History of underwear in brief

A mannequin displaying a bra, corset, stockings and thong by Robin Archer for House Of Harlot at the Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear exhibition.
A mannequin displaying a bra, corset, stockings and thong by Robin Archer for House Of Harlot at the Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear exhibition.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • Enter any clothing store these days and you are likely to find yourself faced with the Great Lingerie Resurgence.

White panelled silk slips trimmed with whispers of black lace at Celine and a seductive mishmash of boudoir and boardroom in the form of peekaboo bralets and power suiting at Givenchy and Balenciaga - we are in an underwear-as-outerwear moment.

The theme is not limited to the runways. This month, the department store Selfridges unveiled its Body Studio, a big space that it says is devoted to "the unique merger of all clothing categories designed to be worn directly on the skin".

And an exhibition described as the largest ever devoted to the subject opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum on April 16 .

Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear examines the role that undergarments have played in shaping cultural attitudes, gender tensions and shifting style trends and it helps explain people's fascination with what lies beneath.

More than 250 objects - including corsets, whalebone stays, bras and briefs - along with film images, depict the history of underwear from the mid-18th century to the present.

Ms Edwina Ehrman, curator of both the exhibition and the textiles and fashion sections at the museum, noted the popularity of athleisure clothes, pyjamas as daytime garments and luxury loungewear.

"It is serendipitous that we are opening right at a moment where underwear and its ongoing transition from a deeply private to provocatively public garment, continues to be a major creative and commercial trend," she said.

"A show must always include contemporary pointers as well as the historical ones, if visitors are to make sense of it, and we are in an ever more informal era that embraces the gap between dress and undress."

But the exhibition demonstrates that underwear as outerwear is nothing new and devotes an entire floor to its historical antecedents. Showstoppers include a simple 1911 silk evening slip by Paul Poiret that could have gone down a runway last season.

Contemporary selections include a white chiffon Alexander McQueen bustier dress plated with gold and padded at the hips, and an Empire- style embroidered muslin gown with matching lace panties by John Galliano for Givenchy, both of which took cues from the allure of 18th- and 19th-century bedroom attire.

On another floor, and in a break from convention, the layout turns thematic rather than chronological, deconstructing the shared sociological underpinnings of fabric scraps spanning centuries, nationalities and classes. Section titles include Fashion, Health and Hygiene, Volume and Performance Underwear, and include unexpected revelations. For example, panties are a relatively recent innovation.

And many of the most progressive and enlightened underwear designers of the 19th century were women, harnessing new technologies and materials in the design of corsets and bustiers to allow women greater ease of movement.

Ms Ehrman said that corsetry should not be seen as an instrument of paternalistic and physical oppression. "Cut, fit, fabric and visibility continue to play a powerful role in the way a wearer of an undergarment is able to present themselves to the outside world, sculpting their sense of dignity and self- confidence," she added.

And a Spanx-style waist trainer, the kind of slimming tool endorsed by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, posed stretchy, neutral-toned questions on how much 21st-century underwear continues to subjugate - rather than celebrate - the female physique.

But Ms Sarah Shotton, creative director at the lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur, an exhibition sponsor, said that more women are buying such items for themselves rather than for male delectation.

"As attitudes and boundaries continue to shift, more women are finding what works for their bodies, and that's beautiful to see."


•Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear will run until March 12 next year at the Victoria And Albert Museum, London.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'History of underwear in brief'. Print Edition | Subscribe