What lies beneath: the hidden politics of underwear

The "Undressed" exhibition at the V&A reveals a social dimension to bras, pants and corsets.

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Underwear rarely makes it into the history books – and more’s the pity, because you can tell a huge amount about a society by its pants. In Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour, she recounts what happened to an aristocratic woman who had been encouraged to seek Louis XV’s favour. She was smuggled into the royal bedchamber by Lebel, premier valet de chambre, who acted as the king’s procurer. Unfortunately, when the monarch arrived he mistook her for a lower-class prostitute and told her to take off her clothes while he went for his official coucher.

“Now it so happened she had never in her life undressed herself without the help of a maid,” Mitford writes. “Her clothes were, of course, all done up down the back, with hundreds of hooks, very difficult to manipulate alone.” Even worse was to come when Louis returned, said he wasn’t as young as he once was, and decided it would be better if she went back to Paris. The poor woman had to struggle back into her cumbersome petticoats, panniers and corset alone and be smuggled back out of the palace.

That vignette has always stayed with me, because of the unexpectedness of the situation (what adult can’t dress herself?) and the intersection of class, status and gender bound up in those hundreds of fiddly hooks and eyes. Underwear, being essentially functional, cannot help spilling the intimate secrets of its owner’s body and life. Take the difference between the Japanese geiko, or geisha, and her more affordable (and more explicitly sex-selling) cousin the oiran. A geisha’s obi (sash) was tied at the back, indicating that she needed help to get undressed; a prostitute wore an obi that closed at the front.

The “Undressed” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum attempts to tease out a little of the complicated contextual history of underwear, ranging from the heavy stays of the 18th century to the sports bras and shapewear of today. Menswear gets a look-in, too, in the form of a woollen jockstrap, allegedly perfect for sporting activities, and some natty dressing gowns that cry out to be worn by Jim Broadbent in a BBC period drama.

The V&A recently held an exhibition of shoes, subtitled “Pleasure and Pain”, and that phrase would apply equally well here. Shoes can either make walking easier (heavens be praised for orthotic insoles!) or much harder, with vicious, nail-thin heels and flimsy strapping. Similarly, throughout history, underwear has frequently seemed to fight rather than support the female body, attempting to wrestle it into submission, whether through a wasp waist or a flat chest. Class plays its part next to gender: both high heels and tight corsets advertise the wearer’s glorious uselessness at mundane tasks such as sweeping the floor or herding pigs. A family shows its wealth by keeping half its members for display purposes only.

For this reason, it’s important to remember that what survives of ephemera such as underwear is often extremely unrepresentative of what the general population used, as if our great-great-grandchildren assumed we all dressed like the finale of a Jean Paul Gaultier winter collection. Early in this show, the curators present two sets of 18th-century stays side by side: the rich woman’s fashionable kind (weighing 630 grams) and a lower-middle-class woman’s workday set in wool (a more hefty 1.06 kilograms). The sturdier ones might well have been easier to wear: truly disempowering fashion is usually the prerogative of the rich.

Perhaps some of the lessons here are overly obvious. Women in particular have had a raw deal from underwear designers, who have bullied and charmed them into everything from latex slips (not very breathable, the notes add unnecessarily) to tight-laced Victorian corsets. The most eye-watering one here has a waist of just 48 centimetres (19 inches), when a standard UK 12 is now 71 centimetres (28 inches). It’s a radical feminist dictum that “femininity is eroticised submission”, and that is never clearer than when looking at garments which veered from displaying the approximate shape of a female body (out-in-out) to exaggerating it to such extremes.

This being the V&A, there is ample consideration of the technical advances – nylon, proprietary “wicking” fabrics used for sportswear, thermal fibres – which gave underwear designers new ways to make their products more comfortable, useful and washable. The bigger mystery is why so many pants-makers haven’t bothered, and yet still prosper. Lingerie is a huge market, and this exhibition is sponsored by Agent Provocateur, one of our premier purveyors of £180 dry-clean-only bras, alongside erotic exotica such as “waspies” (mini-corsets) and “playsuits” (strappy affairs that look like you’ve got tangled in a rotary washing line). We might get a thrill of superiority by contemplating the stiff stays of our ancestors, or cluck with concern over all those dainty ribs crushed by whalebone, but we still can’t seem to give up useless, painful underwear. Don’t despair, though: there’s a photo of George Bernard Shaw in a woollen onesie that will cheer you right up. 

“Undressed” runs until 12 March 2017. Details: vam.ac.uk

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater