Women’s Underwear had two functions in the 18th century: “Hygienic and Structural”. So begins undressed, the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The showcase which is loosely chronological but also thematic, charts the evolution of the most personal of garments and our relationship to it. How it has helped us for centuries portray our best self to the outside world; how it has shifted which changing body ideas; how it helps us to conceal or subvert; and even how it has trickled into our everyday wardrobe.
Reflecting the changing body ideas of the times, the exhibition moves from elaborate padding and wiring, to simple bras and the Thirties that aimed to “separate and define” breasts for a “slim and feminine” shape, to the padded bras of the Fifties, made to create “alluring, feminine curves”
At times is difficult to tell which era a piece originates from. One waist-trainer style corset, made from a cellular cotton called “aertex” could be seen today on any Kardashian Instagram, but was actually made in 1888 and sold with the tagline “cloth with air”, which at Stella Mccartney lace bodice has a 19th century nostalgia.
The other less functional use of lingerie comes to the fore, as the allure of fabrics including silk, lace and PVC, receives some attention, grouped in themes including Temptation and Transformation. From 19th century bodices that were “shocking” by contemporary standards to rubberized black stockings, lingerie as a tool to titillate and arouse is also given plenty of attention, complete with a graphic hologram that looses layers as you watch.
Meanwhile underwear inspired by John Galliano, for Givenchy and Els Schiaparelli accompany Juicy Couture tracks and velvet. “dinner pyjamas” from the Thirties and blurring o lines between underwear and outwear is also explored. Hero pieces span the decades: Muslin drawers owned by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, in the 19th century; a plaster fig leaf made to conceal the modesty of the V&A’s cast of Michelangelo’s David to avoid causing offense; a silk and lace dressing gown worn by Bond girl Berenice Marlohe is Skyfall and all demonstrate the powerful impact of lingerie upon our perceptions of beauty, sensuality and shape.