An Interview with a V&A Curator: A Brief History of Underwear


Edwina Ehrman on the fascinating History of Underwear.



29th March 2016

The Egerton House Hotel

The world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, the V&A lies at the heart of Knightsbridge. And, just footsteps from The Egerton House Hotel, it’s easily explored during your stay. This month, there’s an even greater reason to venture over with the launch of the greatly anticipated exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, looking into how underwear has evolved to reflect different societies, cultures and ideologies. We talk to the exhibition’s curator, Edwina Ehrman to find out more.

When did you begin to look into the significance behind underwear’s evolution?

“I inherited the exhibition from a former colleague, Eleri Lynn, who curated a smaller touring exhibition in Australia based on her book Underwear: Fashion in Detail. I have been working on the new, larger version of the exhibition for about 18 months. We have added many more objects and re-curated the exhibition for the Fashion Gallery at the V&A. “

Which era do you find most interesting in connection to the underwear people wore?

“The reasons why we wear underwear have not changed significantly in the 250 years the exhibition covers. However, the new technologies developed during the industrial revolution led to the development of an extraordinary range of underwear styles during the course of the 19th century. This was the heyday of the factory made corset, crinoline and bustle which transformed women’s natural figures to support the extravagant fashions of the day.”

A Brief History of Underwear

Which single item do you think tells the most stories?

“One of my favourite garments is a blue nylon and Lycra ‘Little X’ girdle from the early 1960s that encapsulates many of the exhibition’s themes. Firstly, it was designed by a woman, Ann-Marie Lobbenberg, for the British company Silhouette; Women have been responsible for some of the most successful underwear styles since the 19th century. Secondly, it is made of Lycra, which had only been available commercially for a few years. And thirdly, the girdle reflects women’s changing lives and the new emphasis on youth. Advertisements for the girdle focused on the freedom of movement it allowed.”

What do you consider to be the most dramatic change throughout the history of underwear?

“I think the most dramatic change was the revelation of the body through underwear, whether by creating transparent underwear like Rudi Gernreich’s 1965 ‘No Bra’ bra, or by defining and highlighting body parts that had previously been covered. A good example of this is the thong, which Gernreich, again, is said to have been responsible for.”

A Brief History of Underwear

Which items from the exhibition stand out for you?

“Some of the garments are very sculptural, particularly the corsets. The exhibition includes 26 women’s corsets from the 18th century to the present day. We are also showing an amazing corset dress created by London atelier Bordelle for the V&A in 2015. Satin elastic bands, rather than bones, cinch the waist and a zip replaces laces. It is called ‘Shibari’, which in Japanese means to tie, and today refers to an artistic form of eroticism.”

What’s the most intriguing discovery you made while curating this exhibition?

“Exhibitions offer the opportunity to acquire new pieces for the Museum’s collection. One of the pieces that I was most pleased to find is a corset made from paper twine in Germany or Austria in about 1917. The First World War caused such a shortage of textiles that all kinds of underwear was made from paper. The corset is very poignant but it also demonstrates the ingenuity of manufacturers faced by an exceptional situation.”

 History of Underwear

Do you think underwear still reflects the way society is changing now?

“Yes. Today, attitudes to gender are changing and people are talking about more nuanced ways of defining and expressing it. In recognition, we bought a pair of Acne gender neutral underpants to display in the exhibition. We decided to include them because they are part of this bigger story about people rejecting conventional ideas of masculine and feminine, bringing the story right up to date.”

How do you think underwear will evolve in the future?

“As in the past, its evolution will depend on social and cultural change, innovation in design and technology, and fashion.”

See Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear for yourself while staying just moments away from the Victoria and Albert Museum at The Egerton House Hotel.

Image credits: Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants, 1950s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Edwina Ehrman © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent’, c. 1871 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Silk, satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890 – 5 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A section of an advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, c. 1936 © Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate.

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