Undressed: The Evolution of Underwear

From conservative to racy, functional to expressive, the Powerhouse Museum bares all with its new exhibit Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion. The exhibit explores the constriction and manipulation of bodies to conform to the different visions of the ideal figure over the past three decades.

There are more than 80 items of underwear on display, including some which have never been on public display before. They include items such as brassieres, corsets, bustles and bloomers.

The exhibit is an insight into how fashion has evolved over the over the centuries, exploring how different generations have concealed, revealed, distorted natural figures and adorned bodies with the latest trends all in the name of fashion.

A racy range of under garments, by Madame Lash who was a fashion designer, performer and dominatrix. Photo: Harriet Sim.

A racy range of under garments, by Madame Lash who was a fashion designer, performer and dominatrix. Photo: Harriet Sim.

The exhibit arrived from the world renowned Victorian and Albert Museum in London, but the collection is not solely made up of international brands as it includes a collection of Bonds and Berli garments, two iconic Australian labels.

A series of old Berli video commercials streamed during the exhibit, which featured statements from the “It isn’t done” advert including, “you can’t be without (underwear) foundation my dear it simply isn’t done” and “now let’s correct your figure”. These adverts provided a slightly humorous reminder of how far we have come in our perception of womens bodies since the 1930s.

Some of the highlights of the exhibit include a very large pair of linen underpants that belonged to Queen Victoria. The garment is 160 years old and is embroidered with VR, which stands for “Victoria Regina”. It is this garment which is considered to be the earliest known form of female underwear.

In contrast to Queen Victoria’s voluminous underwear, was the corset which reoccurs throughout the collection many with beautiful lace and intricate detail, although, in a modern day context it is almost impossible not to notice the miniscule waist the corset displays.

The size of the corsets waist really makes you consider how the underwear have acted as the foundations for the fashion trends and idealised body figures through the centuries, such as the androgynous shape in the 1920s to the small waist and accentuated large hips of the 18th century.

The exhibit emphasises how an under garments such as the corset, has facilitated in creating and distorting our natural body shapes to create the sought after silhouette of the time.

While the distorting effect of the corset may not be new knowledge, one of the most shocking uses of the corset was the 18th century maternity corset, which was almost unrecognisable as a silhouette that would be able to safely protect a pregnant woman’s stomach under.

A close up of Madame Lashes garments including a decorated pink bodice (second from left) and fur bra and underwear set (second from right). Photo: Harriet Sim.

A close up of Madame Lashes garments including a decorated pink bodice (second from left) and fur bra and underwear set (second from right). Photo: Harriet Sim.

It was evident from the exhibition that the corset has had many functions including the 17th century metal corset used not for aesthetic purposes but instead to correct the spine. Although, one of the most unusual corsets by far was what appeared to be a pregnancy corset but was in fact a men’s corset with a bump at the front to accommodate a mans beer belly.

One of the rarest items was one of the earliest known bras dating from 1800-1830, with no frills, padding or underwire the bra was far from what you would find in a modern department store.

The exhibit is set out in chronological order as you move around the collection you are literally walking through time, from the earliest brassier contraptions, corsets, petticoats and bustles. You will see a wide range of rare intricate high-end designer pieces to mainstream basic brands such as Marks and Spencer.

The collection is very diverse and shows the change in not only trends but fabric choices and technology as well.

A collection of undergarments by the Australian underwear label Berli.  Photo: Harriet Sim

A collection of undergarments by the Australian underwear label Berli. Photo: Harriet Sim

The exhibit houses a collection of famous international designers including: Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Calvin Klein, Jean Paul Gaultier and Versace. Arguably one of the most innovative designers garments on display was Moschino’s cocktail dress that was layered with black bras from 1988.

Many designers also loaned famous pieces to the collection including an exact copy of the Bottega Vega corset dress Emma Watson wore at the New York premier of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in 2011, which highlighted one of the modern trends of underwear as outerwear.

Our underwear today is something we often take for granted, how we wear it and what we wear is entirely up to us. The Undressed exhibit invites us to explore a private world of societies – interesting, bizarre, beautiful and unusual undergarments.

Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion is at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney now until July 12th 2015.

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