A world class institution like the V&A can knock together shows with their eyes closed. They have a wealth of exquisite garments in their permanent collections, as well as contacts in high places to source rare key pieces and historical experts on hand to flesh out the details. What really sets an exhibition apart, however, is its ability to leave a lasting impression. I left Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear feeling a little like I’d just seen the Emperor’s New Clothes.
My mother and I had bought tickets having been intrigued by the description of Undressed on the V&A website:
This exhibition explores the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in moulding the body to a fashionable ideal, with cut, fit, fabric and decoration revealing issues of gender, sex and morality.
This sounded to us like more than a collection of clothing and hoped for a revealing insight into the history of our intimates.
During our visit, of course we were shocked by miniscule corsets, impressed by the minute hand-stitching on gossamer camisoles, interested by the developments in fabric use over time, and absorbed by the evolution of shapewear through history. For the dedicated follower of fashion, there is plenty to take in. For those hoping for the more cerebral angle promised in the exhibition description, we were a little disappointed.
more films on couture and history would have elevated what the displays offered visitors, from appreciation to understanding
Firstly, the exhibition layout was puzzling from the start. Those familiar with the V&A fashion area will remember the circular room in which exhibitions are commonly held. My mother and I couldn’t find an obvious route to follow – the displays are not chronologically spaced and are only loosely organised by garment or theme. Perhaps this would have been less of a problem had there been fewer visitors that day.
There are two levels to the Undressed: the ground floor displays more functional clothing, the upper floor shows more impressive, sensual pieces. We wandered around admiring the garments, which were themselves objects of interest. It was the accompanying information that was lacking. We can’t have been the only visitors left guessing at the waist size of the corsets, for example.
A couple of contemporary exhibits were accompanied by short films, explaining the design and manufacturing process. Lingerie designer Carine Gilson demonstrates how satin is overlaid with lace in one such film – a personal highlight for me. More films on couture and history would have elevated what the displays offered visitors, from appreciation to understanding.
As mentioned, Undressed promised the visitor an exploration of ‘sex, gender and morality’, an introduction that piqued my interest before entering and something I looked forward to learning more about. However, aside from the odd androgynous undergarment, there was little curation that lived up to this bold claim. Perhaps this reflects the underwear industry at large but the clothing on display was riddled with references to ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ without really examining how those concepts have changed over time.
Another thing my mother pointed out was the lack of information about how women have historically managed their periods – an issue intimately related to the history of underwear. In an exhibition unwaveringly discussing breast milk in connection with bras and urination with y-fronts, menstruation seemed like a glaring omission.
For me, Undressed was a prudishly curated collection of underwear; it’s not something that could be saved by the token latex outfit or pieces from sponsor Agent Provocateur, exposing bums, balls and boobs. The curators were more concerned with frilly fabric than what undergarments mean to their wearers. Holding the V&A to its own high standard, this exhibition could use a shot of imagination and, frankly, dare to be a little more rude.