Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Things to do, Exhibitions
4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(14user reviews)
‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection, S/S 2015. Photographer: Sebastian Faena, Model: Eniko Mihalik
Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890-95 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Brixton Boyz', 2001 © Jennie Baptise, Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund
Monday to Friday pants, 2015 © cheekfrills
Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co Ltd, c1936. Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate
Man’s top and pants, designed by Sibling, S/S 2013 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silk chiffon knickers, possibly Hitrovo, 1930s © The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent’, c1871 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants, 1950s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A is a victim of its own success. Ever since the Alexander McQueen exhibition ‘Savage Beauty’, with its drama, tragedy and preposterous gorgeousness, the bar for their fashion exhibitions has been set impossibly high. While this is not another ‘Savage Beauty’, it is a thoughtful and interesting show.

‘Undressed’ tells the story of undies from the eighteenth century to more recent times. It reveals the ingenuity of underwear, from the missing bones at the back of crinolines which allowed women to sit, to corsets designed for horseriding – forerunners to the sports bra.

There are some incredible examples of underwear’s influence on outerwear. Highlights include a transparent Givenchy haute couture dress by John Galliano and a Dolce & Gabbana sheer silk dress with wicker crinoline.

Despite the inclusion of Y-fronts and ruffs to represent the men, this story about underwear is also, by necessity, a story about the female form. For centuries, women have been contorting their bodies to meet the demands of fashion, from the hoops of the eighteenth century to contemporary Ann Cherry waist-trainers and bum-lifters.

This conversation is not new. Queen guitarist Brian May has donated a revealing selection of Victorian satiricial stereoscopic images. ‘Crinoline Stories’ demonstrate just how absurdly huge women’s skirts could be, often keeping ladies from their beaus and causing all manner of accidents.

‘Undressed’ reveals more than just pants, it’s an exploration of our relationship with fashion and our bodies.

Click here to view our eight favourite exhibits on display in the show.

Average User Rating

3.4 / 5

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This exhibit floored me. Truly fascinating to be so distracted by underthings for over an hour; that tells you a little something about the way our foundation garments really so say something about who we are, doesn't it?!

Something that stood out for me was just construction and the way garments were made to create or disguise a particular shape base don the time period. Even when using the same materials, the silhouettes could be totally different, and I loved that. No, I am not interested in wearing some of those whale-bone corsets or the large hoop petticoats, but I did find myself wondering what it would have been like to have those sorts of pieces make up my daily routine. And that's the sign of a good exhibition, isn't it? Something that really gets you to step into the shoes - or pants! - or the people who would have used these bits on a daily basis. It was neat to see the evolution - and then sometimes de-evolution - of the undergarment over hundreds of years, and see what similarities presented themselves. It was especially cool to see some super expensive pieces that I would never have encountered otherwise!


It’s a hard call to make but I’d place the V&A at the very top of a list of fantastic museums in our capital. Not only does it consistently stage exhibits that are world-leading in terms of what they show and the detail they go into, it’s also a gorgeous building closely located to some very decent restaurants and in possession of a rather excellent gift shop. In all honesty, the current show ‘A History of Underwear’ feels a little like the warm-up act for the Balenciaga exhibition due to land later this year but this is due to the fact that it’s slightly smaller than other shows and not to the quality of the pieces which are, unsurprisingly, beautiful.

Starting with the blousy undergarments of both sexes and skipping forward from wince-inducing corsets to unrelenting girdles to legendary Wonderbras to fetish-fabulous black latex to ultra-feminine Stella McCartney, this is a lovely little exploration of what’s held us in place and ultimately freed us throughout the past.

Taking around 75 minutes to stroll around, some of the garments on display physically made me feel nauseous – call me strait-laced but I’m just not sure that ribs were meant to bend almost double inside a whale-boned corset – while others made me swoon with delight. Dolce & Gabbana, Elie Saab and Vivienne Westwood are on display in all their ruffled, controversial glory and it’s absolutely intriguing to see society’s ideas of sexuality and beauty and control laid out in front of you. FYI, I’ll happily take the unfailingly chic, cherry red polka-dot. Fifi Chachnil playsuit and leave behind the painful & somewhat sad looking Kardashian-esque waist trainer.

Videos of some of fashion’s most stylish and inspiring female designers are a fascinating glimpse into the world of underwear design and will make you want to empty your undies drawer, head to Agent Provocateur and restock it immediately. Anyone who says it doesn’t matter what lies underneath your dress, your suit or maybe even just your coat needs to be admitted entrance to this exhibit as a matter of urgency. 

The only exhibition I ve felt I needed to write a review because in my opinion it is so disappointing. Very small, mix match of underwear. There's no follow through to the exhibition at all. Modern on its own. Modern with old, porno underwear with a mannequin dressed in pyjamas & dressing gown.

I think it would have worked better going through the ages in sequence, also to have put in less expensive underwear that poorer people would wear

Expensive for what was on offer



I’m usually excited about the fashion exhibitions in the V&A, and for some reason I thought it would be somewhat similar to the Shoes exhibition last year: not easy to see things and read the texts, but super interesting content, even if rather small. The space seems to be much more well lit and exactly the same in size and organisation, although – at least when I was there – it seemed less crowded, so it should have been a much better experience. The selection seems a bit random and the texts very simplified, with a lot of material and information left out. It was a fun time and there are of course some interesting pieces; but considering what it could potentially be it feels a bit like a waste of time (that you could be visiting other exhibition there) and money (it’s quite pricy for the small size).


Although the Undressed exhibit at the V&A doesn’t look like it fills up a huge space from the outside, they have packed in so many pieces, covering everything from whalebone corsets to long johns to day of the week underwear. They even have the fig leaf that was used to cover the Statue of David’s genitals during royal visits on display. The main floor offers a history lesson in under garments while upstairs features high fashion outfits that stick relate to the theme as well as videos from a few designers including Sarah Shotton from Agent Provocateur who sponsor the show. The price is kind of steep at £12.00 so make sure you have an hour or two to really see the whole exhibit.


I absolutely love my visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum as I'm a member. I try my best to grab every moment I can to go when there is an exhibition going on.

There is something extremely special about the 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' exhibition. It's right up my alley, my interest to fashion is an obsession and it's my life. Another bonus for me about this exhibition is of course corsets & crinolines. I adore the structure, the intricate stitching to the pieces. I remember perfectly that I had to design and construct my own very corset and crinoline. It was a painstakingly exciting experience.

We started off at the 18th-century where it displayed intricate, but intense pieces of corsets that would of been worn as an underwear garment. Some pieces are excruciatingly beautiful, the working woman suffered to look impeccable at all times. Either it was custom-made which would of been difficult back then as many couldn't afford to have pieces of luxury or many women would of made their own garments at home.

The exhibition has two floors of intricately designed garments spread across the space very well. I could see each and individual piece perfectly. The crinolines, the bustles, the designs, the lingerie pieces were the incredibly stand out statements of the era of underwear. It then moved onto being a huge trend for the fashion industry as designers like Agent Provocateur, Elie Saab, Alexander McQueen and so on developed it further on their clothes.

It's a huge part of our wardrobe and extremely important as it's part of a protective piece. It's also a decorative piece as a lot people did or still believe that looking beautiful underneath was a must at all times.

It's become quite prominent on the catwalk for many designers to wear underwear inspired pieces as an outer garment.

It's thoroughly interesting, all fashionistas out there must experience Undressed at the V&A. Absolutely fell in love with the diverse collection of innovative masterpieces. The true beauty of intimacy is revealed with this exhibition. The detailing is intricately made and the history is inspirational from the design to the construction.

#TOTastemaker Love MD.

A disappointment. I really did care about underwear for recent times, which is half the exhibit and than some. Tons was from 2000 and on. Not worth the cost.

Back in January, I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the V&A's 'Shoes: Pleasure and Pain' exhibition. The way they'd advertised it, I was honestly expecting to see a really blah pair of Louboutins Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the Sex & The City movie. It was SO MUCH MORE than that. So you can imagine my excitement upon hearing that there would be an exhibition on underwear taking the exact same format.

As a womenswear designer, 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' was an absolute must-see for me. Not only did the V&A do a great job with the pun in the name of it, they've also selected a fabulous, interesting and varied range of pieces. One of the themes within this exhibit explores the ways in which people have manipulated the shape of their bodies through foundation garments, drawing comparisons between tightly laced corsets and the more recent waist training, bum accentuating styles popularised by the Kardashians. (Also worth mentioning: a pair of men's bulge enhancing underwear.)

In contrast to these very technical, structured garments, there are some simply stunning items on display. Head upstairs and you will find pieces by the likes of East London based latex fashion pioneers, House of Harlot, and corset extraordinaire, Mr Pearl (whose clients include burlesque performer Dita Von Teese). Definitely stick around to watch the documentary featuring designers from lingerie brands such as Agent Provocateur.

At £12 for a ticket, I didn't feel it was badly priced at all. Some have mentioned this exhibition was a bit small compared to gargantuan blockbusters 'David Bowie Is...' and 'Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty'. You will really get the most out of it if you go with an open mind and a curiosity to learn new things. Underwear is something so functional and practical that we see everyday, yet so extraordinary and complex (I once took a course in bra making, so believe me when I say it's fiddly work!)


Unlike most exhibitions, "Undressed" taught me nothing new but it did take me for a walk down memory lane (suspender belts - ugh!) and made me grateful that I live now, when fashion doesn't dictate that I somehow pull my waist in to an incredible 19" with the help of whalebone corsets or increase my derriere to an enormous proportions with a ridiculous bustle.  I enjoyed my visit, as a friend and I were prompted to relive stories from the past with almost every exhibit but I can appreciate the exhibition has limited appeal.  It has, however, reminded me that the V&A is a fantastic museum and I shall return again soon, take advantage of a free tour and plan out my day carefully with the help of the musuem map (donations welcome) they provide.


Undressed - A Brief History of Underwear is perfect for me as I am interested in history, fashion and our changing culture, so much so that I wrote a much longer blog about the exhibition over on NakedPRGirl but I digress! This exhibition, as others have said, is smaller than others you may have seen (especially if you've been to the magnificent Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty Exhibition) but still has interesting pieces on display. The key here is that it is an edit, so there will be stacks of things you feel like they've missed, but then 'Brief' the clue is in the title ;-) So split into two floors; one of underwear over the years split into different sections (support, sport and so on) and the second floor upstairs a bit of a underwear as outerwear on the red carpet. Sponsored by Revlon and Agent Provocateur, I still got a lot out of this exhibition which charts the history of underwear and it's changing role in society, from the disposable Chukka Pants (yes really) and the rib crushing corsets with X-Ray's to prove it. They also have events and classes throughout the year so visit the V&A's website for all the information. If you're worried about the entry price, take a stroll around the many free exhibition spaces.


In a city that is packed with great museums, the V&A is my favourite. I particularly like their fashion exhibitions.

Undressed is the history of underwear. It is a telling fact that the most interesting piece in the show is not an item of underwear, but a 3D painting by Julian Opie. I found the exhibition less good than many of their shows about clothes. It felt haphazardly laid out and the displays and the information were uninspiring.

So go the V&A -  but save yourself the £13 (with donation) entry fee on this occasion, but enjoy the brilliant free exhibits, the beautiful café and the lovely courtyard instead.

Interesting exhibition but with some drawbacks.

First the several generations of underwear are mixed up, meaning there is no apparent logic or red line to follow through the exhibition. So you are always going forward and back in history. Too bad there is no explicit logic. The only one I found is that most recent pieces are upstairs.

Second is the only video with lingerie company directors is more a commercial of their brand than a real interesting analysis of the subject. I had expected something better from V&A.

Third is for the price asked (12£ without donation) it is overpriced. For this price there should be more pieces, more explanations prided videos...

When I compare this exhibition with the one of Alexander Mc Queen at 17£ the difference is huge, so much that you may think Undressed one has been done by amateur. A fair price would be 7£ I think.

All in all, interesting but can do much better for the price asked.


For fashionistas out there, this one's for you! Fabulous fashion from across the ages... from corsets to raunchy lingerie. It's definitely something different for date night and men won't mind being dragged along.