Shirt and Drawers. 1775-1800. Linen. V&A T.360-1884; T608-1996. Click on image to enlarge it

Edwina Ehrman, who organized the brilliant exhibition Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 a few years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum, created this equally successful show about the hidden items of dress that hide what lies beneath. As the catalogue explains, “Underwear helps keep the body clean, healthy and comfortable. Linen and (from the nineteenth century) cotton were worn against the skin because they could be laundered at high temperatures. Body linen protected expensive clothing from perspiration and grease, and the body from harmful dyes and ingrained dirt in hard-to-clean materials” (13). In the course of learning about what our ancestors first put on as they dressed, we come upon a few surprises, one of which was that in the eighteenth century anything that touched the skin, such as a man’s shirt, was considered an undergarment. It was therefore impolite to show more than cuffs, neck, and a small bit of the shirtfront. (One would like to know how long these attitudes continued. Did such rules apply in the Victorian period?). The exhibition corrects our assumptions about what women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did and didn't wear: women of all classes wore stays, the ancestor of the corset, but “few women wore drawers” until the later nineteenth century. We might know that in the eighteenth century both sexes supported their stockings with garters, but we learn (at least I did) that garters turn out to be the Augustan version of the T-shirt with slogans, since “political and personal messages were sometimes incorporated into their design” (museum label). Throughout this visually beautiful exhibition the explanatory material is consistently clear, interesting, occasionally surprising, and always informative. Although a considerable portion of Undressed appropriately concerns twentieth- and twenty-first century underclothing and related outerwear, such as appears in the installation photographs immediately below, the following paragraphs will leave that material to other reviewers and concentrate on the earlier garments of more concern to readers of this site.

A range of garments in which inner becomes outerwear, and the erotic valences of the hidden is amplified, played with, or parodied. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Ehrman entitled “Shapeshifters” (or clothing as a body modification) the most fascinating and often appalling category of those undergarments that demonstrated the many ways in which human beings endure self-induced pain for beauty, prestige, or acceptance in a desired social group. Undressed contains more than 25 corsets that show the development of these constraining garments. True, corsets provided some support for a woman’s breasts, but truly comfortable, effective support didn't become possible until someone realized that straps on the shoulders provided a far more effective solution to this very personal engineering problem than did pushing and constraining below, particularly before the invention of elasticized fabrics. (The first patent for an ancestor of the modern barassiere was in 1863.) Moreover, some corsets occasionally had beneficial effects, such as those worn by horseriders to protect their backs or by those with orthopedic problems. Nonetheless, almost all the corsets on display strike one as instruments to inflict torture or at least extreme discomfort upon oneself. As the museum labels point out, women of all classes wore these constraining constructions of the fabric, whale bone, and steel no matter how much doctors and advocates of dress reform protested. To show about what these health and dress reformers were complaining, Undressed included three X-rays showed the frightening degree to which corsets deformed ribs, placing pressure on heart and lungs,

Examples of using new materials and technologies from the V&A’s own collections. Left: The Cage Crinoline — “Princess Louise Joupon Patent”. c. 1871. Linen and spring steel. T.195-1984. Middle: The New Phantom collapsable bustle. 1887-88. Manufactured by Stapley and Smith. T.131c-1919. Right: Corset. Silk satin, lace, and whalebone with steel busk and metal eyelets. T.738-1974. All Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In many ways these undergarments seem paradigmatically Victorian. They require discipline and self sacrifice, and they are, after all, examples of a Victorian technology that employs then-current scientific and engineering developments, including new ways of manufacturing and dying textiles, use of processed organic materials, and the development of inexpensive spring steel. Victorian corsets and Victorian bridges turn to have a lot in common: engineering, continuing experimentation, and standardized components. The corset shown the the second photograph from the left immediately below has a “‘belt’ of dark brown cotton, which wraps the waist, . . . designed to reduce the risk of the whalebones breaking at this notorious stress point” (museum label). Unfortunately, new technologies encounter unforeseen or unsolved risks, and on occasion Victorian corsets, like Victorian bridges, met with catastrophic failure.

Left: Stays. 1800. Cotton lined with linen, whalebone, and silk embroidery with ribbon lacing. T.237-1973. Middle left: Corset. c.1890. Cotton, whalebone, metal busk, and machine-made lace. T90&A-1894. “During the 1890s it was fashionable to have a small waist and a full bosom and hops. When this corset was laced tighly its waist measures just under 48 centimetres. Today the UK standard size 12 waist measures 71 centimetres” (museum label). Middle right: For Tennis, Cycling and Golf. This corset is cut shorter in the body to enable more freedom of movement. 1895-1900. Charles Bayer. Cotton, silk, watch-spring metal boning. Collection: Museum of London. Right: Corset. 1851. Roxey Ann Captin. Silk, linen lining, and whalebone (baleen) with metal eyelets. Collection: Museum of London. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Placing Victorian corsets in these technological contexts makes them seem very contemporary, very modern, very much the way we like to think about ourselves; but considering the discomfort and even damage they inflict makes them seem more closely related to the customs of various tribal societies that involve enduring pain. Anthropologists long ago pointed out that human beings have always employed forms of body modification to separate themselves from members of the animal kingdom. Every society does so — almost always to the shock, horror, and (of course) condescension other societies. Scarification, tattooing, foot binding, neck-stretching, tooth-filing, and wearing corsets that constrain and compress a woman's (and occasionally a man's) innards are all human, all too human, ways of elevating ourselves above nature. However romantic Victorians found the natural world, however lovely they found flower and field, horse and dog, they didn't want to be seen too closely associated with them. The crinoline and the bustle are as much responses to Charles Darwin as are the words of Bishop Wilberforce.

Continuing the practices of earlier centuries, Victorians used inner and outer dress to hide and reshape four areas or parts of the female body: They hid legs and and buttocks, reshaped the bosom, waist, and to a lesser extent hips. The bosom was often featured and exposed, if not supported very well, and then hidden in the late-Victorian and Edwardian mono-bosom; the waist was distorted at great cost of health, and the buttocks were hidden and disguised by crinolines and bustles.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear was sponsored by Agent Provocateur, a lingerie manufacturer, and Revlon, which is known for its lipstick and nail products. Reviewers were asked to mention them, and they certainly deserve thanks for helping mount such an important exhibition. Exhibitions today frequently make use of multiple kinds of audio-visual materials with great effectiveness. Sometimes these supplements work quite subtly, as did the texts projected on walls during Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Other exhibitions, such as the V&A’s Wedding Dresses, employ a full range of projected images, movies, and text to supplement the objects encased behind glass walls. Undressed also makes use audio-visual materials, but the primary one took the form of a large screen on the upper level placed apart from the exhibition. Upon this screen appeared three movies about the sponsoring firms that however interesting seem little more than extended television commercials. Of course, this is a very small criticism of a fascinating and informative exhibition.

Related material


Ehrmann, Edwina. Undressed a Brief History of Underwear. London: V&A Publishing, 2015. Pp. 112 ISBN 9781 85177 885 0.

Created 18 April 2016