Undressed: a brief history of underwear at the V&A

This year’s most seductive trend – lingerie-inspired eveningwear – is also key to a new underwear exhibition at London’s V&A. Beatrice Hodgkin reports

Dolce & Gabbana wicker and crinoline dress from its spring/summer 2013 collection
Dolce & Gabbana wicker and crinoline dress from its spring/summer 2013 collection | Image: Victor Virgile/Gemma-Rapho via Getty Images

After hours at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on a winter’s night; the galleries are eerily empty – save one. Footsteps might have echoed in the recently renovated Weston Cast Court, but the model being photographed for this issue’s fashion shoot is barefoot; a dreamlike, negligee-clad sylph darting between replicas of Trojan’s Column and altar pieces from Spanish churches – just some of the post-classical European sculptural recreations built in the late 19th century to reveal to a London audience the magnitude of skill that went into these ambitious works of art. The scene highlights one of this year’s most seductive fashion trends – lingerie-inspired eveningwear – but is simultaneously a prelude to an exhibition opening at the V&A in April, for which tickets go on sale this month.

1930s silk-chiffon and lace knickers
1930s silk-chiffon and lace knickers | Image: Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear promises to be a rifle through the knicker drawers of women and men from the 1750s to the present day – exploring the evolution and impact of undergarments. “Underwear plays a key role in shaping the body to the fashionable silhouette or ideal,” says the exhibition’s curator, fashion and textile expert Edwina Ehrman, “and the fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing social and cultural attitudes to the body, gender, sex and morality, and to shifting notions of what should be private and what can be public – there’s also a strong theme [in the exhibition] of innovation and technology.”

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From ultra-glamorous pieces, such as a late-Victorian sky-blue silk whalebone corset and a pair of 1930s silk-chiffon knickers embroidered with galloping horses and leaping hares, via boldly assertive advertising and humorous Victorian stereoscopics (many of women falling over in cumbersome crinolines), and on to contemporary fashion, such as Dolce & Gabbana’s spring/summer 2013 wicker cage crinoline dress, and kinky underwear, including French atelier Cadolle’s S&M-style Porno Chic bra, the exhibition explores such ideas as the politics of reshaping the body (from corsets to Spanx), the quest to meet ever more sophisticated notions of health and hygiene, the expression of sexual and fetishistic desire (“you have to have that erotic charge,” says Ehrman), and the morphing of underwear into outerwear.

c1864 silk, cotton, whalebone and lace corset
c1864 silk, cotton, whalebone and lace corset | Image: Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The latter particularly dovetails with this issue’s fashion shoot – as the iconic 1993 image of Kate Moss in her Lisa Bruce metallic slip dress (featured in the exhibition) so vividly reminds us, sleepwear or underwear as day/eveningwear has long seduced designers as a sartorial trope.

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Four of the exhibition’s themes promise to explore the underwear-as-outerwear idea with wit and insight: “Relaxation” charts how outerwear borrowed from the loose, free-flowing informality of nightwear – Paul Poiret’s 1911 simple chemise dress (deceptively so – take a close look at the pattern woven into the fabric that subtly delineates the bust, waist and crotch) made for his wife is hailed as a pioneer “liberation” garment that encouraged women to cast aside the corset, while items such as a 1970s monochrome kaftan took the idea of loungewear as daywear into exotic new realms. “Revelation” touches on bringing underwear’s teasing transparency and erotic exposure to eveningwear – held aloft is John Galliano for Givenchy’s wholly see-through muslin embroidered Empire-line dress and high-waisted knickers (haute couture collection, 1996). “Temptation” explores the role of sensuality and sex and how underwear’s potency to express fantasies can be evoked in outerwear, while “Transformation” uses dresses, including Elie Saab’s 2011 lilac silk and lace gown, to illustrate how designers lift standard nightwear to the heights of red-carpet splendour.

And so to the current season’s lingerie dress; 1970s-influenced, with its antecedents in the underwear of the Victorians and Edwardians – chemise tops, petticoat frills and lace and corset detailing – the style is one, says Ehrman, “that allows designers to show off our new erogenous zone – around the shoulder and upper arm. And, of course, they lend themselves to slipping off…”

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