Written by Jeanne Rideau
Underwear has been worn by men and women for centuries, holding strong symbolism and purposes which have fascinatingly evolved over the generations. Lingerie might be a piece of clothing – alongside socks – that is not often talked about.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has explored, in depth, the Western history of underwear in its latest exhibition put together by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles.
From haute-couture lingerie to the simplest of panties, the basic purpose of underwear tends to be neglected and forgotten about, despite the essential role it has. Indeed, its primary purpose is to protect the most intimate parts of one's body, offering different alternatives for any kind of situation, for instance from pregnancy underwear for women to military undergarments. Far from the sophisticated lingerie of Agent Provocateur, it demonstrates that underwear is not only glamorous but represents an important piece of one's everyday clothing.
An interesting piece of undergarment to take a closer look at is the corset – enabling women to ‘shape’ their body and to hold a straight posture, albeit being an instrument of torture at the same time. Some doctors were vehemently trying to discourage women from wearing corsets, the undergarment has been considered a fashionable necessity until the 20th century. From the oldest undergarment dating from 1750 to the most recent sportswear ensemble, it is noticeable that nothing has greatly changed over the years with regards to their aim to insure a perfect body shape.
The idea of an ideal body, however, has been evolving. In spite of their invisibility and thinness, underwear bears a widespread obsession with physical appearance. It mainly concerned women in the past, although not exclusively as some men also used to wear corsets or belts to maintain their back or to shape their body, for example. Still, the making of underwear tends to portrait clear distinctions between women’s and men’s collections. Androgynous models – in mainstream still considered as a rarity – have emerged since the 1980s, and, a trend amongst teenagers recently resulted in unisex sportswear underwear collections, for example from Calvin Klein.
Innovation has been part of the evolution. Many new, modern fabrics have appeared – such as a fabric that regulates body temperature – or garments have been made lighter, more breathable and more pleasant to wear.
The exhibition at the V&A brilliantly illustrates some of key roles of underwear: its private use through its functional role and symbolism through providing a means to comply with societal “body shape trends”.
Underwear traditionally can carry a personal importance for women, as the first bra may represent a step towards womanhood while the first lace ensemble might accompany the loss of virginity, or later breastfeeding. More generally, underwear is almost always closely connected to an individual’s sexuality, from fetishes to practicality. While the exhibition offers a good historical analysis and provides an overview of technicalities and trends and mentions eroticism and sexuality, it does, however, not attempt opening an active discussion about shifting gender roles and attached discourses.
The exhibition seems to predominantly focus on underwear for women and specifically is limited to undergarments of the UK, US and Europe. A section about underwear in cultures other than the ‘Western’ hemisphere could have sparked further discussions about existing stereotypes and perceptions.