Whenever I am in the vicinity of South Kensington’s Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I always pay a visit to the Fashion department. Even though I must have seen it at least 20 times, I still get so excited when I see those Victorian dresses stood demurely beside their masculine counterparts, those elegant but practical suits from the 1940s, and the intricately embroidered gowns from the 18th century, their silk still gleaming. I could stare at them for hours, wondering about the lives of the people who once wore them. So, when I saw that there was to be a new exhibition on historical underwear, I wrote the dates down in my diary and made sure I got myself a ticket and someone to drag around with me (strangely there are no fellow historical underwear enthusiasts within my circle of friends, so my ever-obliging partner came along).
The exhibition is called ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’, and runs until Sunday 12th March 2017. Tickets without concessions are £12 and advance booking is recommended. The display cases contain examples of underwear from the 18th century up to the present day, when the exhibition explores the current trend for underwear as outerwear.
Through the earlier examples of female underwear, I learnt the difference between corsets and stays; stays are what women wore mainly during the 18th century when the fashionable female figure was straight and upright, with wide hips. We are more familiar these days with the Victorian corset, which draws the waist in and produces a tantalising hourglass figure that many women still aspire to today. What I had not realised was how different the corset was in the early part of the 19th century, when dresses for women were looser and had an empire line design. These corsets almost reminded me of modern bras, as they were much smaller and concentrated mainly on the bust. How strange then for fashion to become more restrictive after this with the stiff and tightly laced corsets worn by women from about the 1830s until the turn of the next century. Two interesting x-ray pictures are displayed, showing the internal effects of the tight lacing that we associate with the 19th century. The exhibition also looks at male underwear and my partner, for one, was surprised at how prevalent the male corset was during the 19th century. This is what helped to create the upright, gentlemanly figure we associate so closely with such dashing heroes of 19th century literature as Mr Darcy.
The upper floor of the exhibition displays some of the racier pieces in the collection and explores how close to underwear a garment can get before it becomes indecent. It also displays several pieces from Agent Provocateur, whom I understand are sponsoring the exhibition. All in all, it was an informative and entertaining visit and well-worth the £12 if you are interested in historical fashion. I always judge the success of an exhibition by asking myself if I think I have learnt anything that I could not simply have gone to a book or the internet for. This time, the answer is certainly ‘yes’, if not for the facts, then for the experience of getting so close to such precious, interesting and rarely-seen pieces of history.