The other Victoria’s Secret: Underwear’s hidden history


Wherever fashion has gone, underwear has followed. Undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion, currently on show at MAAS Museum reveals all, and a little bit more.

The exhibition with over 80 items from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum offers an exposè – in the truest sense of the word – on how our underwear has become incorporeal, elasticized and decidedly smaller over the last few centuries.

Fashion was a determining factor in this, but changing social attitudes also had a role to play in altering underwear styles. Once upon a time, decorated underwear was viewed as “morally suspect”, but attitudes began to change in 1902 when an article published in a women’s magazine said that women should purchase decorative lingerie to prevent their husbands having affairs. Questionable reasoning, I would say, but true nevertheless.

Technology had a significant impact in the revolution of our ‘smalls’, and the exhibition demonstrates how new materials and production techniques such as synthetic dyes and machine-made lace lent itself to underwear’s evolution.

Be prepared to learn a lot of fascinating snippets about the history of underwear, such as how the underwire bra wasn’t a 1950s phenomenon, but entered the market in the late 1930s. However, because steel was needed for the war effort, the real uptake of underwire bras didn’t occur until after the war.

Or how until the early 1900s, an everyday ‘shirt’ was considered underwear for guys. Menfolk would wear at least two clean shirts a day and gentlemen would own as many as 60.

Other memorable items on show include a 1930s corset for a man, designed to hold in a plump belly and frequently marketed to gents as a ‘health belt’ or ‘health support’.

There’s also a maternity corset from the early 1900s (what were they thinking?), a ridiculously impractical bustle frame from the 1880s and a French metal corset from the 17th or 18th century that was intended to address spinal deformities.

Many of the corsets, girdles and drawers on display will leave you bemused and probably commiserating with wearers.

The exhibition is charmingly accompanied by vintage advertising illustrating how the undergarment in question “persuades your figure” into the latest fashionable silhouette.

Many of the corsets, girdles and drawers on display will leave you bemused and probably commiserating with wearers, but the exhibition isn’t just about fashion and design; it also opens up what was previously a rarely-seen world and offers a new perspective on several centuries of social history, and the practicalities and attitudes towards covering our pink bits and nether regions. 

Don’t forget to marvel at the pair of royal drawers that once belonged to Queen Victoria. The royal unmentionables deserve your full attention so get along and see them and the ‘generous’ cut for yourself.

Undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion runs until 12 July 2015.

Meet Kat Crossley; law graduate, writer, florist, and museum and gallery lover. We call her 
Gallerina, and she’s one of our Roving Reporters. She’ll be giving us her insights every month in M&Gazine as she flounces around the state from museum to gallery, so stay tuned.

You can find her on Twitter at @kat_crossley or exploring an exhibition near you. 

MAASive Lates offer

We have 10 free passes to give away to the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (aka The Powerhouse) for an adult only evening on 28 May. 

All you have to do is sign up to M&Gazine and check the MAASive Lates button on the form! Hurry, if you want to be a winner. Drawn Tuesday 26 May.

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