V&A Undressed exhibition

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Child 2 is starting an actual JOB today so last week was all about saying goodbye to things like lie-ins, Netflix and a carefree youth … well, not really but it does seem like a huge step, even if it’s only for two terms before uni starts. So we decided to mark the occasion with a smidge of culture – a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Brief History of Underwear exhibition.

Ok, so it’s not exactly the most heavyweight show we could have picked, but given that Child 2 loves the Guggenheim in New York only because she has drunk from every water fountain on every floor, this felt right. The V&A is full of beautiful spaces – I love the fountain court and the William Morris dining rooms – and the museum has made it a mission to collect gorgeous things. What’s not to love?

V&A cafe
The V&A’s magnificent William Morris-inspired dining rooms and cafe

Well, sometimes it seems a bit too popular. The last time we tried to go was at the height of the summer and there was a notice on the door saying the place was closed – it was full to capacity. Last week it was certainly bustling but not overflowing, thank goodness. Of course, you couldn’t really say that of the exhibition – the point of a lot of the female underwear on display was to make a woman billow out, sometimes in the most absurd ways. We wandered around the displays of waists which would make a wasp look obese and absurd underskirt hoops and panniers which would make walking through a door a challenge, let alone running from a fire or even going to the loo. Thank God my children and I have never had to wear a corset.

V&A Undressed exhibition
Fancy doing the shopping wearing either of these?

Mind you, as the exhibition showed, you can still make yourself very uncomfortable these days if you want to – there are Spanx or bizarre butt-lifting shapewear things that no doubt cause the wearer quite a lot of discomfort, even if they aren’t quite as medically challenging as whalebone corsets. There was a terrifying panel of X-rays showing the effect of tight stays on a woman’s ribs – in the last frame, her bones were curled up like dried leaves.

The exhibition was gappy, which I suppose reflects the fact that people are secretive about underwear and tend to discard it, rather than stash it away for the delectation of future generations. There were some extraordinary items, though, including some men’s striped long johns from the dying days of the nineteenth century that were exquisitely made, and corsets that were so minute and gorgeous that they were more like statuettes of Egyptian goddesses than articles that could ever have been worn by ¬†flesh and blood women.

V&A Undressed exhibition
Teeny tiny weeny corset

Our favourite item was a beautiful floor-length silk wrap worn in the James Bond film Skyfall, made of the finest Brussels lace, concealing everything yet hinting at much. Our least favourite was a ghastly brownish jock strap worn by a triple-barrelled tennis star. Yuck.

The exhibition is on until the 12th March. It costs as much as a pair of pants to get in – or maybe even a three-pack from M&S (¬£12!!) but I’m too much in love with the V&A to complain about that.

Dressed or Undressed?


Leave a Comment