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Art Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear @ The V&A


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When the V&A described the history of underwear as ‘brief’ in their exhibition title, it was not simply a witty pun about pants: it is genuinely very brief.

In the gallery’s description of ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’ online, it acknowledges that underwear’s ‘cut, fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing attitudes to gender, sex and morality’.

There is not a clear chronology of underwear’s history in the exhibition, as display cases grouped items together based on themes such as health and hygiene rather than time, limiting the clarity of how underwear can ‘reflect changing attitudes to gender, sex and morality’

With the importance of underwear so evident and explicitly recognised by the gallery as adaptive to a transitioning society, I was surprised that the exhibition confused the chronology of the displayed items by combining items from different times in each display cabinet, interrupting the temporal progression.

There were aspects that certainly could have explored the importance of underwear as reflective of social attitudes. Julian Opie’s work ‘Sara Gets Undressed’ at the top of the staircase sees a woman gradually unclothe as the viewer walks up the stairs. This highly sexualised representation of a woman in the work reflects the increasingly liberal acceptance of sex in modern times. The work is controversial, confrontational, and noteworthy – it makes a strong impression, as underwear can.

Had the rest of the exhibition made quite as much of a statement as Opie’s work did, it would have done justice to underwear’s potential to make a significant impact on the intended viewer.

Partly sponsored by Agent Provocateur, the exhibition felt like less of an art or fashion exhibition, and more of an advertising campaign. With the final set of underwear on display being by Agent Provocateur, it is difficult to not feel sceptical about the exhibition’s intentions.

The other leading sponsor is Revlon, and in both of their sponsor statements they claim to “empower” and “celebrate” women. Yet, as a woman I did not feel particularly empowered or celebrated from attending the exhibition. Instead, I felt a little uninspired and felt that underwear was somehow presented as uninspiring.

The V&A seemed to objectify underwear in the exhibition, dampening its powerful subjectivity. It was a shame to see meaningful items of underwear become meaningless.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear runs at the V&A until March 2017.

See images from the exhibition below.

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