Tagged: Edwina Ehrman

May 20

Undressed: a brief history of underwear

 

 

 

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Undressed: a brief history of underwear exhibition at the V&A

 

Undressed: a brief history of underwear is this year’s big fashion show at the V&A. Curated by Edwina Ehrman and sponsored by luxury lingerie maker Agent Provocateur plus make-up producer Revlon, it explores men and women’s undergarments from around 1750 to the present.

Displayed thematically alongside images from the V&A’s extensive archive, the exhibition charts notions of the intimate and private, the healthy and hygienic, the advance of materials and their mastery, and the curious structural re-shaping of the body that has taken place over the past 250 years or so. That covers quite a range of emphatically gendered female silhouettes, from the stately panniered court dresses of the eighteenth century through the exaggerated hourglass figures of the corseted Victorian and Edwardian eras, the flat-chested androgyny of the 1920s to the conical bosoms of the 1950s. Men’s underwear has changed less dramatically over that time, as (by and large) men’s private layers were designed for comfort, not the radical alteration of physiology.

I spent three hours yesterday poring over the exhibition with as great an attention to detail as I could muster. Photography is strictly not allowed there, which is wonderfully good discipline in that it forces you to really look closely and observe – though it’s undoubtedly frustrating when you have a blog post to illustrate. 

What struck me right away was how the prosaically personal and the fantastically erotic rub shoulders; there is underwear here that is worn quite unselfconsciously, and then there’s ‘private’ wear that is worn to be seen in. In the former category are the simple, functional body-covering shifts or chemises made from linen (and later cotton), the direct descendants of medieval base garments; the shift’s function was to provide a protective, comfortable layer between body and outer, non-washable clothing. And it needed to stand up well to a boil-wash – the presence of embroidered initials remind us that these items would receive the attentions of a professional laundress. Lingerie, as it developed in the twentieth century into flimsy silk and lace concoctions, provides an example of the second type of underwear, worn with display very much in mind.

And the second thing that struck me was the advance of technology through the centuries. Underwear has represented serious engineering kit requiring earnest hardware: hooks, eyelets, buttons, strings, whalebones, busks, pins, horsehair pads, metal hoops, elastic panels and more, to contain, attach, raise, lower, restrain, shape, frame, bulk out and sculpt the body. You wouldn’t want any of this to give out on you at a critical moment – a wardrobe failure representing a kind of social death, if not a literal one; a few very unfortunate women did actually meet their maker wearing unwisely voluminous crinolines, though many more must have accidentally displayed their drawers (and blushes) to the world sitting down a little carelessly. 

 

What I really liked…

My personal highlights included:

Stays  – the forerunner of the corset and such beautiful things. The exhibition includes several examples such as a very ‘real’ rough-and-ready pair worn by of a working woman from Whitby – complete with pin hidden inside one panel (just visible on an accompanying x-ray). And also busks – made of wood or bone – which would have kept the centre front straight and rigid. These were often personalised with carving and would have been given as love tokens – appropriately, lying close (as they did literally) to the wearer’s heart.

Men’s shirts – these were considered ‘underwear’ in the eighteenth century because worn next to the skin. Indeed, it would have been considered indecent to show one’s shirt sleeves in public. And that fact alone provides the perfect excuse to view this scene again with a renewed sense of its Regency shock-value (though Darcy’s lake swim was a BBC elaboration and not included in Jane Austen’s original book).

Maternity gear – there were some great examples of how women managed pregnancy and breastfeeding while retaining the various fashionable lines of the nineteenth century. For example, there’s an 1820s empire line day dress with slits in the bodice to allow breastfeeding, plus a 1900 maternity corset with side-lacing to accommodate a growing belly, and poppered openings to enable infant feeding.

Rear view – several items illustrated that exaggeration of the bottom in the form of the bustle, back when a woman would presumably have asked her friend: ‘Does my bum look big enough in this?’. If not, the answer might well have been the lightweight and collapsible Keelapso bustle, which is illustrated in the exhibition by a delightful contemporary advert, or a striking black-and-white striped cotton crinolette with a scalloped black braid edge – quite beautiful enough to wear as an outer garment today by someone bold enough. You’ll find it, featured in detail in Eleri Lynn’s Fashion in Detail (see below).

Rational dress – women’s growing activity in the later nineteenth century led to the advent of various items of ‘sportswear’, including specialist corsets for riding, cycling and golf (which were sometimes a little shorter and made of more robust materials) as well as the rise of the bloomer. 

Jaeger – founded in 1884,  Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Co Ltd ushered in a craze for wearing wool next to the skin, on the grounds that animal fibre was superior to plant matter, cotton being the default textile for underwear at this time. Wool underwear was favoured by many explorers, including Ernest Shackleton. George Bernard Shaw (GBS) was a big fan too; his Jaeger wool undershirt is included in the exhibition, alongside a picture of him in his Jaeger combinations.

Corsets – often with impossibly tiny waists, and in sumptuous colours and fabrics. I really appreciated the hand-stitched corded quilting on an an early (1825) version. The fuchsia corset on the front of the exhibition catalogue (below) illustrates the two-part front-fastening busk, first introduced in the 1820s, an advance that allowed women to dress unaided for the first time – before that, you needed someone else to lace you up. Curious to think that putting on your clothing before that (at least, for women) had to be a collaborative act. 

 

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Undressed – image from the exhibition poster and catalogue

 

The advance of materials – periodically, new materials have revolutionised how underwear works. Nylon, for instance, made it easy to wash and quick to  dry – and did not require any ironing. And the advent of Lycra in the 1950s made a huge difference to what structural garments could achieve. Hello girdle!

If I had any quibble with this show, it was that I found some of the contemporary inclusions alongside the historical garments slightly arbitrary. I would, for example, rather have seen display space in the early cabinets devoted to more of the deep historical stuff (more shifts, more stays, more busks and some jumps, maybe) than a selection of contemporary bamboo knickers featuring days of the week; these might instead have been grouped into a section illustrating the growth of ethically produced, sustainable underwear in the modern era.

I really like to view things in the order that the curator/s intended, so found the large print accompanying spiral-bound guide (free to use within the exhibition) very helpful and would recommend that any visitor takes that round with them.

 

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Victorian advert for a collapsing bustle

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London until 12th March 2017. Entry standard price: £12. Accompanying catalogue: £10. 

Underwear: Fashion in Detail by Eleri Lynn (first published 2010),  a wonderful book featuring 120 objects from the V&A’s collection, is available at a special exhibition discount (£20, down from the usual £25). 

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Apr 13

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched!

 

 

The American Museum

The American Museum wakes up for another season

 

‘Hatches, matches and dispatches’ is old newspaper slang for the births, marriages and deaths columns. You’ll also hear it used to refer to baptisms, weddings and funerals, the corresponding services offered by the Church. Now the American Museum in Britain, located idyllically on the southern outskirts of Bath, has tweaked the term for its latest exhibition, Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! This exhibition, which runs through the year until 1st November 2015, brings together textile artefacts interwoven with life’s great rites of passage. And, as plenty of those textile items have been created using patchwork (and the museum has a fine permanent quilt collection), that’s where the ‘patched’ comes in.

Some artefacts have also been borrowed from exhibition partners the Beamish Museum, Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, the Quilters’ Guild, and Jen Jones’ collection in Wales, and so the sourcing reflects a mixed provenance from both the United States and the British Isles. But it’s the cross-cultural universality of the human condition which draws them all together, and there are plenty of poignant human-interest stories behind these objects, as curator Kate Hebert explains: ‘the personal and sentimental connections, the stories of the individuals that are linked with these objects, are what I have found so moving.’

I went along for the press launch early last month when spring was still struggling to assert itself and the banks of daffodils were only just beginning to open outside in the beautiful grounds. But there was plenty of stitched brightness and vitality to view within the exhibition. Here’s a taste of what I saw.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched - & Patched!

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! poster

Glad rags

Life’s big milestones are usually associated with looking your best,  so it makes sense that many of the textile objects featured in the exhibition are items of clothing (a subject I was possibly over-engaged with when I attended as I was in the middle of a ‘fashion fast’ – more of that in another post). Christening gowns, christening bonnets, baby slippers, bridal gowns and shoes, black clothes worn when an official period of mourning was enforced, even clothing worn by the dead to be buried in – modern day grave goods, you might call them – feature here.

The displays are subdivided into three grouped sections (‘Hatched’, ‘Matched’ and ‘Dispatched’), but I’ll dot back and forth between them for this post.

In the ‘Hatched’ section cascades of handmade broderie anglaise in a row of Christening gowns caught my eye. The christening gown took over when swaddling fell out of favour in the eighteenth century. Then gowns became longer and longer, an opportunity to display one’s wealth and status in the finest detail, all located at the front, of course, where it could be shown off. In a cabinet of baby bonnets, I spotted a cap with the tiniest imaginable white French knots – alas, my phone wasn’t up to capturing them. I was also drawn to a pair of 1930s silk baby slippers with padded soles worked very effectively in a hatched trapunto pattern of quilting, using coloured yarns which were just visible through the silk.

 

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

 

One of the wedding dresses on display was worn in 1887 by Agnes Lucy Hughes, the first mother-in-law of Wallis Simpson.  But most eye-catching is the daffodil dress (see below) embroidered by Henriette Leonard for inclusion in her bridal trousseau around 1892. Tragically, Henriette died before she was able to wear it; her brother persuaded her to take a tour of Europe shortly before her wedding, and during the trip she took ill with the flu allied with ‘nervous exhaustion’ and died. The pristine condition of the dress suggests that it was never worn and got packed away as a family memento.

Daffodil dress. Image c/o The American Museum

Daffodil dress. Photo credit: the American Museum

 

Sad rags

In the ‘Dispatched’ section there’s quite a bit of mourning garb, much of it nineteenth century and frequently featuring jet. As a Victorian female mourner observing a strict code of mourning etiquette, your yards of black crepe would be held together in part by ‘jet pins’ (actually ‘japanned’ or enamelled metal) so as not to allow the unseemly glint of frivolous silver caused by a regular steel pin.

Jet pins

Jet pins

 

Strict observance of an official mourning regime in Britain appears to have been relaxed during the Great War. Then the massive death toll in the trenches would have required so many to wear mourning garb that civilian morale would have been too sorely tested.

There’s a tradition in Wales of knitting stockings to be worn after death. Similarly, some women quilted skirts to be buried in. The late nineteenth century Welsh skirt below is a rare survival, made by two sisters who somehow left it behind when they moved house.

 

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Quilts

Finely detailed items to adorn the home have often been made in response to a birth, stitched by a young woman in anticipation of her marriage, or by a mourning widow to mark the sorrowful departure of her life’s partner. The American Museum is justly famous for its quilt collection, and you get a chance to see a few of their gems showcased here in this exhibition.

 

Ellen Bryant's 1863 log cabin quilt

Ellen Bryant’s 1863 log cabin quilt

 

One of my favourites is the stunning log cabin top shown above, pieced around 1863 by Ellen Bryant in  preparation for her marriage in Londonderry, Vermont.  Over three hundred log cabin blocks (each 4 and a half inches square) have been arranged in a variation known as ‘barn raising’ or ‘sunshine and shadow’. This eye-popping quilt has an even more intricately pieced backing created by Ellen’s sister, not finished until 1886. Evidently the resulting quilt – a sororal labour of love – took over two decades to complete.

And another favourite from the permanent collection is the Christmas bride. The appliqued holly leaves have faded over the years, as greens tend to do, but the red berries and festoons remain surprisingly bright. Insider tip: you may still be able to find a tea towel bearing this design in the museum shop.

 

Christmas Bridge appliqued quilt

Christmas Bride appliqued quilt

 

With my interest in mending, I was glad to see Bertha Mitchell’s quilt, made from dress and furnishing fabrics to celebrate her sister’s wedding in 1899. Bertha worked as a seamstress, repairing clothes in Keswick Boarding School.  You’ll find a close-up picture of that quilt over on my Instagram feed.

A very special cot quilt is featured here, on loan from the Quilters’ Guild, but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it. It’s the earliest piece on display (1700-10) and is a white, whole-cloth quilt, densely quilted by hand.

There are also a few mourning or memorial quilts on display, a couple dating from the American Civil War era (see ‘Darts of Death’ on my Instagram feed).

 

Poignant needle

And then there was possibly the most moving item of all, a simple embroidered tablecloth – its very ordinariness adding to its poignancy. The signatures of female friends and American servicemen stationed at Cheltenham during the months leading up to D-Day are partly embroidered. But some remain in the pencil. Helen Slater, the embroiderer, was working them in a variety of bright colours, but she stopped part way through one signature, and her needle remains lodged in the fabric. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the project after she heard that her fiancé, Jack Carpenter (his name embroidered in red) had been killed in action. She put the cloth away with a book (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) that he’d given her just before he left for the D-Day landings, and she cherished them both for 70 years until her own death.

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Postpartum pincushions

I like a nice pin or several and so made a beeline for a couple of exhibits featuring pins. For the diehard haberdashery enthusiast, besides the jet pins mentioned above there’s the museum’s own 1821 baby-welcoming pincushion made of silk and steel pins. This pincushion, which has just been restored (the silk had shredded and the stuffing been lost), reminded me of a couple in the 2010 V&A exhibition of quilts, though those were dated a little earlier. Pincushions with elaborate patterns and phrases marked out with pinheads were popular gifts for new mothers. However, it was considered bad luck to gift such a pincushion before the birth, as that might sharpen the pains of labour. The museum notes explain that in colonial New York, births were announced by hanging pincushions on door knockers – a practice which apparently fell out of favour after the safety pin was invented in 1878.

Welcome little stranger pin cushion

‘Welcome little stranger’ pin cushion

 

Tonsorial textiles

Grim though they might sound to us today, mourning rings made from the deceased’s hair were popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. The eagle-eyed visitor to this exhibition will spot fascinatingly intricate rings and brooches delicately woven from human hair. I didn’t get a good shot of them, sadly, as that part of the exhibition was dark, but do look out for the rings ingeniously formed to resemble tiny buckled belts.

There’s a lot more to see than I can show you here, but you can find a few more images over on my Instagram feed. And let’s not forget the person who put it all together: Kate Hebert, new in post as the American Museum’s curator. Congratulations, Kate!

Curator Kate Hebert

Curator Kate Hebert

 

Finally, a quick update on last year’s immensely popular Kaffe Fassett exhibition. I’m reliably informed that there is now a permanent Kaffe boutique at the museum, so whenever you time your visit you can always get your fix.

 

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! runs till 1st November 2015 at the American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor.  There will be a talk by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Fashion & Textiles at  the Victoria & Albert Museum, this Thursday 16th April 2015. Check out the museum’s website for other associated events.

Running alongside this exhibition is Spirit Hawk Eye, a celebration of American native culture through the portraits of Heidi Laughton.

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