Undressed: a brief history of underwear

Boobs up, hips out, bottom in! Wait, boobs up, yes, but hips in, bottom out…Actually, boobs flat, waist tiny, hips and bottom streamlined. Hold on, I’ll have bigger chest area, round waist and big thighs. Nah, stick it, I’ll go with boobs up, good cleavage, tiny waist and… concealed everything else.

The journey that women have travelled over the past decades has been a tumultuous one, the desire for what women should look like matched the underwear trends. To see what each era prized in the body of a woman, what more intimate place to look than the underwear of the time? That’s what the Victoria and Albert Museum’s temporary exhibit about the history of underwear tackles. No punches were pulled in sharing the story of how underwear, first practical, went on to manipulate the shape of women’s body to fit the social norms of the day.

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Who can keep up? And how many can truly fit into the desired look of the decade? Image source: https://memegenerator.net/instance/57048593

No photos were allowed at this paid for exhibition, but the detailed description coupled with real examples of the underwear left a strong picture in my mind. While upper class women had the ‘luxury’ of having good corsets made, the working class women made their own that were even more uncomfortable. But neither the upper class or working class women were fortunate in the corset era. Many a lady fainted in the name of a small waist and pushed up boobs and this was due to the corset changing the shape of the ribs and stifling the diaphragm when this piece of underwear was worn. Another danger to health was the hazardous panniers or side hoops that was worn under a dress in the 17th and 18th centuries. Protruding material about a metre and a half wide was, according to the exhibit, a fire hazard!

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And now we skip to our modern world where either women go without bras, reminiscent of the 1960s, to protest against the oppressive nature of underwear, or, we go onto strict diets (that sometimes lead to eating disorders), exercise regimes and beauty treatments to look good in the attire of our day and the Wonderbra or Victoria Secret ideal body. One common thread has been the gaze of the male and how underwear (first designed and created by men for women) has largely been for the sake of women looking good for men. But more than the danger of fainting or catching alight, there are many women who suffer from anxiety and/or depression due to being unable to fit into the body shape that is desired in the Western world. That emotional and mental distress and pressure, I believe, is more dangerous and the deeper problem of our underwear trends.

The exhibit was interesting, and while I giggled at some of the ridiculous underwear items, I came away with a deeper appreciation for how long lasting our battle with body image has been. It has extended over centuries and does not seem to be changing in its essence. The exhibit is definitely worth the GBP12.

For more information and how to get tickets, see their website here.

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