I love the V&A. My first trip there was for my 10th birthday. I asked my mum to take me after I’d seen a photo of a sofa from their collection (shaped like a pair of lips) in a women’s magazine at my grandma’s house. My mum duly took me, and although I can’t remember if we saw the lip-shaped sofa or not, I remember having tea in the ornate cafe and being bought an illustrated hardback copy of Winnie the Pooh from the bookshop (wish I still had it).
In the time since my 10th birthday, I haven’t forgotten the delights of the V&A, although since moving away from London, regretfully my visits have been less frequent. As well as the permanent collection, I’ve enjoyed the programme of Lates (I once had my photo taken with a friend in the style of Cecil Beaton at one of these nighttime openings, it was sadly lost when I deleted my Facebook account); a Cold War Design exhibition, and an exhibition about Liberty department store and the Aesthetic movement, The Cult of Beauty.
Being in London for a couple of days last week, I was excited to discover that the V&A had another treat in store- their Undressed exhibition, all about the history of underwear, from the 18th century to the present day. I pre-booked my timed 2pm entry ticket from home days in advance, then on the day got distracted by other delights in Bloomsbury and was running late. That led to my first ever Uber ride, which neatly set me down at the door of the V&A at 1.58. The exhibition was pretty full, but not overcrowded, and the thoughtful way it was laid out, as well as the quality of the exhibitions on display, made it really worthwhile. Some of the highlights included:
This pair of drawers belonged to the Duchess of Kent- Queen Victoria’s mother. These are apparently one of the oldest surviving pairs of female drawers/knickers/underwear in the world. They seem quite comfy, although the fact of their continued existence makes me wonder who kept them, and why- and where. Seriously! Apparently this pair may have been a kind of maternity wear.
It wasn’t just ladies’ drawers and corsets. My eye was caught by this fun 1960s pair of pink Donald Duck Y fronts, apparently purchased from a newspaper ad. The accompanying text states that this particular style and cut “was associated with gay culture”. Makes sense I suppose. I can’t help but think of the reaction if you were wearing a pair of these and undressed to reveal them…
I had a boyfriend once who was very taken by the appeal of corsets, and disappointed in my refusal to wear one (maybe he should have tried wearing one himself). The tiny tiny one above was worn by Dita Von Teese. It’s gorgeous (and so’s she)- but how would this actually feel to wear? I know there are probably plenty of women love the way corsets make them look and feel, and good for them – but personally, I don’t get it. As lovely as this corset is, I can’t help but think of a cage when I see it. A painful, constrictive cage, covered in tiny diamantes. Not for me.
This exhibit was from upstairs, the same as Dita Von Teese’s corset. The upper gallery explored more modern takes on underwear, from loungewear to underwear that’s designed to be seen on the outside, such as thongs or bejewelled bra straps. This sheer, opalescent dress was worn by Kate Moss in the early 90s- you can see a vintage photo of her in it here, where it’s shown as part of a gallery on the evolution of the “naked dress”. I have to say, I just loved his piece. It might be just that Kate Moss looked so fabulous in it- but there’s something just so carefree and appealing about this dress which is at once both demure and totally revealing.
If you’re in London, I would definitely recommend stopping by the V&A. The Undressed exhibition costs £12 for an adult, and is running until 17th March 2017, so there’s still time to check it out. Even if underwear isn’t your thing, the V&A has everything from Rodin sculptures to altarpieces from Spanish churches and works by Botticelli- and general entry is free. What could be better than that?