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Undressed: a fashion journey that matters

Illustration by Katie-Lloyd Hughes

With its temporary exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, the V&A celebrates the underrated history of lingerie, underwear, biancheria, ropa interior, bielizna, whatever you wish to call it. This is an interesting choice considering the exhibition had to compete with the important show held in Paris three years ago at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs: La Mécanique des dessous: une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette.

To my surprise, the V&A exhibition is quite small and does not follow a chronological order. The window cases are ordered rather thematically which somewhat reduces our perception of the historical evolution of fashionable body shapes and of the corresponding underwear. The show becomes much more interesting though if you take the time to read the comments on each separate item, as some garments are truly remarkable.

While some plates use technical, sometimes obscure, terminology and therefore address an informed public, they also convey interesting details about things that the bare eye might not be able to see. The religious, political and poetic messages embroidered on the inside of garters or engraved in the busks of corsets show how people used underwear to declare their personal beliefs or interests.

Elsewhere, an X-ray image of an eighteenth-century working woman’s home-made stay, weighing around

1.6kg, will convince you - if you were not already - of the harsh physicality of corsets at the time: the rib cage is visually constricted and deformed by the range of vertical whale bones sewn into the armour-like corset; and yet, the bone rods are always ready to break under the pressure.

In addition to the focus on the construction, the fabric and the unseen details of lingerie, Undressed brings to light how competitive the market of underwear has been since the eighteenth century. From the manifold patents on specific designs of corsets to the paper disposable pants for men and women launched in the sixties, it is clear that technical innovations and marketing strategies have played a significant role in shaping our underwear and consequently our bodies.

In fact, this exhibition matters inasmuch as it reminds you that wearing underwear is not ‘natural’ or ‘obvious’, but rather a social construct underpinned by moral, religious, aesthetic and hygienic values which have dramatically evolved but still exist today. The tendency to go braless since the end of the sixties, for example, unveils women’s growing awareness of this long established control over their bodies. This also applies to the masculine body with items such as the contemporary AussieBum low-cut push-up briefs. An example of it is here displayed next to a commercial picture of a reclining, supra-muscular man with his genitals strongly emphasised by the pants.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear will appeal to everyone interested in human bodies, not just those passionate about lingerie. The show reiterates the idea that Western societies’ beauty diktats are as active now as in they were in the past, whether in the form of shaping underwear or psychological pressure to always exercise more or get skinnier. It seems that we are still not ready to embrace and truly accept our bodies as they truly are: the liberation is yet to come!

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A Museum until 12 March 2017

Tickets: £12, concessions apply.

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