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Undressed: 350 Years Of Underwear In Fashion

Home > Bendigo > Art | Day Trips | Escape the City | Exhibitions | Fashion
by Rachael Taylor (subscribe)
My husband and I run a small mixed farm on the Mornington Peninsula. You can check us out online at or in person at our fortnightly tours
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See what everyone has been covering up
Undressed: 350 Years Of Underwear In Fashion is an exhibition currently showing at the Bendigo Art Gallery. It's a temporary exhibition, organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Undressed is on display for another month, until the 26th of October, 2014 and if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it. Tickets are $11 for adults, or $9 for concession. I would allow at least an hour to see the exhibition, and significantly more if you want to have a wander around the gallery's permanent collection as well.

As you would expect given the exhibition name, the display centres around the history of underwear. You might think that underwear doesn't change with, or effect, fashion. After all, you can't see underwear in public. Well, you'd be wrong. On a few counts actually.

Underwear as an invisible, or intimate layer, is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, in the 18th century a man's white, linen shirt was considered underwear. An open waistcoat was provocative, and likely to make 'conquests' according to The Tatler in 1710.

18th century shirt and breeches on display at bendigo art gallery undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion
Shirt: British, 1775-1800, Linen, V & A Museum and Breeches: France, 1775-1800, Linen. V & A Museum
In addition, a significant element of all fashion, is shape. What is the ideal silhouette for either man or woman? This has changed dramatically even between the eighties and now: we certainly don't wear shoulder pads anymore. Think about how it must have changed in the last 350 years.

While men were seductively unbuttoning their waistcoats in the 18th century, women were wearing side-hoops, and stays to shape their torsos. In the 1870's the bustle was all the rage - to the extent they had to design a folding one, so that women could still sit down!

A little later colourful, silk-satin corsets started to appear; pushing busts upwards and outwards, with both the underwear and the wearer on display. Twenty years later the opposite was in style, with bust confiners coming into fashion, to give a slimmer 'parisian' figure. Examples of all of these fashions are on display in the gallery.

Changes in what shape was fashionable affected societal convention too. A hundred years ago a waist needed to be less than 22 inches. That alone was enough to reinforce the stereotype of a gentle, quiet lady. After all, how easy is it to speak or yell with your diaphragm so restricted? How difficult is it to run when your internal organs are being squashed so hard they're actually changing position?

The Undressed exhibition also has a section devoted to contemporary designers who take elements from historic underwear, and turn them into outerwear. Vivian Westwood, Christian Dior and Emma Watson's unforgettable red carpet gown by Bottega Veneta are all on display, along with others.

confining bra bendigo art gallery undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion
Bust bodice, Dicken's and Jones, Britain, 1910's. Figured silk satin ribbon, bobbin lace, mother of pearl buttons and boning. Given by Christina McMillan.

There are regular paintings and posters, as well as photography from the archives of the V & A Museum. Some of the displayed advertisements play on women's self-esteem, while others promise to help keep their husbands happy. There is even an example of early photo shopping that required hand painting on the original photographs. Apparently our desire for unattainable bodies in advertising is not a new thing - although the elements they decided to change were different.

As you wander through the two rooms of the exhibition it's fascinating to see the transition from Queen Victoria's drawers, to modern bra and knickers sets. To see corsets that we consider painful, and degrading, and then see them transition into spanx (for men and women) and padded bras.

If you go and see this exhibition (and I highly recommend that you do) think further than the exhibits take you. Go beyond what the signs say about the past, and use their extraordinary template to interpret what our current fashions in underwear say about us as people, and as an era.

pink satin corset bendigo art gallery undressed: 350 years of underwear in fashion
Corset: Britain, early 1890's, silk satin and whalebone, with centre-front steel busk, back lacing with metal eyelets, and hand made bobbin lace trim. V & A Museum.

Please note that photography in the exhibition space is not allowed. There are postcards of some of the pieces for sale in the museum guest shop, as well as a book with extra details on the collection. While you're at the Bendigo Art Gallery, I highly recommend stopping in at their other exhibition, The Body Beautiful In Ancient Greece, as well as checking out some of the delightful shops and restaurants that Bendigo has to offer.
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Why? Because fashion influences life, and the past influences the present. Besides, they're stunningly pretty!
When: 10am-5pm (I don't recommend entry after 4pm)
Phone: 03 5434 6088
Where: Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View St, Bendigo.
Cost: $11, but discounts available
Your Comment
Thanks for this article Rachel, I was already going to see this exhibition and your story has made me glad that I've got tickets to both Undressed and the Body Beautiful. I even have a husband willing to traipse around the displays with me - Jenni
by jenni (score: 1|28) 1869 days ago
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