Undressed @ The V&A

Pink corset

It was the fuschia pink corset that caught my attention as I scrolled through my emails. ‘Undressed’ at the V&A- I had to go. So I set off one sunny Saturday morning to see ‘A Brief History of Underwear’ for an exciting insight of undergarments ranging from the 18th Century until today. Underwear is far more than just an undergarment; it’s fashion, it’s feel-good and it also comes in use in the boudoir. How would the V&A explore gender, sexuality and morality through underwear? I couldn’t wait to find out.

I’m a big Victoria’s Secret fan, so much so that when a male friend once went through my Instagram feed, he said it was hard to differentiate between user posts and advertising campaigns! So on entry to Undressed, it was an eye-opener to see that the main marketing drive for underwear in the 18th Century was hygiene and comfort, quite a contrast to sexuality and confidence which are used in contemporary advertising. For men, shirts were an intimate item of clothing, and linen and cotton were worn close to the skin. It was rude for the sleeves to be on show and only appropriate for the shirt collar, front and wristbands to be revealed. It sounds odd to hear such a thing but this demonstrates the development of underwear within society over the past few centuries. As strange as it is, drawers were only worn by men and not by women at all!

image Shirt (Britain) and Drawers (France)
Linen, 1775-1800

Undressed then introduced us to the structural garments; the hoop and the corset. Seen as a necessity until the 20th Century, corsets and hoops were designed to enhance and exaggerate the female bust, hips and rear: a statement of sexuality but also designed for structural benefits for the back.  As corset sales boomed, undergarments were named and registered to prevent the production and purchase of imitations. In 1883, the below advertisement was run for Brown’s Patent and “Dermasthetic” Corset. The market for corsets was high and everyone wanted to make money from them.

image‘Brown’s Patent and “Dermasthetic”  Corset’
Cotton steen, leather, whalebone withe the metal busk Britan, 1883
‘Brown’s Patent and “Dermasthetic”  Corset’
The Graphic
Britain (London), 6 October 1883

However, beauty is pain. Extreme discomfort was experienced through this popular item of underwear; women couldn’t dress without assistance and corset waist sizes were as small as 48cm, which is tiny considering the average woman today is a size 12 with a 71cm waist line. This lead to the introduction of the Cage Crinoline in 1856 allowing flexibility and comfort for women, and also the award-winning hygienic corset by Roxey Ann Camplin in 1851. Underwear was changing and people were beginning to speak up. In ‘Fashion in Deformity’ (1880), William Henry Flower, encouraged women to love and celebrate the shape of their natural bodies. Similar topics continue today with the controversial corset of 2015, The Waist Trainer, promoting the hour glass figure for women.

imageCage Crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent’
Linen and spring steel Britain, c.1871
 image‘Torso of the Statue of Venus of Milo’ and ‘Paris Fashion, May 1880’
William Henry Glower, Fashion in Deformity: as illustrated in the customs of bararous and civilised races Britain (London), 1881

Lingerie, derived from the French word ‘linen’, was introduced in the late 19th Century. Small and dainty; decorated in lace, embroidery and ribbons, it was a compliment to the wealthier woman. Lingerie was comfortable (ish) and there was no hassle with dressing. Stockings and hosiery were worn by both men and women until the late 19th Century where they were no longer worn for practicality but as a female accessory. The ‘ideal’ slim figure female body shape was introduced in the 1930s and it was from around this time that attitudes towards underwear were voiced for more than just health reasons.

The introduction of nylon in the late 1940s, meant there was a major transformation of underwear. It was now non-iron,  light, practical, drip-dry and comfortable. Undergarments were changing and so were people’s opinions of them. In the 60s women refused to wear bras as a political statement for freedom of choice. Rudi Gernreich, a gay Jewish American fashion designer, introduced controversial underwear including both the first swimsuit without a built in bra and the first unisex thong bathing suit when LA banned nude public swimming in 1974.


Underwear (or lack there of) had become a statement of sexuality and freedom of choice, rather than a requirement. Today, underwear is fashion; there are entire fashion shows dedicated to lingerie and underwear, not only for women, but for men too. The boxer was introduced in 1947 and we now see David Beckham in his own skin tight pair after launching his first H&M ‘Bodywear’ campaign in 2002. Underwear is stocked in high street stores from Marks and Spencer to Ann Summers, and top end designers such as Vivienne Westwood spend thousands of pounds developing the perfect undergarment as a statement of fashion. Even the market for sports underwear is growing rapidly, from the sports bra itself to cycling shorts with a padded bottom area!

So was it worth it? Every second. I’ve shared just a little without giving away too much. There is plenty to see at ‘Undressed‘, and you’ll leave with something for after thought whilst putting on your underwear in the morning.



Photos from ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’ book.
Author: Edwina Ehrman

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