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Undressed: A Titillating Exhibition on the History of Underwear

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum chronicles the history of undergarments in 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.'

Drawers, undies, bloomers, knickers, chonies, butt-huggers, skivvies, unmentionables: Whatever you call them, undergarments have literally been the foundation of our wardrobes for about as long as we've been wearing them. Now, London's Victoria & Albert Museum showcases the history of underwear from the 18th century through today in an exhibition called Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. The V&A Fashion Gallery currently features more than 200 examples of undergarments designed for men and women, including advertising material, fashion plates, photographs, and films, all bringing new insights to our intimates.

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Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent,' c. 1871. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What makes Undressed so unique is how it explores the trajectory of the undergarment industry; how it eventually infiltrated not just nightgowns and pajamas, but also couture, when petticoats became skirts, corsets became tops, and slips became slip dresses. There's a special emphasis on breakthroughs in textiles and technology, alongside notions of comfort, with a hefty dose of extravagance. The exhibition also reflects changing ideals of beauty through the decades, and how design can affect notions of sex and social mores, as well as our attitudes toward cleanliness and well-being.

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Detail, Silk chiffon knickers, possibly Hitrovo, 1930s. Courtesy The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

In the midst of the maze of crinolines, stockings, bras, and boxer shorts, there are several extra-special objects in Undressed, such as an early 18th century DIY corset made of two pieces laced together and hardened with lines of whalebone, also known as "stays." There's also a pair of long underwear worn by Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Duchess of Kent and Strathearn, a.k.a. Queen Victoria's mom, alongside 18th century hoops and a 19-inch whalebone corset from the 1890s, accompanied by dramatic x-rays showing the effects of these restrictive garments. In addition, visitors are treated to a selection of bras through the ages, from bustiers to sports bras, as well as a rubber girdle, various garters, stockings, and even a 1820s "nursing bodice."

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Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, c. 1936. Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate

Undressed features objects from classic fashion houses such as Paul Poiret and Baroque to more modern labels, including Calvin Klein, John Galliano for Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, and Jean Paul Gaultier. There's a body stocking designed by Mary Quant in the 1960s, as well as a pair of mesmerizing sheer leggings from Vivienne Westwood, adorned with a fig leaf in a nod to Adam and Eve.

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Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants, 1950s. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Edwina Ehrman is Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, and the one who put together Undressed. While curating the show, she says she particularly enjoyed talking to underwear and lingerie designers about why they chose to work in the field, and what they most enjoy about it. "Without exception, they all loved the technical challenge of designing underwear to fit a multitude of shapes, and the possibilities underwear design offers for drawing on tradition and innovation," she tells The Creators Project.

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Installation view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ehrman says it's important for people "to appreciate just how lucky we are to be living in a period when underwear doesn't envelop, constrict or control our bodies." After witnessing such dramatic changes in the industry while curating the show, Ehrman believes there's still more in store for the future. "I think we'll be seeing more smart underwear as designers engineer increasingly sophisticated fabrics and digital applications," she says. "But I hope we'll also see more good-looking versatile underwear produced in a sustainable, responsible way that will find a following because of its comfort, functionality, and great design." Check out more from Undressed in the images below:

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© Jennie Baptise, Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, Jennie Baptiste, lith print, 2001

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Man’s top and pants, designed by Sibling, S/S 2013. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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cheekfrills, 2015, © cheekfrills

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‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection. Photographer: Sebastian Faena, Model: Eniko Mihalik, S/S 2015

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Installation view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Installation view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Installation view of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London through March 12, 2017. Visit the exhibition website here.

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