make their corsets? How many separate pieces go into it? What do the women think who make those corsets? Where do the designers get their ideas from? How do they road-test their, shall we say, more exotic designs?

I am not a high fashion girl and I guess I never will be, I am all stories, the social history, the secret tales and lost and hidden meanings. I just love the garters right at the beginning of the exhibitions from 1750 with a literal tale to tell, in woven silk are the words –

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I love not this world in which thou must not stay, but love that treasure that abides away.

So for all the Swarovski crystals, La Perla lace and Bond girl negligée it is the simple secret hidden garter that I love the most. Undressed is beautiful but as with the garments it portrays it is what is underneath that really matters.

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Undressed: A brief history of Underwear sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, V&A, London. 16th April 2016- 12 March 2017. For ticket prices and opening hours please see the website 

There are a number of events running in conjunction with the exhibition for more details see the website

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