While house-sitting last year, I happened to forget a small selection of underwear drying on the rack. A couple of days after I left, the woman whose house it was gave me a call, “You left a selection of …” she paused, searching for the right word, “…delicates."

‘Delicates’ - a polite way of saying ‘You left a whole bunch of your knickers”. ‘Delicates’ suggests a world of beautiful silky La Perla stuff, matching bras and pants. Certainly not slightly ragged cotton M+S affairs and a bra with an underwire missing. 'Knickers', on the other hand, is such a horrible British word - massive frilly jobs that belong on dolls and Baby Jane or those awful creations some of us were forced to wear at school, which could have been kindly re-designed as shorts but, no, the idea of ‘gym knickers’ were to shame the hairier of students and introduce them to their female reality. I suppose they hoped this public embarrassment would sent us running for the Immac. And it did. Personally, I would prefer the word ‘Panties’ but can’t quite bring myself to use it out loud. It’s a bit American, a bit too Fifty Shades of Grey, pretty but too breathily girly, a bit ick. ‘Pants’ has to do the job, uni-sex, functional and also a good childish insult.

Terminology and overshare aside, coming up in April, 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' at the V&A will chart the course of our relationship, both women and men, with underwear from the 18th Century to the present day; the practicalities, fashion, politics and sensual appeal of articles most of us wear on a daily basis. 200 objects, from corsets to Y-Fronts, have been drawn together and will be displayed alongside fashion plates, photographs and film, advertising and packaging.

Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd. c. 193

Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd. c. 193

It has been interesting following the V&A ‘Undressed’ blog over the last few months as the curators, researchers and conservators have been revealing all the different objects, elements and issues the show presents. Visitors can expect to see, amongst other things, some beautiful examples of 18th Century garter belts, which of course were used as standard by women right up until the 1960s when women then began to transition to one-piece tights, historically a male item of clothing.

A variety of corsets will also be on display. Textile Conservation Display Specialist Lilia Prier Tisdall reported in her November 2015 blog about the difficulties of finding exhibition mannequins with small enough waists to accommodate some of the corsets. Talking about a particular cotton corset from 1825-35 she says “Despite trying her (the corset) on one of our ‘petite’ dress stands specially designed for historical costume and boasting a waist measurement of 17 inches, she was still too small.”

Although the focus of the show will have an obvious focus on women’s underwear, there will be a good selection of men’s items. This display figurine from the 1950’s shows an all American tanned man/boy pulling up some enormous white Y-Fronts proudly. In 2014, Y-Fronts (specifically Jockey’s Y-Fronts – the original design) celebrated their 80th Birthday. First sold in a Chicago department store, they had been inspired by a postcard image of a young man in the South of France wearing a tight swimsuit.

Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants. 1950s. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, Londo

Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants. 1950s. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, Londo

‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’ runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 16th April 2016 to 12th March 2017.

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AuthorSacha Waldron