The V&A museum’s new show Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear reminded me of this article I wrote for Glass magazine back in 2010

sophia corset

The story of lingerie is the story of our relationship with the human body. Or, more essentially the female body, one that society has sought to tame and control, dress up, with parts covered, parts accentuated. And who can deny the alluring thrill of those whispers of silk, satin, chiffon, and nylon that quicken the pulse and retain the heat, shape, and scent of the body. Brassiere, teddy, corset, camisole, stockings, suspenders, baby doll; lingerie has an arsenal of delicate contraptions that wield much power. Lingerie is duplicitous. It tells lies about what’s underneath, it hurts, marks and punishes as much as it does favours, and of course, if it does its job properly, it doesn’t stay on the body for very long.


The term as we know it was introduced in the 1850s from the old French word for linen; ‘linge’, and referred to the chemises that were worn as a layer between the body and exterior garments, including the  most evocative item of manipulative underwear which is the corset, (which takes it’s name from the Latin word ‘corpus’, meaning body). The task of this garment has forever been to manipulate and reconstruct the body, nipping in the waist to doll like proportions in the quest for the perfect hourglass figure. It was like this that aristocrats were rib-crackingly bound and starved of oxygen, Georgia belles like Scarlet O’Hara fainted in the hot sun of the deep south as did their Victorian counterparts, and swooning into some chivalrous arms became a matter of course.

The corset as we know it was an evolution of the severe and ubiquitous Elizabethan ‘stays’, a stiffened bodice, like an exoskeleton that in very name implies that the female body was too feeble to hold itself upright and required support. Actually putting on the garment itself required such assistance that such items and elegant bodyshapes were originally the preserve of the aristocratic before lingerie became more democratic.


The perversity of the corset is that despite the pain and restriction, its hold on the female body has never really been loosened. After a brief rejection in favour of the androgynous Art deco silhouette in the 1920s, with thrilling flashes of silky camiknickers and coloured garters with every Jazz age high kick, the  sculpting, restrictive but oh so sexy corset returned  as the uniform of Playboy bunnies and in the form of the ‘waspie’ that was essential for achieving Christian Dior’s New Look in the 1950s. Enter the Hollywood bombshell; Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell’s curves; brazenly feminine in a glamorous post-war world of engineering that adapted to lift, separate and inspire the MadMen silhouette of  conical bras and girdled hip that swaggered in kitten heels in every Manhattan office high rise.

Elsewhere on the big screen, Raquel Welch set the barometer for animal print’s enduring sexual allure in that bra and briefs in One Million Years BC, cutting a fine balance between glamazon and barmaid.


As sexual politics and issues of gender equality took focus in the 1970s, the cultural evolution of lingerie evolved in an era of extremes. In one camp the feminist movement burnt their bras, dismantling the symbols of female constriction and chauvinism while the other embraced an unbridled sensuality which still charges the retro fantasies of contemporary fashion campaigns today.  Sarah Moon’s powdery soft focus in the 1972 Pirelli calendar references 1930s decadence and the speak easy bordello while Guy Bourdin’s notorious 1976 catalogue for  Bloomingdales entitled Sighs and Whispers, elevated lingerie to an art form in scenes of satin-edged eroticism that is both surreal and smouldering in equal measure.


The 1980s and the protagonists of punk found that all too cloying of course, and lingerie emerged as a weapon of rebellion. Like the 1950s beforehand, austerity and recession produced an unapologetic, sexually overt aesthetic to celebrate counter-culture and get back to the earthy delights of the body. Punk girls wore bras on top of their clothes, combined with heavy boots, denim and leather as did Jean-Paul Gaultier when he reinterpreted the tea-rose girdles of the 1930s to create Madonna’s iconic Blonde Ambition look.

Eleri Lynn, Curator of Fashion at the V&A museum suggests that it was this trend in punk culture that informs the position of lingerie as part of our fashion lexicon today, when considering the current catwalk trend for underwear as outer-wear. She suggests that these origins lie ‘in the punk movement when Vivienne Westwood subverted overtly feminine symbols like corsets and bras and turned them into aggressive statements of empowerment.’


Silky slips as dresses, bras over blouses, and corset references on everything from T-shirts to party dresses have become staples of the current fashion trend as seen with designers from Marc Jacobs to Dolce & Gabbana and Bottega Veneta. In fact, John Paul Gaultier’s 2010 collaboration with La Perla has created a collection based on nude and black items that recall the irresistible Betty Page whose Southern girl innocence was tinged with just a little touch of bondage and resulted in explosive sexual allure. Just the right uplifting cocktail for right now when the coffers are empty and recession is nigh.

Lingerie is so much a part of our lives that it’s no wonder some brands became established household names. You’d have trouble finding a woman who didn’t own a Wonderbra in the 90s or indeed, a man who hadn’t slipped into some Calvin Klein boxers. Agent Provocateur designers Joseph Corres and Serena Rees received an MBE for services to fashion and contributed to a renaissance for all things burlesque and cabaret, creating fantasy worlds of sequinned nipple tassels and glamorous authority figures, granting women the liberty to fulfil their inner kinkiness without compromising on style and decorum.

A woman’s lingerie drawer constitutes a whole wardrobe in itself, and like any clothes, a cast of different characters she wants to be on any given day.  As Christian Dior said in 1954 ‘Real elegance is everywhere, especially in things that don’t show…Lovely lingerie is the basis of good dressing’.

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