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Too much boob – not enough woman: Undressed at the V&A reviewed

The atmosphere is vague and vapid and feels like an excuse to look at women’s pants while being in denial about why we’re looking at women’s pants

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear

Victoria & Albert Museum, until 12 March 2017

The V&A is selling £35 Agent Provocateur pants. This is, of course, a business deal because Agent Provocateur — along with Revlon — is sponsoring the museum’s new exhibition Undressed or, as I would have called it, if I were a curator with a gun to my head: Important Artefacts from the Ancient Kingdom of Boob; or A Trip Down Mammary Lane.

The atmosphere is vague and vapid, for this is fashion-land, where anger, if it even exists, is buried deep. But no matter; this is what I am here for.

I can now tell you that, in the 19th century, women wore cages on their legs (a metaphor?), and that most women in history panicked as to what to do with their boobs because they were the most interesting thing about them, and still are. Corsetry is the history of this anxiety. It has sometimes, Undressed notes calmly, caused serious injury; but it is less interested in the injury than the corset; and that is what is wrong with Undressed. Too much boob. Not enough woman.


I can also tell you that women have always been bullied by soap adverts.

Undressed answers some semi-interesting questions such as — who invented the thong? (Rudi Gernreich.) Where did pyjamas come from? (‘The East,’ says the caption, portentously. What — Kent?) Sometimes the blurb — the apology — speaks the obvious: ‘Fashion and underwear are intimately connected’. Sometimes it exists to anger posh ghosts: ‘Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, is believed to have owned these drawers’; or ‘Stocking worn by Queen Alexandra’.

Much of it is about marketing. We are schooled in the tricks of Gossard, Playtex and the person who invented a shelf for the ball sac. This is all noted without fury, or polemic, or barely, it feels to me, interest, but perhaps that is just how I hear it. Coathanger speaks to coathanger through the void.

For some reason, there are pants with days of the week on them. I am not sure that women who need their pants to recall the day of the week should be enabled in their madness by having their pants calendar appear at the V&A; but it is too late for that.

The final section, which is rather beautiful, falls to celebrity culture; or anti-culture. I go to museums to hide from this but the V&A is prostrate; it seems to have become a creaky arm of Vogue, happily throwing boxes of pants decorated with David Beckham’s face around. (Why does he get to have a face?) Here is the slip dress Kate Moss ‘famously wore’ in 1993; here is the dress Mila Kunis wore, presumably less famously, in 2011; here is the dressing-gown a bird wore in Skyfall before she was shot in the head. (Vulnerability has many forms.) I write up the Agent Provocateur exhibit because it is only fair that I do: a pair of stockings, suspenders, pants and a bra in black and white, with a hole for part of the boobs. A ‘female design team’, I am told, ‘creates lingerie that aims to empower women by giving them control of their desires and fantasies’. (Pause for scowl.) A monitor shows slightly-dressed women lurking. Whatever wave of feminism we are on — the fourth, I think, but I am never sure; I think I missed the sex-fetish-gear wave — has decreed that not to objectify women is to oppress them. I watch a woman touch her right boob; perhaps she is worried that, should she stop touching it, it will fall off? (Why is the left one safe?) I know that some believe that fashion matters; that it has something to teach us. I would rather divine a woman from her words than her pants but I am told — and I believe it — that for some women, pants are words; and who am I to silence a woman as she speaks through her pants?

Undressed is faintly interesting but, an anecdote about George Bernard Shaw’s complete dependence on Jaeger woollen underclothes aside, it feels like an excuse to look at women’s pants while being at least partially in denial about why you are looking at women’s pants. I would have been happier if the V&A had managed to source authentic Chartist pants, or Suffragette pants, or even Eva Braun’s pants. I suppose they were lost; or maybe they just aren’t lovely enough for an exhibition less interested in the eternal struggle of the female with its own flesh than in selling yet more lovely underwear to fashion hags delighted to learn that the V&A is now an Agent Provocateur concession. So go and look at Undressed; or, better still, visit a prostitute.

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