The history of underwear is a relatively short one. It begins with the Industrial Revolution which introduced cheap, colourful fabrics that provided a more plentiful choice of clothes to a greater number of people. Men, women and children in antiquity and the Middle Ages wore, aside from stockings or socks, no clothes under their clothes; with the elaboration of bourgeois fashions in the Early Modern Period, concerns for modesty, cleanliness and comfort expanded and the need was felt for an underlayer.
In the punningly titled exhibition, Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear at the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 12 March 2017), no fewer than 200 examples of handmade and manufactured items of underwear are on display—no mean feat when one considers that underwear, unlike, say, wedding dresses or court costume, is ephemeral and utterly dispensable. (Who thinks twice about chucking out one’s old knickers?)
The show is—unsurprisingly?—mainly, but not exclusively, of women’s underwear. Although men were first on the scene in the 18th century with easily washable drawers (to protect costly coats, waistcoats, jackets and shirts from BO), thereafter it has been a woman’s world. Panties began to be worn with the see-through, clingy Empire Style dresses of the 1810s; bras were invented in 1863; corsets were a staple from the 18th century onwards until after the First World War. The feminist debate about the dominance of men in women’s fashion and body shape is revealed to be chicken-and-egg: women were often the agents of their own fashioning. (The exhibition is sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon—they know which side they are on.)
The 20th-century trend was inexorably towards comfort, and sports and maternity wear appear on the scene. With the growth of leisure wear, what was formerly underneath came to the outside in the form of pyjamas, dressing gowns, negligees and so on. The sexual aspect became explicit and a challenge to questions of gender and morality.
We are told in a wall text that our underwear indicates our choice of identity, lifestyle, taste, dreams and fantasies that might be revealed by accident or design. Would someone please deconstruct my Marks and Spencer boxers?