V&A celebrates British underwear

by Anastasia Maniglio

Exhibition: “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear”
Venue: V&A museum, London
Until Sunday 12 March 2017

Rating: 8/10

“Our choice of underwear reflects our identity, lifestyle, taste, desires and fantasies. The possibility that our underclothes might be seen, by accident or design, also affects us. While some believe that women are demeaned and objectified by sexually explicit underwear, others argue that such items give women control and the confidence to express their desires.”


It has been already a great success, the temporary exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, dedicated to the evolution of men and women’s underwear, one of those panels the quotes mentioned above are exposed on.

In the building on Cromwell Road, globally famous for the presence of works by Botticelli, Canova, Donatello, Michelangelo, Perugino, Raphael, etc., from now until Sunday 12 March 2017 it will be possible to review the various types of English underclothes, from the eighteenth century to the present.

Two hundred in total are the examples of linen at the event “Undressed: a brief history of underwear“, including corsets, bras, panties, stays, ribbons, laces, bustles, stockings, garters…

In the room 40 of the museum, it is illustrated how close to the skin the underwear in the eighteenth century was. Made of natural fibers, such as linen, cotton and wool, it could not be dyed neither washed at high temperatures. Only at a later time, processed fibers, such as synthetic material and nylon, have been used.

The most common male item of underclothing was a kind of shirt (most of those on display were produced in Britain, France and North America), worn for hygienic reasons and whose cut was based on squares and rectangles; drawers, instead, looked like breeches.


The etiquette allowed to expose in public only a shirt’s collar, front and wristbands.

The silk stockings on display, imported from Spain, were worn by women and men, and it was often difficult to distinguish male from female models.


The purposes of women’s lingerie, as well as hygienic, were also structural, to create a sinuous silhouette.

The hooped petticoat, for example, introduced in 1690 and worn until 1795, modeled the sides and bottom and they were different depending on the style adopted, English or French.


The stays was the antecedent of the corset, which supported and gave volume to the breasts. In the exhibition there is the one worn by the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). Bone, whalebone or wooden tools were used to give shape to the front of the stays and could have names, dates or love symbols engraved on request, as positioned close to the heart.

The corset was definitely the most popular among women (sometimes even among men), who felt naked and were considered “indecent” without them.

Bust extenders, more and more swollen skirts in the back and variants of corset appeared over the years. Sometimes garters contained political or personal messages in the design.

Bra began to be worn after continuous insistence of doctors about the dangers of a too tightly laced corset, which did not facilitate breathing. So, they started to think of something that could support the breast from the shoulders.

In the nineteenth century the sports underwear for horse riding, tennis, cycling, winter sports developed… Featured, as an example, the suspenders worn by tennis player Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Junior (1897-1961).

A new underwear style, especially for women, was designed according to the fashion, the concept of sensuality of that time, opposed to morality and medical opinions.

The post-surgery, maternity wear, wartime lingerie, throwaway pants, to highlight the muscles began to be sold…


The exhibition continues on the first floor, with examples of contemporary collections created by designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney.

A seven-minute video shows the path of the lingerie from concept to catwalk.

I would have liked that visitors were more involved in this experience but, overall, it is worth having a look at this virtual trip in the privacy of Britain.

The exhibition is sponsored by the British lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur and the American cosmetic retailer Revlon. The ticket price is £12 and the museum is open daily from 10:00 to 17:45 (on Fridays until 22:00).

For more information, visit V&A website: http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear.


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