V&A Undressed Exhibition: Our intimate relationship with underwear

Over and over again we are told that pressure on women to have the ideal body shape is a new phenomenon fuelled by images in the media. However, it seems that pressure to have the ideal body shape has been around since the first piece of underwear was invented. The fabulous V&A Undressed exhibition, explores how the ideal body image has changed over time and its complex relationship with lingerie design.

Most interestingly, this unique exhibition charts the evolution of our relationship with underwear and body image. From the start, underwear has always been designed to not only provide improved hygiene but to create an ideal body shape, presenting the best of ourselves from the inside out. Over time, the changing body ideals have shifted and so has the underwear design. Designs have been there to either enhance or conceal our body shape. Since the late 18th Century the evolution of underwear has been fuelled by both consumerism and our idea of the perfect body shape, but what hasn’t changed is how we use it to create those shapes.

Corsets were introduced in the late 18th Century and were designed to give the wearer a desirably tiny waist in contrast to the full skirt created by a crinoline. I know even now, many women instantly want to rip off their underwear after a long day at work and can sympathise with the early corset wearers, who suffered crushed ribs in a bid to create a synched in waist. As concern for both hygiene and health grew, underwear design began to evolve.

During the 19th Century, concern rose over the large amount of pressure applied to the women’s reproductive organs by a corset. In an attempt to provide an alternative to the rib squeezing and organ crushing corsets, the brassiere was invented. The bra, a relatively modern invention, was introduced during the First World War and was styled in a bandeau shape. This worked to minimise the breasts in line with the ideal body image of the twenties.

Just like today, body image and fashion design were influenced by consumerism, so it wasn’t long until a new body ideal came into fashion, changing the shape of the bra. In the late twenties, bras with cups were introduced, creating a more rounded bust shape. Many women needed persuasion to wear these new bras, as initially they were not the convention.

Two decades after the bandeau bra was introduced, conical, pointy bras became more fashionable complimenting the wide-hipped, full-skirt fashion of the late 1940s. This style was derived from the hyper-sexualised, Hollywood image of femininity, signifying an abrupt change in body image. However, by the late 1960s wearing a bra was challenged and going without became a political and counter cultural statement. It was a movement that was thought to empower women, making them feel more in touch with their bodies, but in reality very few actually shed their bras.

It is evident that since its invention, underwear has been created to either improve or disguise what nature gave us and this is still the case today. Currently we still seek underwear to either enhance our assets or mask the less desirable features of our body. This desire to change our natural body shape is fuelled by the changes in both the ideal body image and fashion. Historically our relationship status with lingerie has been ‘complicated’ and this is set to continue as the 'perfect' body image evolves.

Are you surprised by the historical desire to create the perfect body shape and lingerie’s inextricably complicated relationship with our body image?

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