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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

"Undressed": The Victoria And Albert Museum’s Brief Encounters

22 Апреля 2016

A contemporary latex corset by House of Harlot, on display at the current
A contemporary latex corset by House of Harlot, on display at the current "Undressed" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

The black and red rubbery latex corset looked discreet enough, even if Revlon had given the mannequin scarlet lips and the supplier of this fetish underwear was House of Harlot. Then two words on a display panel for an adjacent set of lingerie pulled me up with a jolt: "Porno Chic".

I had been waiting for some cheek and shock at "Undressed: A Brief History of Lingerie" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That title was already a pun, for men's "briefs" are included in the selection of underclothes, from Victorian "stays" (made at home from sewing whale bones together in vertical strips) to today's heat-treated vests from Uniqlo.

Detail of men’s cotton underpants, c. 1890s
Detail of men’s cotton underpants, c. 1890s

There is not much "wink, wink, nudge and giggle" at the show, which curator Edwina Ehrman has put together skilfully in the awkward space the Victoria and Albert (or V&A) allocates to its fashion exhibitions. For once, the condensed lower level, with its display windows cheek by jowl, has the right sense of intimacy for its subject.

Satin and ostrich feather bed jacket by Rosa Pichon, France, 1930-1935
Satin and ostrich feather bed jacket by Rosa Pichon, France, 1930-1935

Not until the 1930s was the saucy side of underwear made public in advertisements for the new garments which, as the 20th century developed, included X-shaped stretch corsets and bras that seemed to reduce in size as the decades went by. I would not claim that 18th- and 19th-century underwear displayed a period of innocence.

Women's uplifting bodices and decorative bows were designed to give the body allure. And already in 1890 there was a shocking-pink silk-satin corset, not really so different from the sparkling creation with a wasp waist produced by corset supremo Mr Pearl for burlesque performer Dita Von Teese in 2011. 

A Bust Improver by Dickins and Jones, London 1910
A Bust Improver by Dickins and Jones, London 1910

There are surprisingly few examples of those baffling bustles that Victorian women put up with in an era when "a glimpse of stocking was something shocking", as the Cole Porter song goes. 


Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, has drawn a deliberate line between downstairs and upstairs - the latter being the 20th-century period when underwear came out into the public arena, either as a deliberate sex toy or as part of fashion stripping down and revealing the body. The curator also includes casual pyjama-party home wear. 

Satin and lace corset, 1890-1895
Satin and lace corset, 1890-1895

I would have liked to see an explanation of this change, which must have owed a great deal to the invention of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, when sexuality was underscored in ever-shorter mini skirts, with or without anything underneath. Ehrman does show the 20th century's development of the bra and the way that underwear evolved from female girdles to gender-neutral shape-wear from Acne Studios. 

Accompanying films, especially the one by exhibition co-sponsor Agent Provocateur, show the sexuality and the craftsmanship of 20th-century underwear. 

The curator also set out her aims in a pre-tour talk: the changing conceptions of the ideal body and the social, cultural, and economic reasons behind those changes. She promised "sex, gender, and morality".


Yet I went away looking for more. I remember the V&A's show from 2007, "Kylie - The Exhibition", which showed the Australian performing artist's outfits, mostly of the corset variety. There seems to be so much more that could be said in the current show: for example, underwear as entertainment. 

Legendary corset-maker Mr Pearl’s creation for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese
Legendary corset-maker Mr Pearl’s creation for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese

What about the reduction of seduction in a world where consensual sex is a smartphone swipe away? And whether an obsession with shaping the body through exercise and diet has reduced the power and purpose of lingerie? 

Above all, will hi-tech be let loose on our bodies, so that 3D printing and design will customise our underwear to our individual body shapes? "Undressed" raises more questions than it answers. But viewers looking for a visual, rather than an intellectual, jolt will find the exhibition intriguing. 

из
Jean Paul Gaultier bustier dress, 1989

Jean Paul Gaultier bustier dress, 1989

Mary Quant nylon body stocking, late 1960s

Mary Quant nylon body stocking, late 1960s

Sequin snake stocking, c. 1910

Sequin snake stocking, c. 1910

Vivienne Westwood’s nude leggings for men, with mirrored fig leaf

Vivienne Westwood’s nude leggings for men, with mirrored fig leaf


"Undressed: A Brief History of Lingerie", sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, is on until 12th March 2017 (vam.ac.uk/undressed)

The Peter Pan Hidden Treasure bra, from the 1950s
The Peter Pan Hidden Treasure bra, from the 1950s

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