London: Undressed; a Brief History of Underwear @ the V&A

Man, this exhibit was pants. Well, not actually (truthfully,”pants” is not even a slang term I’d use in that sense, not being British), but the subject matter of this exhibit is ripe for punning. The V&A do it themselves in the exhibit title, as you may have noticed.

Undressed just started a few weeks ago, and is running at the V&A until March 2017, so I’ve left you plenty of time to see it for once, as of the time of publication.  Full price admission is £12, but you can get in for £6 with a National Art Fund Pass, or a National Rail 2-for-1, which I highly recommend doing, because there ain’t no way a bunch of undies are worth 12 quid.  The exhibit is inside the “fashion temporary exhibit space,” which I genuinely don’t think I’d ever been inside before (to be honest, this might be the first temporary exhibit I’ve paid to see at the V&A, though I’ve enjoyed their permanent (free) galleries on many an occasion).  It’s hidden inside the middle of the British fashion through history hall (or whatever it’s actually called) which itself is an area of the museum I’ve only been in once or twice.  I guess I tend to spend most of my time in the early modern galleries or over in the India section gazing at the excellent Tipu’s Tiger (I have a Staffordshire knock-off of a knock-off version of it, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as the original).

Anyway, in terms of crowding, which is always a concern with these temporary exhibitions, it wasn’t too bad.  We were allowed immediate entry with the timed tickets, and though it was pretty busy inside, generally people seemed to move along so you weren’t straining to read captions over shoulders the whole time.  Of course, this was about 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, so I would imagine weekends are a whole other experience altogether.  You probably have to buy tickets early in the day then to even have a hope of getting in without extreme crowds. The exhibit is set up on two floors, which did help some, as the upstairs was more spread out, and therefore not as crowded, and the downstairs space was set up into two concentric circles, so we were able to do the least busy loop first and then head back around once the other side had cleared out a bit, so bra-vo to the V&A for decent organisation (see what I did there?).

No pictures were allowed, which is why you get this very boring, text heavy post, but there was some bra-illiant undies in here.  I suppose the exhibit was trying to trace historical developments in underthings, but it wasn’t strictly in chronological order; at least, the middle circle was kind of all over the place.  There was of course much emphasis on corsetry and other uncomfortable innovations in women’s underwear, right up to the present day, including this horrible butt-lifting device that went around each cheek and came to a thong down the middle (I mean, really, it looked so hideously uncomfortable. You’d be better off just doing some squats so your butt is actually lifted, if you’re concerned enough about it to wear torture device undergarments).  I wouldn’t say I’m part of the anti-bra brigade or anything (I mean, I never wear them when I’m just sitting around my house (or jeans or anything. My jimjams go on the second I walk in the door) but sometimes I need the support.  Mainly when working out), but my primary concern is comfort, and I can’t really understand why people would do these things to themselves.  And, it’s not just women, they also had a selection of male girdles (popular with Regency-era dandies),and weird crotch-bulge enhancing boxers (not sure of the point of those.  If your pants are tight enough that people can see the outline of your junk, surely they’re too tight to wear underwear at all.  I mean, I’m pretty confident all those rock stars in the ’70s weren’t wearing a whole lot under their jeans.

I was actually quite into the ’30s fashions.  Getting to wear pajamas on the beach might actually convince me to go to the beach (see my aforementioned devotion to pjs), and there was a beautiful nightgown embroidered with a pair of turtle doves and accompanied with an ostrich feather wrap that I would totally wear outside.  They also had some lingerie inspired dresses worn by famous people, but most of them were hella ugly.  Speaking of famous people, there was a corset worn by Queen Victoria’s mother (she was a hell of a lot slimmer than Victoria), and a bunch of Queen Alexandra’s stockings and such, which was good because famous historical figures are of far more interest to me than celebrities.

It was definitely a female-centric exhibition (both in terms of the people attending the exhibit, and in the underwear on display, though my boyfriend happily accompanied me to it, which is fortunate, since I don’t really have any female friends here), but they did have a few display cases on Y-fronts and these charming pink Disney themed boxers that were apparently all the rage in the gay community in the ’60s.  I guess women’s underwear has just changed more dramatically over time, plus there’s all the drama of deformed organs and bones that you get with corsetry and the other more restrictive forms of undergarments. They even included X-rays of women wearing corsets, so you could see the damage they did (the stereoscopic images of women passing out because of their corsets were delightful as well.  I also liked all the cartoons featuring skeletons, because tightly laced corsets mean death!).

Overall, I think we were in there for about forty minutes, which was plenty of time to see and read everything (nothing interactive here, but the cartoons provided a touch of whimsy), which to me, is not worth 12 quid, so I was happy we’d only paid half price.  I do think £6 was probably ok, because it was very well put together, and fairly interesting.  I used to go to fashion exhibitions pretty regularly growing up (the Western Reserve Historical Society had a fashion gallery, with constantly changing exhibitions), but it’s been a while since I’ve been to one as an adult (probably not since I went to the Kent State Fashion Museum a couple years ago), probably due to the aforementioned lack of female friends (not to stereotype, but it definitely does seem like a more female-centric activity, probably in large part because most men’s clothing is boring.  Except spats and two-tone shoes), and it was nice to have a poke around the world of Victorian fashion again, perils of corsets and crinolines and all (I definitely have a soft spot for hoop skirts and bustles because of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her detailed descriptions of her clothing in These Happy Golden Years). The captions were informative and just long (john) enough, and I think in general, it was a nicely put-together exhibit, just not quite worth the admission price.  3.5/5.

Oh, and as a side note, I’ll be travelling around New Zealand and Australia for the next month or so (pretty cool, right?!), so if I take longer than usual to approve or respond to your comments, that is the reason why.  I’ll of course be posting about all my adventures eventually (and have scheduled weekly posts like this one to go up whilst I’m away), but in the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram @jsajovie (or just click the link in the sidebar) where I’ll be regularly posting photos from my travels!


  1. This was lots of fun even without photos. Though, damn, I’d love to have seen the turtle dove nightgown. I’ve always been partial to 30’s fashions myself – especially the women’s PJs craze. And thank you for the Tipu’s Tiger tip. I’d never heard of it before – so neat! Happy travelling!

      1. Yeah, I love ’50s stuff but the full skirts and crinolines are too fussy for me – I’m a firm believer in the pencil skirt.

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