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Lingerie Exhibition - Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion

Rigby and Peller 2009

Rigby and Peller 2009. This limited edition set was created to mark the 70th anniversary. Inspired by 1950's lingerie. As worn by Katy Perry. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Lingerie is both a necessity and an indulgence. For many centuries in european history, lingerie has aided women in shaping our bodies for the fashions of the day. We have been cinched in, uplifted, flattened, and padded all in the name of fashion. In my understanding, our expertise in lingerie today is shaped from a knowledge of our past and is what drives us into the future.



Undressed- 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion

Undressed- 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Recently, I attended a beautifully curated exhibition Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion held at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. In the exhibition are more than 80 pieces from the Victoria and Albert Museum, some never or rarely shown to the public. Alongside Undressed is another exhibition called Recollect: Underwear, which displays vintage lingerie from three Australian brands: Berlei, Bonds and Madame Lash. Undressed showcases garments, art, magazine ads, photographs and some couture pieces exploring concepts of lingerie. The exhibition is located just outside the Powerhouse’s Lace Study Centre and I had the opportunity to meet with expert bobbin lace maker Lynne, who kindly showed me her current project.

Recollect - Underwear - Berlei Display

Recollect: Underwear - Berlei Display. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Lingerie trends, like fashion trends, are always rotating. What once was old is new again. Whilst we may not start wearing drawers like those worn by Queen Victoria again, there is always a time and a place for something fabulous to come back into fashion. Lingerie for some is simply underwear, worn for a purpose. Whilst for others, it is about the feeling that comes from wearing fine underpinnings. The exhibition explores each piece in the collection, offering insights into the owner or brand, time period, fabrics, and any notable facts from the garment's era. The relationship between wearing undergarments for purpose or for fashion is explored throughout the exhibition.

Below are some of the notable pieces from the exhibition. This is only a glimpse into what the exhibition offers. If you are in Sydney, it is worthwhile checking it out.

Metal Stays: France 1600s or 1700s

At the exhibition, the metal corset was quite shocking. Many people gathered around to observe and understand why and how. It’s a very powerful symbol. We must remember most women did not wear this style of corset. The information accompanying the corset advised it was most likely used as an orthopaedic device to correct spinal deformities. The corset is made out of four plates of iron with perforated square and round holes, no doubt to reduce the weight of the corset. It would have been lined to protect the wearer from chafing. Whilst I can try to make sense of this corset, it still shocks and amazes me each time I look at it.

Oldest Bra in a Museum: Britain 1800-1830

The exhibition gave the bra below the title of the 'oldest known bra in any museum.' Whilst it is not the oldest bra discovered, it certainly is old -- dating to the 1800s. For the history buffs, there were bras discovered in Austria that have been dated to 1390-1485. You can read about these here.

Whilst the bra seems to be a modern-day cropped blouse, this cotton bra was designed to support the bust. Before the invention of elastic, women still required an adjustable fit so ties, such as the wrap around ties we see here were used. This rare piece offers insight into what women wore 200 years ago.

Underbust Ribbon Corset: Britain 1900

Corsets have a long history, and there are many examples at Undressed from different eras. The ribbon corset was favoured at the time for its relative ease of movement. Though, it is still heavily boned at the sides and back. This style of corset was quite popular as a boudoir corset and also as a sports corset. It is made out of silk satin ribbon with a closed waist circumference of 48cm or 19 inches. I have to wonder how comfortable it would have been to exercise while wearing this?

Tango Corset: France 1914

A unique style of dance came into fashion in the 1910s… the Tango. As dancing fever swept up America and Europe, the need for a less constrictive corset was apparent. Young women abandoned stiff whalebone corsets but still required assistance with achieving the fashionably slim figure. Thus a new style of corset was created. The front panel is criss crossed silk satin ribbon, which allows for movement whilst maintaining a flat stomach. This is the start of the girdle, which is still loved today by retro lingerie fans.

Dressing Gown: France 1932

A love of luxury lingerie is synonymous with an appreciation of fine fabrics and beautiful details. The 1930s were known for the bias cut, championed by couturiers such as Madeleine Vionnet. This dressing gown is cut on the bias in silk satin. The lace is Valenciennes lace, which is a type of bobbin lace and is dyed to match the silk. The most amazing part of this piece is that it’s entirely sewn by hand! What’s interesting is that despite the economic issues during this time, beautiful lingerie continued to be made and cherished.

Suspender Belt and Bra: France 1960

Lingerie in the swinging 60s seems to have been about experimentation. It is rare to find lilac-coloured lingerie today, especially paired with a floral print. As nylon became commonly used in the lingerie industry, we see colours other than tea rose pink being offered, and experimentation with printing. This experimentation with colour, contrast, and print brings forward a new look in lingerie design.

Below are a few more images captured at the exhibition:

Bobbin Lace Making at Powerhouse Museum

Bobbin lace making at the Powerhouse Museum. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Bobbin Lace Making at Powerhouse Museum

Bobbin lace making at the Powerhouse Museum. One lace pattern section takes 3 hours to complete! Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Bust Bodice - France - 1905

Bust Bodice - France - 1905. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Petticoat - Britain - 1905

Petticoat - Britain - 1905. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Bust Bodice - 1910's

Bust Bodice - Britain - 1910's. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Dressing Gowns and Chemise at Undressed

Dressing Gowns and Chemise. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Pin Up Girls - Wilfrid R. Addey - Britain 1940's

Pin Up Girls - Wilfrid R. Addey - Britain 1940's. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Jacques Fath Petticoat 1957

Jacques Fath Petticoat - 1957. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Girdle by Lily of France 1957. This is a reference sample with sewing and making instructions sewn onto the girdle

Girdle by Lily of France - 1957. This is a reference sample with sewing and making instructions sewn onto the girdle. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Girdle - Symington under licence from Christian Dior - 1957

Girdle - Symington under licence from Christian Dior - 1957. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Designed by Gretel Pimmiger 'Madame Lash'. Handpainted with images borrowed from John Willie

Recollect: Underwear - Designed by Gretel Pinniger 'Madame Lash'. Handpainted with images borrowed from John Willie. Photo by Kathryn Wellington

Undressed will be running at the Powerhouse Museum until the 12th of July. There is a book by the V&A, titled Underwear Fashion in Detail which features the pieces from the exhibition. Excluding the pieces from Recollect: Underwear. 

Have you seen Undressed? Which pieces are the most interesting to you?


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Kathryn Wellington
Kathryn Wellington

Kathryn is a lingerie and swimwear garment technician from Sydney, Australia. Lover of all things vintage and lacy.

6 Comments on this post

  1. Leg Avenue says:

    What an awesome timeline of lingerie styles! Our favorites are the french styles– so classically feminine. But the metal stays is FIERCE! Cool round up :) Nice to remember our roots.

  2. Lisa says:

    LOVE this article! The metal stays is very interesting. Love the bobbin lace making looks really difficult but beautiful! You don’t really see things like this anymore.

  3. Saffron says:

    Oh my gosh… I wish an exhibition like this would be possible where I live! This is the stuff of dreams… the metal stays are just WILD

  4. Liz says:

    I just finished reading “Uplift,” which is a book about the history of the bra in America, and it’s really cool to see its history around the world! I’m in love with that bust-bodice from 1910s Britain.

  5. Thursday says:

    Ever since I heard this exhibition was opening, I’ve planned a trip to Sydney later in May to catch it. So you’ll have to excuse me for not actually reading this article as I want to see it all fresh for myself! I’m pretty excited to check it out, you can imagine :)

    • Thursday says:

      So I visited the exhibition yesterday and it truly was fantastic. It includes nice coverage of various styles worn for the past few centuries. Personally I would have liked to see a few more pieces from the 40’s and 50’s, but that’s my favourite era so I’m biased! I loved seeing the Kestos bra, and the maternity/nursing corset was also a standout. I did not know of items like the bust bodice from the turn of the 20th century so that was also interesting. There was also a fantastic quilted satin petticoat, and fetish-inspired pieces from Madam Lash’s collection in the Recollect section were a nice contrast. The Recollect section presents items from the Powerhouse’s own collection, so the focus on Australian lingerie history was a lovely bookend. My only regret is that I couldn’t follow-up with some lingerie shopping! I did stop by Gallery Serpentine on my way out of town to run my hands over some fine corsetry at least.
      I would strongly urge anyone who can make it to Sydney for the exhibition do so – you won’t regret it. Now, hopefully I can add to my own lingerie collection on my trip to Melbourne this week :)

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