Finally on 26th April I went to see the exhibition Undressed: a brief history of underwear at the V& A in London. Looking forward to the day, tickets printed, sketch book, pencils and mobile phone fully charged to take lots of photos we dashed off to London. We arrived at the V&A to find that you can’t take photos or sketch in the exhibition.
My poor partner Andy who had been cajoled going with me very kindly bought me the book produced for the exhibition with lots of lovely pictures and details inside. I did make some notes outside of the exhibition but still it was a lesson learned.
The exhibition displays a large range of selected underwear and clothes from the 18th century to the present day and looks at how underwear has developed and changed throughout this time.
I had not appreciated the connection between underwear and outerwear and that fashion influences the structure and design of underwear which for most of its history has not been seen!
The three pieces I have selected are as follows:
Red damask half boned stays – 1770’s http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13864/stays-unknown/
Cotton bust bodice -1820’s http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O316198/bust-bodice-unknown/
Silk and cotton brassiere – 1930’s http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O368016/bra/roussel-john-j/
I have included links to photographs of each item rather than putting the images on here because of copyright law.
Red silk damask half boned stays – English – 1770-1790
These beautiful stays are made from woven silk damask, linen, cotton and whalebone (baleen). The outer fabric is woven red silk damask which incorporates a floral pattern, the lining is a natural/cream colour woven linen fabric and buckram has been used to stiffen the stays between the silk and linen. The whalebone casings are formed by hand stitching in contrast cream/natural cotton thread, on the front of the stays they run horizontally in the bust area, flattening the bust and then diagonally from the underarm towards the centre front of the stay. The centre front has a vertical boned panel. The back of the stays are boned vertically which were designed to keep the back straight.
The edges of the stays are bound in a contrast natural/cream woven twill tape. The twill tape also runs down the centre front and diagonally from under each arm towards the centre front and also vertically on the back of the stays. The edges are bound in the same type of tape which contrasts with the red silk damask. The back has 12 eyelets on each side of the centre back for lacing up. There are also eyelets on the back of the stays so the shoulder straps which are part of the front section can be fastened together. The bottom of the stays are made with a number of tabs which allow the garment to lie over the hips of the wearer.
They are hand made around 1770-1790 (sewing machines were not invented until much later), the maker is unknown but the details show that they are English and made in Great Britain. They were donated to the V&A by Messers Harrods Ltd.
This garment would not have been worn directly next to the body but a linen shift or chemise would have been worn underneath and then they would have been covered by the outer garments. They would not have been laundered but possibly sponged clean.
There is significant wear to this garment particularly on the bound edges of the garment and under the arms. These areas appear to have been repaired by hand. The floral pattern in the damask silk is also worn. It was not possible to look in any more detail at the garment to ascertain if there was any further damage.
There is no reference to where the fabrics used to make the stays originated from. Silk was produced in Britain but could have been imported from Europe at this time. Cotton was only available from India and had been banned in Britain for clothing and domestic items between 1721 and 1774 (Calico Act) to try to protect the domestic textile industry (1). Linen was produced in Ireland and some areas of Europe. Whalebone (baleen) is a by product of the whale oil industry.
Of course there are no details of who owned these stays, but she would have been petite, the measurements given are: bust – 81cm, waist – 62cm, centre front length – 31cm, centre back length – 39cm. I can only imagine that she was a young lady from a fairly wealthy family because of the quality and the type of fabrics used. The garment is over 200 years old, why was it kept? Was the wearer a treasured daughter or wife? She must have been quite special for this garment to have survived in such good condition for so many years.
Cotton bust bodice – English – 1820-1829
I was drawn to this garment because of its ingenuity, it has been made for a specific reason or need, it could be a garment of today and is similar to a ballerina top but with more shaping.
It is handmade from woven cotton, the maker is unknown but has been dated to 1820-1829 and made in England. It was donated to the V& A by a Mrs C Ginsburg.
The back is made from two sections, long rectangular pieces which taper almost to points to which woven tape has been attached, these cross over at the centre back, pass under the arms and tie under the bust at the front in a small bow. The sleeves are a raglan style with diamond shaped gussets at the underarm. The front has a low neckline and the bust shaping is formed by two darts to the bust point. There is a band under the bust line approximately 2″ wide and the back ties finish at this point. There is a small opening at the centre front which is fastened with a Dorset button and loop. There is no boning or stiffening.
Outer fashion at the time had a high waistline and often used sheer fabrics which skimmed the figure. The bust was no longer pushed flat by a corset but pushed up in a more natural way. It provides some support because of its shape and would have been comfortable to wear because of its design. Being made of cotton it could easily be laundered. The front opening suggests that it may have been designed to enable breastfeeding and there is evidence that it has been made smaller either for wearing after pregnancy or altered for a smaller person.
There is no information as to the origin of the cotton used in this bodice but cotton was being produced in Britain by this time.
Brassiere – J Roussell of Paris – France – 1930
This beautiful garment is made from silk and cotton and is remarkably like a modern bra. It is handmade using continuous strips of silk bobbin lace which are joined together using buttonhole stitch in cotton to form a comfortable, supportive garment. The bobbin lace strips are joined in a spiral to form the bust cups, the sides and back are formed by stitching the ribbons of bobbin lace horizontally. The centre front strips are joined vertically with button hole stitch. The back is secured by 3 small buttons and loops and has narrow satin ribbon shoulder straps.
There is no indication as to where the silk and cotton originated for the manufacture of this garment.
There is some evidence of wear on the shoulder straps and some of the buttonhole stitch has worn and been repaired with slightly different coloured thread. I am not able to inspect the garment any closer. The information from the V&A states that these garments were fitted by trained saleswomen in Roussells own shops in London and Paris.
The development of this type of underwear was again due to changing fashions and the need for women to have the correct body shape for the outerwear of the period.
Photos are of a similar item for sale on a well known internet site in America.