Monday 20 February 2017

Exhibition Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Whether it’s because of their waspish waists, their uncomfortably large bustles and crinolines, or their much-mentioned prudishness, we have a continued fascination with what Victorians were like under their clothes.

So, finding myself in London unexpectedly this week, the Secret Victorianist paid a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Undressed exhibition, a brief history of fashionable unmentionables, which is now entering its last month on display to the public.

The exhibition covers three centuries and includes a huge array of pieces, from an eighteen-century working woman’s stays to David Beckham’s tighty whities for H&M. But of course it was the Victorian items I was here to see. Here were some of my highlights:

The Duchess of Kent’s drawers: The exhibition didn’t quite allow you to peak under Queen Vic’s petticoats, but you did get to gawk at a pair of her mother’s drawers. These were cumbersome and knee-length and could have provided enough material for 20+ modern day thongs, but the waist was incredibly small, especially given their cut suggests they might have been used for maternity-wear.

A cartoon on the dangers of lacing: I’ve written before (here) about the internal damage that could be done by corsetry. And the V and A displayed this cartoon showing the grim reaper promoting the trend of tight lacing:

Summer corsets: This was something I knew less about previously. The exhibition included several lighter corsets for summer months, which were used by naturally slim women and ladies living in the colonies. In these, whalebone was replaced by strips of ribbon or by netting, making them marginally more comfortable, although I still won’t be racing to try them out in hot weather (especially minus air conditioning…).

David’s fig leaf: Queen Victoria was so horrified when she saw Michelangelo’s David that a fig leaf was commissioned to protect his modesty, or, at least, attendees’ sensibilities. Seeing it here, divided from the statue, made me think about how easy it is to find an exhibition on underwear solely intellectually stimulating, devoid of the ability to shock, shame or titillate.

The exhibition does a wonderful job of exposing the bizarreness of our continued fascination with undergarments (think waist trainers, fetish-wear, underwear as outwear) by divorcing the items on display from the body. What’s left is an enlightening lens through which to examine culture – the Victorians’ and our own.

Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.