This Exhibit Takes A Deep Dive Into The History Of Lingerie

Illustrated by Anna Sudit
Among the more than 200 pieces that make up the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, is a thong, still in its packaging, made by Rudi Gernreich in 1978. Gernreich was the man credited with giving that barely there bit of fabric its name, and this item, we are told, is a rare find. Given the recent news that sales of thongs — or G-strings, whatever you like to call them — are on the decline, this rarity may quickly turn into a relic.

Okay, that might be jumping the gun slightly — dedicated thong-wearers are still out there, and probably always will be. But it's a good example of what an exhibition like this can reveal about our sartorial habits. The surprising thing, however, is just how little the contents of our skivvies drawers have changed over time.

Arranged thematically across a number of sections — Fashion, Health and Hygiene; Volume; Performance Underwear and Support: Bras and Girdles — the exhibition shows us 19th century corsets next to 21st century waist trainers, bustles next to butt lifts, and bust extenders next to push-up bras. The fabrics and technology used might have progressed, but the purpose of these pieces has pretty much remained the same.
"We scorn corsets and we're horrified by layers of petticoats, but actually, we haven't evolved all that much," says the exhibition's research assistant, Susanna Cordner. "While underwear has really changed since the 18th century, the reasons we wear it haven't changed at all. It's for hygiene, comfort, acts as a barrier, and provides support or creates a silhouette. Now, we just use different methods, different molds, and different materials to express those different functions."

Indeed, people were flashing their garters long before they were showing off the waistbands of their Calvin Kleins. And while athleisure shows no signs of slowing down (to wit: Beyoncé's much-hyped Ivy Park range which just came out this week) performance-wear is nothing new, as evidenced by specially made corsets for female cyclists included in the exhibit.

So what are we filling our drawers with right now? "There's been a return to logo or gender-neutral underwear, but also to lace," Cordner said. "Whichever camp you fall in, it's about framing the body rather than adorning or sculpting it. There's been a change in bust shape, too, and now we're going for more of a teardrop shape rather than a really propelled bust."

Less padding and more natural curves is selling well these days, according to Heather Gramston, buying manager at British department store Selfridges. "Women are wanting a natural shape, almost a '70s look, which lends itself to mesh fabrics," Gramston says. "It's not necessarily completely soft cup, but something that looks and feels natural when worn underneath clothes."

Fashion's relationship with underwear is long and enduring. That can take shape as underwear as outerwear (one of the most iconic examples of this trend, Kate Moss' translucent slip dress and black pants ensemble, is on show at the V&A) or ready-to-wear influencing what it is we put on under our clothes.
Courtesy of V&A

Beyond fleeting runway trends, technology and fabric innovations have arguably been the biggest game changers in the world of underwear. Nylon gave us stockings, lycra gave us Spanx, and now technology means that if you're a 34DD and want to wear a cute triangle bra and actually feel supported, you can.

"The triangle bra is tied up into the popular Calvin Klein and logo trend we're seeing right now, but if you're not able to wear that style of bra we've found brands, like Silent Assembly, that have developed contour technology to replace the traditional metal underwire, meaning the bra is still as supportive as you need it to be," Gramston said.

Given the technological advancements in underwear over the last few decades, is there anywhere left to go in our mission to lift, squeeze, shape, and seduce? "There's almost a counter movement now of returning to slightly simpler styles," says Cordner. "There's a lot about organic and sustainable fabrics, which is also going back to focusing on hygiene and comfort. We've had our shapewear, our sculpting, and now we want something that nurses and comforts the body."

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear
is sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, and runs from the 16th of April 2016 – the 12th of March 2017.

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