Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear



Undergarments are some of the most personal clothing items in our wardrobes. Hidden beneath layers of other clothing, these are items that are extremely intimate. These private items can, however, have outward functions (the underwear as outerwear trend, anyone?) and at times can be somewhat controversial: “Their fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing attitudes to morality, gender and sex; shifting notions of private and public; and innovations in fabric technology and design.” Previously a scarcely talked about topic, underwear has quite literally been hidden from history. Call it prudish, private or just personal, people are hesitant to speak openly about underwear. However, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, the new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum aims to uncover this hidden topic and open a conversation around the history of underwear.

Underwear is worn for multiple reasons; modesty, cleanliness, comfort and pleasure. Some can be purely functional, modifying a woman’s shape into the “body ideal”- corsets being the extreme version of this in centuries past and tummy-sucking underwear such as the famed Bridget Jones style ‘Spanx’ products today. Its principle function, however, is to cover the body. Until the 20th Century, appearing without a corset was considered indecent and immoral regardless of the fact that tightly-laced corsets resulted in breathing difficulties and were advised against by doctors of the time. Underwear for women has also been seen in the past as a form of repression, restricting women’s bodies and in turn affecting their health.

But as the times progressed, so too did underwear. The term “brassiere” was introduced around 1904-5 when undergarments began to shift away from corsets to a simpler, more comfortable style of underwear which supported the breasts from the shoulders. It is said that this was due to fears that corsets were affecting women’s reproductive organs. Throughout history bras, as we now know them, have had different functions resulting in the many different styles that we have today such as bras to lift, enhance, separate and suppress. For example, bandeau bras were worn to suppress the breasts during the 1920s to give the boyish silhouette that was fashionable at the time, while the 1940s saw conical style bras introduced to compliment the wider A-line shape that was in fashion during this period. The term “lingerie” emerged slightly earlier than this in the late 19th Century where delicate fabrics such as silk were used to create provocative or suggestive designs of underwear. No matter the time period, “our choice of underwear reflects our identity, lifestyle, taste, desires and fantasies.”

Fashion and underwear are intrinsically connected as fashion trends dictate shapes and styles of underwear. Underwear can effectively create a desired gendered silhouette to conform to the certain body ideal that is popular at the time. Most underwear is gender specific, although in recent times the lines between the sexes are beginning to blur particularly through the use of fashion and clothing. Calvin Klein has been ahead of this concept for some time now (since 1983 to be exact) when they began creating similar style briefs for both men and women. Acne Studios are another brand who have picked up on gender neutral underwear which allows for the increasingly liberal attitudes towards gender fluidity that are present today.


There is so much more to underwear than just it’s functional properties or simply being the necessary first step of getting dressed. From the liberation of women and their bodies in one sense when corsets became out-dated in the early 20th Century, to the women’s liberation movement and feminism’s ‘burning of the bras’ in the ’60s to symbolise women’s emancipation from patriarchy, underwear carries great historical, social and political meaning. What hasn’t changed over the years is the idea of the body ideal and a certain fascination with the female physique which is particularly influenced by fashion and current trends. These challenging and often damaging body ideals are part of the problems and pressures that women are still faced with today.

Exploring the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion, this exhibition deserves praise for charting the development of all styles of undergarments as well as loungewear and nightwear since the early 18th Century. The V&A’s Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear exhibition is brimming with fascinating detail on these not so talked about items of clothing and is certainly worth a visit not only for its spectacular curation of over 200 pieces of costume, personal and designer male and female undergarments, but also for its informative historical, social and political lesson on the history of underwear.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear will be on display in the V&A museum in London until March 2017. 

This article was originally published on maven46.