Nicci Talbot

V&A Undressed: A brief history of underwear

Nicci Talbot
V&A Undressed: A brief history of underwear

A new exhibition tells the story of underwear design from the 18th century to present day, exploring how its role and function has evolved in line with trends, social customs and the ideal body shape.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear features over 200 pieces, from everyday basics to rare garments including home made ‘stays’ (corsets) worn by women in the 18th century, and high fashion pieces by Agent Provocateur, Stella McCartney, La Perla, Rigby & Peller, and Paul Smith.

Display items include corsets, boxer shorts, bras, crinolines, hosiery, knickers and loungewear alongside photos, advertisements, fashion plates and packaging. There are some standout pieces like long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother, an 1842 man’s waist belt worn at his wedding, a 1960s Mary Quant body stocking, gender neutral briefs by Acne, and flesh-coloured leggings with a mirrored glass fig leaf by Vivienne Westwood.

It explores the evolution of the corset – a garment of extremes. A 19″ waist corset from the 1890s comes with x-ray diagrams showing its impact on the body, an ‘austerity corset’ from WW1 made from paper – the start of paper couture? And ‘healthy corsets’ and ‘cyclist corsets’ as referenced in the film The Road to Wellville were made from breathable fabrics like aertex and enabled women to exercise. Revolutionary at the time. 

And what about the psychological benefits of waist-training? Kim Kardashian is an advocate and as Vollers explain here, done sensibly over time, it can improve body confidence and posture.

The bra has also developed this century to offer movement and mobility. See intricate 1930s lace and chiffon numbers, sports bras, maternity wear, 1950s Playtex rubber girdles, push up bras, and the rise of Shapewear like Spanx in 2010. It’s fascinating to consider what different fits, cuts and fabrics reveal about social attitudes, gender, sex and morality.

And how has men’s lingerie developed in comparison? Compare 1970s hippy red string briefs with 1990s logo’d Calvin Kleins and today’s more androgynous designs by popular brands like Acne.

A fascinating look at the history of lingerie, which explores how underwear has become outerwear, pushing boundaries and blurring the lines between our public and private lives. 

#VamUndressed opens on 16th April at the V&A Museum, London.

An accompanying book by the Undressed curator, Edwina Ehrham is available from the V&A Shop.

Image: V&A advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, 1936

Freelance journalist