A New Exhibition Is All About Underwear

From a queen’s drawers to David Beckham’s briefs, The Victoria and Albert Museum gets “Undressed”

Even today, underwear has a story to tell (or a day to be worn on). cheekfrills
This silk satin, lace and whalebone corset gave an 1890s lady her hourglass figure and tiny waist. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This cage crinoline supported the fashionable gowns of the 1870s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Curators of a new exhibition in London spend their days examining old underwear, and in Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, they've unearthed the surprisingly serious history of the garments. The collection bills itself as the biggest-ever museum exhibit focused on underwear, and it’s being displayed in an unlikely location: The Victoria & Albert Museum, which was named after a queen you probably don’t associate with her undergarments. But long ago, when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the museum, she was likely wearing both a corset and a petticoat—the kinds of garments the exhibition both displays and questions.

Undressed looks at the history of how underwear has protected and enhanced the body from the 18th century until today, and the over 200 pieces of underthings it contains may change the way you look at your own knickers forever. Among the collection’s highlights are an 1890s whalebone corset of the type Victoria wore—one with a waist below 19 inches in circumference. It’s displayed alongside X-rays and illustrations that show just how such a garment impacted the body. Other corsets abound, including a hand-made one made by a working-class woman in the 18th century and one made out of paper during the lean times of World War I.

Corsets are just the tip of the underwear iceberg: You can find bras, hosiery and even jock straps in the exhibition. There’s underwear and lingerie-inspired fashion worn by everyone from David Beckham to Kate Moss, the first mass-produced thong, which was invented in reaction to a ban on public swimming in Los Angeles, and undergarments made of brass and even glass.

What’s the point of lifting up the skirts and peering down the pants of the past? Plenty. The museum, which acquired more than 60 pieces of underwear, dipped into its own vast collection and borrowed noteworthy skivvies from museums and individuals all over the world, sees underwear as a lens through which culture can be viewed. From nursing bras that show the lives of working women to tracksuits that show the relaxation of social boundaries between street and home, underwear points to the obsessions and everyday lives of the people who wear it. And though Queen Victoria might blush at the news that her mother’s cotton drawers are on display—the queen herself wore monogrammed and crested nightgowns and bloomers, and would probably approve of an exhibition that adds a bit of focus to the garments we all wear beneath the surface.

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