CULTURE & ARTS

The Stripped-Down History Of Underwear, From Whalebone Girdles To Spanx

An art exhibition offers a brief look at skivvies past and present.

They’re hidden in drawers. They’re tucked away at the bottoms of bins. They’re the open secret of the sartorial world: Underthings, those articles of clothing that shape the way our jeans and shirts look and feel on our bodies.

Today, there are trainers and push-up bras, Spanx and boxers, all serving different purposes for their wearers. Certain underthings may be meant to boost the confidence of the wearer, while others ― looking at you, thongs ― are purely aesthetic.

A new exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum titled “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear,” reminds us that underwear wasn’t always a form of comfy loungewear. On the contrary, it mainly forced its wearers to conform to desired shapes, sometimes with medical costs attached.

The show begins with underwear from the mid-1800s, including a pair of cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria along with a waist belt from 1842 that a man wore on his wedding day, demonstrating the moral implications of some underthings.

It then moves through the 19th century, when the dangers of corset-wearing, including compressed lungs and fractured ribs, are called into question. Although an alternative was eventually presented ― the still-restrictive, yet less medically threatening, bra ― corsets are still worn by women looking to achieve an hourglass shape.

However, the show is less a condemnation of the ways underwear can enforce gender stereotypes and more a celebration of one taboo corner of the fashion world. A vibrant pink corset from 1890 is displayed as an example of how underwear has helped people explore fantasies in the past. A pair of chiffon knickers from 1930 is shown as an example of how underwear transitioned from form-shaping to shapeless, comfy getups to wear around the home.

One of the most recent underthing artifacts on display is a pair of gender-neutral briefs, designed by Acne Studios, showing that underwear, once a hush-hush element of everyday dressing, is sometimes a way to outwardly display your views on social issues, like gender fluidity.

All of which is to say: We’ve come a long way from whalebone girdles.

  • Princess Louise Jupon Patent, a cage crinoline underskirt, c. 1871.
    Victoria and Albert Museum London
    Princess Louise Jupon Patent, a cage crinoline underskirt, c. 1871.
  • Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890.
    Victoria and Albert Museum London
    Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890.
  • Silk chiffon knickers, possibly Hitrovo, 1930s.
    The Royal Pavilion Museums Brighton
    Silk chiffon knickers, possibly Hitrovo, 1930s.
  • Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Company, c. 1936.
    Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate
    Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Company, c. 1936.
  • A display figure and advertising card for Yfront pants, 1950s.
    Victoria and Albert Museum London
    A display figure and advertising card for Yfront pants, 1950s.
  • The Brixton Boyz photographed by Jennie Baptiste, 2001.
    Jennie Baptise Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund
    The Brixton Boyz photographed by Jennie Baptiste, 2001.
  • A trompe loeil corset dress designed by Antonio Berardi and worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, 2009.
    Sipa Press REX Shutterstock
    A trompe loeil corset dress designed by Antonio Berardi and worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, 2009.
  • A man's top and pants designed by Sibling, 2013.
    Victoria and Albert Museum London
    A man's top and pants designed by Sibling, 2013.
  • Monday to Friday underpants by Cheekfrills, 2015.
    cheekfrills
    Monday to Friday underpants by Cheekfrills, 2015.
  • Tamila lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soiree collection, 2015.
    Photographer Sebastian Faena Model Eniko Mihalik
    Tamila lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soiree collection, 2015.
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