The History of Modern Underwear in 10 Objects

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Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum; London

“I think we underestimate our underwear, and the impact it has on wider patterns of fashion, society and design,” says Susanna Cordner, assistant curator of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at London’s V&A Museum. The exhibition, which opened last Saturday, is a deep dive into the last 250 years of corsets, crinolines, butt-lifting briefs, and scandalous thongs.

It’s an often-discussed fact that what is considered a “body ideal” for women changes all the time — from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss to Nicki Minaj. But the truth, argues the V&A show, is that underwear innovations have always played a significant role in these trends. “At the turn of the 20th century, you wanted to have a very high, almost a bridge of a bust, and then a protruding bottom, so you created an S with your body,” says Cordner. “But it was experimentations in corsetry that allowed you to achieve that shape, which then made it desirable, which then made more and more people want to buy into it.”

Similarly, Monroe’s now-legendary hourglass shape was often enhanced with padded hips and a pointed bullet bra, says Cordner. And we still romanticize the figures of contemporary stars today, without always recognizing the artifice: “A lot of celebrities have a very sleek silhouette, but there’s a lot of shapewear hidden underneath, creating that. In the exhibition, we have a waist trainer — the model that Kim Kardashian wears — and a butt lifter from 2015. People are chartering their body types and their exercise routines to try and achieve this bodily ideal, but the mainstay of it is actually the underwear underneath.”

The exhibition opens with a close look at an item that wasn’t a million miles from the waist trainer: stays, the 18th-century precursor to the corset. Like corsets, stays compressed and shaped the body using strips of whalebone, and just like today, women suffered to achieve their desired look. In a letter written in 1778, the Duchess of Devonshire complained that her stays cut into her body and made her arms sore. Still, she added, they created a fashionable shape, “and pride feels no pain.”

In the 19th century, side hoops and crinolines were worn under the clothes to exaggerate the lower half of the body, but dragging them around all day could cause accidents — newspaper satire at the time often mocked women for their impractical clothing. Later, the trend for S-bend corsets put pressure on women’s reproductive organs and skeletons, leading to lower back pain and walking problems. And as the exhibition explores, we’re still augmenting ourselves today, albeit more safely: think Wonderbras, and Aussiebum men’s briefs with added volume in the crotch.

The show also covers the use of underwear motifs in fashion design, and the emergence of specialist pieces like mastectomy bras, string briefs, and latex stockings. Click through the slideshow for Cordner’s guide to ten of the most fascinating items in the collection.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A Museum in London from April 16, 2016, to March 12, 2017, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon.