Two things in the past fortnight have given me reason to peel back the layers and shed light on what goes on underneath. Body Studio, an all-encompassing space dedicated to women’s lingerie, lounge, sleepwear, swimwear, hosiery and sportswear, opened up at Selfridges. It’s their biggest department to date and to me felt like a celebration of the facets of a modern woman’s life that are often shunted into hard-to-find corners or boxed into finite fitness niches. And at the V&A, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, the largest exhibition ever to be staged on underwear, opens today. What’s traditionally been covered up and childishly joked about Carry On-style, comes to the forefront in a comprehensive history of underwear ranging from 18th century whalebone stays to Acne’s gender-netural briefs. It exposes the thematic purposes of our undies – namely protecting and enhancing the body, and vaguely touches on the ramifications, which is that as garments, they often place both female and male bodies under engendered expectations – constraints even. The role of underwear in the act of seduction, and in its aesthetic referencing within fashion completes this spectrum.
It’s a straightforward – perhaps even conventional – way of looking at underwear. There’s a sense of going through the motions when looking at the vitrines of stays and corsets, shapeshifting underskirts and bustles, the evolution of sports-aiding supportive underwear and the eventual emancipation from corsetry with the introduction of bras. The main takeaway from the ground floor of the exhibition is that right from the start, underwear has been tasked with the role of shifting, moulding and holding the shape of our bodies, something that is still evident today. Seemingly, little has changed from boosting the line of a woman’s body with 18th century hooped petticoats and 19th century bustles, slimming the waist down with debilitating corsets to the Wonder Bras and men’s briefs by aussieBum that enhance the genitals of present day. Those changes to the body created by underwear are perhaps less severe today, as the focus has shifted to enhancement and celebration rather than improvement and disguise.
Shape-shifting hooped petticoats, crinolines and bustles
18th century stays and undershirt
18th century homemade stays splayed out
Examples of 19th century corsets at their most extreme proportions
Breathable wool corsets
Waist training corset // Summer ribbon corset
Stomacher for pregnant women
Looser and less restrictive underwear once the 1920s-30s kicks in
1950s bra and girdle
Mary Quant supportive body
Gender neutral briefs by Acne and the first pair of thongs designed by Rudi Gernreich
1930s silk chiffon knickers depicting a hunting scene
Upstairs, the exhibition progresses to explore the aesthetic and sensual pleasures of underwear. The list of designers, who have referenced the appearance and technical construction of underwear is endless. “Underwear as outerwear” has become a style genre in itself – a vehicle for rebellion as designers seek to blur the lines between the private and public sphere, as well as breaking down the taboo around sex and nudity. The use of sheer materials, slip-dresses and corsetry worked into evening gowns are things that we take for granted today but once upon a time, shocked and titillated. With Agent Provocateur being a primary sponsor to the exhibition, the re-classification of underwear as lingerie is also addressed. The role of lingerie to be alluring, seductive or playful, whether it’s for the eyes of a partner or for self-pleasure is also demonstrated here with examples by the primary instigators such as Agent Provocateur, Fifi Chachnil and on a more fetishistic level, House of Harlot.
House of Harlot // Agent Provocateur
Fifi Chachnil // Strumpet & Pink
Liza Bruce metallic slip dress as worn by Kate Moss // Vivienne Westwood corset and fig-leaf tights from 1989
Bordelle structured dress // Mr Pearl’s Swarovski-encrusted corset designed for Dita von Teese
John Galliano for Givenchy transparent muslin dress A/W 96 // Dolce & Gabbana wicker crinoline dress from S/S 13
A more subversive and contemporary extension to the exhibition might have included Marie Yat, a new lingerie and bodywear label created by a CSM graduate of the same name, who launched her new website with an gallery installation in De Beauvoir this week. Dazed called it lingerie that “resists the male gaze”. Judging by my boyfriend’s reaction to these alternatively titillating images, I’m not sure it necessarily does that, but it is certainly an out-of-the-box take on lingerie that is simultaneously utilitarian and erotic, especially where Yat places features such as thin straps cupping the bum cheeks, cut-outs at the hips and suspenders hooked to ribbed thigh high socks. Rendered in a strict palette of white, pale pink and black in cotton and silk, Yat manages to carve out a niche in an oversaturated market, and positively, one where stretch marks, slight bulges and imperfections are normalised and elevated even.
Yat’s work reminds you that there’s a lot to be said about the emotive and psychological aspects of underwear and lingerie. The intimacy evoked by colour palette and materials often endears you to the pieces. It’s why over the years, I have held on to antique lace knickers with fraying edges or bralets with covered buttons. There’s a tenderness to these sort of constructions that is irresistible. The psychological effects of underwear and lingerie in relation to the wearer and how it makes them feel (as opposed to what onlookers feel) was perhaps not fully explored in the V&A exhibition.
It’s a hard thing to articulate and perhaps those feelings can only remain within a strictly private sphere. Cue the Body Studio, the impressive all-encompassing department on the 3rd floor at Selfridges Oxford Street, which has been designed as a haven for bodywear, where you could potentially ponder those thoughts about how these most intimate of layers makes you feel. With the newly created expanse of space, Selfridges has carved out a much more freeing environment to link up lingerie with hosiery, swimwear, activewear, loungewear and sleepwear. These categories bleed into one another and the clever decision to house it all together, reflects the way women today treat their bodies as temples. Whether it’s the feel-good factor of a juice from Hemsley & Hemsley’s first cafe, a hair cut from Daniel Galvin’s salon, or the beckoning of a beach holiday or even a night-in for quality ‘me’ time in luxurious pyjamas and cashmere socks – it’s all catered for here.
Having overly relied on Uniqlo seamless underwear for the last few years (I still love and buy you in bulk…), I thought I’d indulge a little in some of the newer and hard-to-find lingerie labels that Selfridges have brought in for Body Studio. Established brands like La Perla and Agent Provocateur get their own enlarged shop-in-shops but Selfridges’ own buy of deluxe lingerie as well as unique contemporary brands is definitely impressive. As lingerie isn’t my forte, I discovered a few brands that really spoke to my own personal tastes, ranging from the functional to the frivolous. The frills of Fleur du Mal‘s suggestive sets and the romance of For Love and Lemons. The whimsical florals of LA-label Daydream Nation. The sustainable bamboo grey marl of Baserange. My undies drawer has been duly replenished.
I thought about coyly photographing it all, worn over a t-shirt or laid out flat, but that would defeat the original purpose of these pieces crafted with, intricacy and an actual body in mind. Ten years ago, I’d be horrified at the thought of wearing lingerie on the blog. That’s what a decade does. That crippling self-consciousness and habit of nit-picking one’s appearances fades because you’re more mindful of the bigger picture. The body stretches and softens over time and you kind of don’t care like you once used to. Commentating and writing online for so long hardens you up to criticism (I’m referring to the needless sort about appearances and the like) to the point where you’re able to say, ‘Frankly, I don’t give a fuck anymore….'” And at the end of the day… it’s a body… we all have one and it’s no secret that we do.
Fleur du Mal bra and knickers