London’s Victoria and Albert Museum currently has this rather spectacular corset on show in its Undressed exhibition of underwear. Looking at this, you might hardly believe that it is over 100 years old – it looks so pristine and modern. It also provides something of a contrast perhaps to some of the items we might actually be keeping in the underwear drawer. At one time or another we can all be guilty of holding onto favourite items: comfortable but a little washed out and wilted. This show was a reminder to me that there is really no excuse for this and, especially with the summer sales about to start, here was an opportunity to replenish my stocks.
It does not take much to make me think about shopping, clearly, but the V&A’s show is much more thought-provoking than that. The underwear on show is a fascinating insight into the ways that our lives and our bodies have changed over time. There is a very striking corset from around 1890 with an eye-watering 48cm waist. Women have suffered for fashion for as long as clothing has existed but in today’s world, this kind of extremity can seem almost insane, even though at the same time, we might find ourselves almost subconsciously desiring a similar silhouette.
The 1920s and 30s brought a different silhouette entirely – flat-chested and athletic. It also brought Hollywood silverscreen glamour and the show has a stunningly desirable oyster satin gown made in France in the 1930s. It features a large lace panel, covering its back from neck to the small of the back, tracing a highly flattering line to accentuate every curve.
The World War brought with it shortages of all kinds including of the rubber and steel used to make corsets. This drove many women to repair or re-make their own and I recently found an example of one of these at a vintage market. It had been beautifully handcrafted, perhaps re-using elements from different pieces. It even proved to be a perfect fit and very comfortable to wear.
In the 1950s the development of nylon brought colour, pattern and ease of maintenance to underwear and ushered in the age of mass manufacturing as wartime rationing was eventually lifted. Even as the mass market has grown over the years, couture lingerie has held a special corner of the market.
The show has some modern items of extraordinary beauty, including a marvellous Carine Gilson slip in lilac satin and gold lace. It hangs alongside a short video showing workers in Gilson’s Brussels atelier making the piece (watch it on the V&A site here). More affordable than a couture gown, but equally special and perhaps even more alluring, what woman has not desired some really exquisite lingerie at some point? Spoiling as a present, it is equally the perfect little treat to self, whether that is the austerity corset handcrafted by its owner or a couture camisole. One of the lessons I was reminded of seeing this thoughtful show was that our underwear can speak more intimately and tellingly about us than the clothes we display to the world. All the more reason to replace those wilting items with something more eloquent.