Imogen Robertson reviews Undressed, the latest hot ticket at the V&A.
When I was a child, my mother discovered that no matter the size of strop I’d managed to get myself into, if she said the word ‘knickers’ enough in a very serious voice, I’d crack and start giggling.
I have a nasty feeling it would still work, so finding the right tone for a review of an exhibition on underwear is a bit of a struggle. I shall try to remember I’m now a grown up and writing in a grown up manner and not just shout ‘pants’ hysterically at the internet.
The tone of the exhibition itself veers between the serious and the arch and is designed very cleverly to make you think as well as snigger. It’s in the Fashion Temporary Exhibition Space in the glorious V&A and arranged on two levels. On the ground floor, undercover as it were, are the strange underpinnings of fashion in use since the 18th century – a bewildering array of stays, corsets, cages, Spanx, girdles and the Bodymax range for men. On the upper story, on display under catwalk and red-carpet style lighting is an eclectic collection of underwear as outerwear. Here is the lingerie, or the high fashion clothes designed to look like lingerie from Agent Provocateur, Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivian Westwood among others.
I take to high fashion like a cat to water, but even an anti-fashionista like myself can appreciate the wit and flair on display, and enjoy the discussion of semi-public, semi-private dressing that runs through the display of kaftans and housecoats, silk dressing gowns and hotpants. Video screens also show some of the clothes being worn and designers and makers discussing their creations.
It’s the downstairs I really enjoyed though. As well as being an eye-opening examination of what people have gone through to create a perfect silhouette, it also offers a commentary on changing mores without being preachy or loosing its sense of fun. You can see x-rays showing the effects of tight lacing, peer at 3-D satires of crinoline wearers, or cheer on the rise of corsets for cyclists. There are other treasures. George Bernard Shaw in his Jaeger woollens, my first sight of actual red flannel, and the plaster fig leaf that was used to protect the modesty of the V&A’s cast of David during Royal visits. The unusual survival of a set of handmade stays from Whitby had one of my fellow visitors whistling through her teeth ‘Bloody hell, it’d be like sewing your own coffin.’ Certainly illuminating.
My personal highlight was discovering that my mum was not the first person to work out underwear can lighten the mood. In 1940 while living in Baghdad, Lady Betty Holman found that showing local ladies her knickers, trimmed and patterned with lace hunting scenes was a wonderful ice-breaker. Apparently they ‘got on very well after that.’
So for the fan of high fashion or the historical researcher, the exhibition offers a great deal in a small space. It’s all very well understanding your characters by walking a mile in their metaphorical shoes, but I suspect we’d all learn a lot more from trying to do so in their corsets.
On now until Sunday, 12 March 2017.
- Corset, cotton and whalebone, 1890, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Exhibition space, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890-5, Victoria and Albert Museum, London