Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

April 14, 2016
  • Rating: ★★☆☆☆

After the blockbuster success of David Bowie Is and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the V&A returns with another exhibition that’s sure to draw in the punters. Because it’s about underwear and includes the word “undressed”.

But while the title hints towards something a little salacious, the delivery is an exhaustive, often dry, slightly repetitive examination of the ceaseless progress of underwear – both male and female – from 1750.

The ground-floor takes care of the historical nitty-gritty, with lots of old silk stockings and ruffled nightgowns that everyone will pretend to be interested in but will probably end up hurrying past. There are some interesting details about the evolution of the corset, and a loose line drawn between the old whalebone contraptions and today’s high-tech boob and willy lifting underwear. It’s certainly thorough, covering everything from sportswear to thermals; long johns to tighty whiteys; wartime to sexy-time.

The second half will be more familiar to veterans of the Bowie and McQueen exhibitions, with a greater emphasis on couture and the work of contemporary designers. The modern underwear section features intricate creations by Agent Provocateur, and a small but dramatic fetish section.

There are also some stunning contributions from designers using underwear as outerwear, including an Antonio Berardi dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow that featured a see-through, corset-shaped lace panel on the front, and an incredible gold McQueen creation that wraps like ivy from the bust over the wearer’s head.

Into the mix are thrown a handful of advertising posters, the odd video and a single underwear-inspired piece of art, but Undressed is generally lacking in mixed-media and wider cultural context; its reliance on dressed mannequins leaves the whole thing feeling a little flat and sexless.

Still, you’re reminded what a wonderful institution the V&A is when you can peruse a vivid pink Juicy Couture tracksuit one minute and saunter into the Raphael collection the next.

First published in City A.M.