From Madonna’s iconic Jean Paul Gaultier moment to the ‘Spice World: The Movie’ girl-power-meets-business-woman-bra-under-suit-look donned by the famous five at the film’s 1998 premiere, through to Sisqo singing the praises of Rudi Gernreich’s thong and Gwen Stefani’s fluffy blue number at the 1999 VMAs: underwear (and sex) has long been held in high regard by the music industry’s top players, a combination of the artists themselves and, presumably, those influencing them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, little of this receives mention in the V&A’s new exhibition, ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’. Victoria’s Secret, America’s largest retailer of women’s lingerie and host of the infamous Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, similarly fails to make the cut; it’s maybe important to take the title’s ‘brief’ element as fact rather than cheap pun.
That said, none should undermine what is a wholly extensive show, boasting over 200 pieces and covering four centuries worth of innovation and aesthetic appreciation. Curated by Edwina Ehrman, Undressed is a thorough account of the westerner’s relationship with their pants (bras, boxers, jockstraps, corsets, crinolines, stockings and loungewear).
The Tumblr famous Liza Bruce frock that Kate Moss wore to an Elite model party in 1993? Present. Queen Victoria’s mother’s drawers? Correct. Likewise Acne’s gender neutral undergarments, Marks and Spencer’s briefs, David Beckham for H&M, a Juicy Couture toweling trackie, Calvin Klein branding, SS13 Sibling (loaned by Charlie Porter), and a racy silk set from exhibition sponsor Agent Provocateur.
While downstairs deals predominantly but not exclusively in history, the upper level focuses on the contemporary; both menswear and womenswear appears throughout, though it’s the latter that features most prominently. Like most areas of dress, the options – and necessities – for women outweigh those for men, though the artifacts that deal with the former invite plenty of thought.
In a similar vein to the Design Museum’s 2014 ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition, much of what is on show at the V&A subconsciously taps into feminism; there are X-rays beside corsets, corsets of ridiculously small proportions, and captions that allude to the men behind female products – a nod to the male gaze – or the ‘conservative attitudes’ of the 19th century that saw works of art depicting men’s genitals be covered for the protection of women’s modesty. Ahem. It can sometimes be hard to separate the objects from the physical burden they bestow upon the wearer (NB: men wore corsets too).
Alongside this the space is consumed with pretty things, desirable objects, attractive memorabilia: femininity as defined by silk and lace, sexuality as characterised by PVC. But also signifiers of ‘black style’ – the hanging pant exposure of waistbands, said to have begun as an indication of solidarity with prisoners who weren’t allowed belts – gay culture, noted in Dean Rogers catalogue images, and pieces especially mastered for pregnant women and those post-mastectomy.
In essence, Undressed is anything but brief.
Words: Zoe Whitfield
'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' opens tomorrow till 12th March 2017.