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troublemag | July 19, 2024

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Under Clothes: 350 years of underwear in fashion

Under Clothes: 350 years of underwear in fashion


Steve Proposch


Lingerie came out of the closet in the 1980s, when Jean Paul Gaultier dared to suggest that underwear could be outerwear and put a bra onto the catwalk. These days underwear is everywhere, beamed at us incidentally on thirty foot high billboards that tell us to buy more of it, in fashion shows, shopping centre displays, all over the media, music clips … I dare say it is more difficult to avoid the sight of someone else’s underwear in western society today, than it once was to catch a stolen glimpse of it.


Be that decadence or development of the human condition is a debatable point might form another, but a new International exhibition originated by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum should, at least, offer much-needed depth and breadth to the general dialectic. Undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion aims to reveal some of the history of undergarments through the V&A’s apparently vast collection of underwear, which includes one of the earliest known bras, and undergarments worn by Queen Victoria herself.


According to the V&A: “Women’s underwear served two purposes in the 18th century. The first function, carried out by the shift or smock, was to protect the clothing from the body, in an age when daily bathing was not customary.” * It’s second purpose was to mould the body of the wearer into a “fashionable shape”, providing some structure and a frame for the gown to be pinned to.


In Victorian society it was often the structures worn under the clothes that gave the fashion its form. “Gone were the flamboyant fashions of the mid-1830s with the huge balloon-like sleeves, large bonnets and trailing ribbons. Dress of the late 1830s and 1840s was characterised by its drooping shoulders, long pointed angles and low pinched-in waist. These low-waisted dresses required long, heavily-boned corsets to give them their shape.” **


Madonna’s Blond Ambition Corset

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Corset


Sometimes called ‘a pair of bodys’ or ‘stays’, corsets have been worn since the late 16th century in Europe, and the history of this one garment alone could form a fascinating study. Much has been written on the detrimental effects of corsetry and ‘tight lacing’ techniques, but as the V&A write in their article Corsets & Crinolines in Victorian Fashion, “Photography, paintings and fashion plates are very posed and often picture people in their Sunday best. Although obviously corsets and heavy petticoats were worn, corset lacing was probably loosened and petticoats left off for more ordinary wear.”


Crinolines introduced new technologies such as spring steel hoops (June 1856) that were lighter and more flexible yet strong enough to “support the skirts and create the desired bell-shaped effect. The fashion was so popular that Punch nicknamed the crinoline craze ‘Crinolinemania’.”


Cage crinoline, Unknown, ca.1868. Museum no. T.195-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cage crinoline, Unknown, ca.1868. Museum no. T.195-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


While contemporary stories abounded of women “being unable to fit into carriages or through narrow doorways“, sweeping delicate china from shelves as they turned, and, most frequently and terribly, catching sparks from open fires (“a situation not helped by the wearing of highly flammable fabrics such as muslin and silks”) the article is quick to remind us that while many of these stories had a foundation of truth, “one should bear in mind that moralists, publicists and satirists were often out to condemn the fripperies of fashion and tended to focus on the most extreme situations” thus the tales were frequently exaggerated.


Over the centuries there have been different versions of the fashionable body, from voluptuous to slim to distorted waspish waists and exaggerated buttocks, but the study of underwear is relatively modern. In a video from the V&A entitled Underwear: From corsets to bullet-bras and back, exhibition curator Eleri Lynn offers a brief history of shapewear, “starting with the hourglass and S-bend forms – and steel and whalebone engineering – of Victorian and Edwardian corsets, carries on through the breast-flattening bandeau bras worn by 1920s flappers, the New Look underwear of Christian Dior, the conical bullet bras of the 1950s and concludes with the arrival of Lycra in the 1960s and the renaissance of corsetry through the new popularity of burlesque.” ***


The exhibition is accompanied by a gorgeous illustrated publication from the V&A entitled Underwear: Fashion in Detail, by Eleri Lynn. The book contains a number of detailed illustrations of the objects in the show.


Fashion photograph, Lilian Bassman, 1948. Museum no. PH.14-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fashion photograph, Lilian Bassman, 1948. Museum no. PH.14-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion, Bendigo Art Gallery, 9 July – 26 October 2014 – The Victoria and Albert Museum –





* Interactive: Side Hoop Underskirt and Linen Shift, 18th Century:

** Corsets & Crinolines in Victorian Fashion:

*** Underwear: From corsets to bullet-bras and back: