Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Museum

Towards the end of the 1990s, I spent several summers attending the world breakdancing championships in the south of France. We were usually a crew of girls but one year, we were joined by the brother of an old school friend. Over lunch, I was enthralled by his explanation for the fashion favoured by young men in Britain and the USA of wearing trousers below the waistband of underpants. At the time, I was working as a youth worker in north London and had been curious about why so many male adolescents were sporting this look.  He explained that it reflected an appropriation by a range of music and dance subcultures, like hip hop, of the way American prisoners wore their trousers low. This was the result of belts being forbidden in prison.

Brixton Boyz, Jennie Baptiste, 2001. Museum no. E.971-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So, when I came across a print of the Brixton Boyz by Jennie Baptiste from 2001 upstairs at the V&A’s most recent blockbuster fashion exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear alongside a label stating exactly what I had been told so many years ago, I was reminded how fascinating stories are about how and why we wear certain clothing. And, how fundamental dress is to creating meaning within our everyday lives. That was probably a defining moment for me in terms of working out I wanted to learn more about dress and people. And it’s why I always look forward to the fashion and dress exhibitions at the V&A Museum.  The place and its contents frequently reaffirms what sometimes feels like a pretty niche professional and personal interest.

And yet, while Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is a solid exhibition that provides a broad, informative overview,  with some interesting highlights, the overall impact is underwhelming.  And this in spite of a thematic approach to the display of objects, which I often argue makes for a more intriguing exhibition.

Curated by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear opened on 16 April and will remain on display until 12 March 2017. Situated within the permanent Fashion Galleries, the exhibition is spread over two floors and includes more than 200 examples of underwear for men and women from the 18th century to the present day in Britain, Europe and the USA. Downstairs, the emphasis is on an historical overview but arranged thematically.  For example, one display focuses on how underwear creates volume for the wearer while another highlights how it provides support, with specific mention of bras and girdles. Other displays discuss underwear and sports, underwear and hygiene, hosiery and the emergence of lingerie as a particular form of underwear that emphasised sensuality and the availability of certain fabrics such as silk. Lastly, there are displays that look at the relationship between underwear and cultural ideas such as gender and identity as performance.

One of the downstairs display – note the maternity corset at the back on the left hand side

Walking around downstairs, the display cases felt very hit and miss. While a display on underwear and its relationship with sports was both interesting and striking, a display on hosiery was dull and monotonous. The displays that focus on cultural ideas appear weaker than those that concentrate on specific forms of underwear or functionality.  Although Ehrman’s intention is to focus on what drives design change in underwear, whether this be technology, consumerism or health concerns, this is not very apparent overall. I wonder if putting more emphasis on the design process would have improved the consistency between the various displays. As a result, I found myself drawn to individual objects rather than a display. Highlights included a pair of 18th century green silk stockings, a maternity corset made in 1900, a paisley quilted duvet petticoat from the 1860s, a hand-made pair of lace and silk knickers worn by an English aristocrat in 1940s Baghdad, a 1960s Mary Quant body and a sports bra from Marks and Spencer during the 1990s.

View of upstairs, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Upstairs, there are four large display cases that consider the ways in which underwear has become outerwear.  The first is temptation, looking at the way in which underwear has become eroticised as it is used to express fantasies and desires.  The second is transformation, where examples illustrate how underwear provokes others by transforming the wearer.  The third is revelation, where the exposure of underwear carries social and cultural significance.  It is here that I discovered the portrait of the Brixton Boyz and the intentional way in which young men revealed their underwear as part of their daily dress during the early 2000s.  Again, it felt like there were nuggets of interest and insight within what were disappointing display themes.  The decision to entitle each case with a word ending in ‘tion’ did not help, appearing to dumb down complex associations between underwear, fashion and everyday dress.

‘Relaxation’ display upstairs, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, the fourth display, entitled relaxation, which looks at how underwear has become or often forms the basis for loungewear, as related to nightclothes was my favourite display in the entire exhibition. Perhaps because it achieved a good balance between theme and chronology.  In addition, this display had very little to do with the more common associations between underwear and the erotic that the other displays could not help but fall back upon overall.

Man’s top and pants, designed by Sibling, Spring/Summer 2013. Museum no. T.86:1-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While I was surprised to discover that only one-fifth of the exhibition is dedicated to men’s fashion,  the representation of men and women’s underwear seems well balanced.  According to the exhibition’s blog, there is a particular focus on female designers of underwear.  For example, there is reference to Janet Reger, a small London based firm that made luxury underwear during the 1970s.  Upstairs, there are several films depicting female designers such as Fifi Chachnil and Carine Gilsen.

Lingerie and Hosiery display downstairs

Elizabeth Wilson, in her book Adorned in Dreams, ponders upon whether underwear is even necessary given that it is now worn as outerwear and most people can afford an accepted level of cleanliness. Wilson suggests that perhaps its importance remains because it provides a distinction between our private and public selves in a world where the two are increasingly blurred. These are interesting questions and ones I think the exhibition could have tried harder to address or at least make explicit in the upstairs section. Downstairs, I think a clearer arrangement of objects according to the design process would have helped make the displays more coherent in their communication. It would also greatly benefit students studying fashion design and theory, as well as other design disciplines.

Close Trompe l’oeil corset dress, designed by Antonio Berardi, Spring/Summer 2009, worn by Gwyneth Paltrow. © Sipa Press, REX Shutterstock

Nonetheless, this is still a good exhibition and worth seeing as, presumably, it will be a long time before many of these objects go on display again.

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