Louche lingerie. Naughty knickers. Silky slips. And bras? Your cup(s) runneth over. Have I got your attention? I thought so.
These aren’t the sort of treasures you typically find in an esteemed public institution, but London’s Victoria and Albert museum is renowned for its sartorial showcases of wearable art. With well-received exhibitions of Hollywood costumes and last year’s cadre of haute couture fashions from Alexander McQueen under its belt, the design museum now dares to go (almost) bare with “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” (See what they did there?)
This assemblage of unmentionables, on show until March 12, 2017, date from the 18th century to the present. It’s an eclectic collection ranging from the rather mundane, such as a package of Y-front men’s underwear and ladies’ panties emblazoned with the days of the week, to the decidedly more exotic.
Imagine, for instance, strapping yourself into a 19th century steel crinoline resembling the skeleton of a starved and stunted dinosaur, or lubing up to squeeze into a red and black rubber ensemble of matching bra, corset, thong and stockings (below, second from right, released by House of Harlot in 2015). Neither would look out of place in the Marquis de Sade’s torture chamber.
Some of the items boast an impressive provenance, such as the sheer metallic Liza Bruce dress immortalized in a revealing image of Kate Moss from 1993, giving new meaning to the term “flash” photography.
Then there’s the pair of (gasp!) open crotch pants once owned by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. But don’t bother breaking out in a hot and bothered royal flush. Despite the peek-a-boo parting, these voluminous cotton drawers (below, far right) reach down to the knee—hardly the sort of seductively scanty panties you’d find in Ann Summers today.
While women’s undergarments are the main focus of the exhibition, men’s smalls get a bigger look than you might expect—literally, in the case of the mannequin modeling aussieBum WonderJock briefs, which pack the modern equivalent of a codpiece. Yet aother vignette includes a box of men’s disposable paper underwear, cheekily dubbed Chukkas—although “Paper Moon” might have been a more obvious choice.
Speaking of cheeky (or rather, cheekless), “Undressed” also features a pair of women’s Butt Lifter thigh-length compression shorts, with holes that expose your derriere. The jury may be out on this divisive “lift and separate” design, but hey, Ryan O’Neal made a mint on a similar style in his 1981 flick So Fine. (If you’re up for an irreverent interlude, check out this commercial for his fictional “butt out” jeans).
In truth, Ryan’s outré trousers don’t seem so far-fetched when considered in context with other designs on display at “Undressed.” I give you Exhibit A, the window pictured below, which examines how underwear can be worn as outerwear.
I particularly like the brass bra (far right) paired with purple harem pants—the sort of look the spurious offspring of M.C. Hammer and Daenerys Targaryen might sport while hanging out with Barbara Eden in her disco genie bottle.
Then there’s Dolce & Gabbana’s wicker hoop and bodice (above, second from left), which calls to mind a contemporary update on the gown a down-on-her luck Scarlett O’Hara stitched from her curtains. “I’m so broke I can’t afford to pay attention, but dang it, I need a new dress. l’ll just weave a bird cage out of kudzu and wear that. OBVIOUSLY.”
There are, of course, some mind-blowing pieces of exceptional beauty and craftsmanship from which to draw inspiration—particularly if you find pedestrian bodily functions like breathing and digestion to be highly overrated.
After all, if you’re caught with your pants down, as it were, you could do worse than to expose a saucy waist-cincher like the hot pink number below. As the lad mag La Vie Parisienne enthusiastically noted of one such wasp-waisted item back in 1885, “It’s very elegant and extremely becoming—evidently destined to be seen…and looked at!”
Or consider this Swarovski crystal encrusted corset made by Mr. Pearl for burlesque artist Dita von Teese.
It has the tiniest waist of all the corsets in the collection, measuring a minuscule 18-inches around. Presumably, it also comes with a matching pouch for her internal organs, because seriously people, how can her intestines fit in there?
I’m reminded of an extract from a letter written in 1778 by the Duchess of Devonshire, whose words are highlighted in the exhibition’s signage. She complained about her corset cutting into her body and chafing her arms.
“But it is the ton (fashion),” she wrote, “and pride feels no pain.”
It’s difficult to say what visitors are meant to take away from the show, other than confirmation that, as much as the world has evolved, some women are still willing to suffer to attain the “perfect” figure.
While few of us would go so far as to lace up a cripplingly constrictive rib cracker, perhaps we can at least concede that it’s probably time to inspect our own underwear drawers—and purge the granny panties.
Too bad the museum shop doesn’t offer a Victoria (and Albert’s) Secret boutique.