PAJAMAS HAVE morphed into streetwear, while corsets, bras, crinolines and slips have emerged from behind the scenes to streetwear. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, organized by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, is set to open October 21 at The Frick Pittsburgh (its only North American venue). More than 250 objects, along with film images, packaging and advertisements, will track the history of underwear from the mid-18th century to today.
We recently had the chance to chat with Sarah Hall, the Frick’s chief curator and director of collections, for a preview of what’s in store.
MLB: Can you talk about the Frick’s decision to put fashion exhibits on the museum calendar? Last year, it was “Killer Heels,” next month “Undressed” arrives.
SH: It has taken a while to understand how fashion works in the whole cultural space. In the past several years, there’s been a growing appetite for fashion exhibits. Our existing collection—more than 2,000 items of Gilded Age evening gowns, skirt and bodice sets, parasols, underwear—and an initiative from our director (Robin Nicholson) have inspired us to create a niche for the museum. We’ve committed to an ongoing series: “Killer Heels” from the Brooklyn Museum, a Jacques Henri Lartigue photography exhibit (“Fast Cars and Femmes Fatales”), “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” (which includes many famous fashion photographs), “Undressed” in October; in 2018, the paper dresses of Isabelle de Borchgrave.
MLB: You mentioned there were lots of logistics involved in this exhibit. What do you mean?
SH: Well, the V&A is sending most things already mounted—which is their policy because it limits the handling of fragile materials. It’s still a very large, ambitious exhibition that requires a large team to prepare our galleries and help with the installation. The V&A also sends their team to unpack and handle the work here. So, while the individual objects and costumes are largely ready to go on display, there are many large crates to move in and out of the building, lots of labels and graphics to produce, and a lot of display cases to build in our galleries. Working with full-size mannequins and clothing requires a lot of resources!
MLB: What in particular made you choose “Undressed” from V&A?
SH: We have a substantial amount of lingerie in our collection—corsets, camisoles, night dresses, robes, tea gowns, etc., and we had always been interested in doing something that focused on undergarments. We’ve done some programs in the past in which we’ve explored the many layers of dress a woman would be wearing in the Gilded Age, and so the idea of taking a comprehensive exhibition that connects to our collection but tells a larger story was compelling. And, of course, the V&A are leaders in developing fashion exhibitions and they have a fabulous collection that we are so happy to be able to bring here to share with Pittsburgh and beyond.
MLB: How is the exhibit organized?
SH: The items are separated into sections: For example, Health and Hygiene, Support: Bras and Girdles, Relaxation and Temptation.
In the 18th century, underwear was more about health and hygiene than fashion and sex appeal. You couldn’t wash clothing very easily, so underwear functioned as a barrier to keep outer garments clean. In the support section you’ll see bras, garters and corsets as well as 21st-century shapewear (think waist trainers and butt lifters worn by the likes of Kim Kardashian). Fashionable bust shapes have kept changing throughout the decades. The 1920s flapper wore a bandeau; pointy bras were in in the 1940s and 1950s; today’s millennials want less padding and are opting for bralettes. Along with the unique, the exhibit also shows the ordinary—the Playtex rubber girdle and the Y-front jockey.
MLB: What are some of the show’s highlights? Any favorites?
SH: There’s a 1917 corset made from twine because of textile shortages in World War I. Also, one of the first thongs from 1978; it was created by Rudi Gernreich as a bathing suit following a ban on public nude bathing in Los Angeles. In the performance underwear section, a paisley-print petticoat from 1860, which is lined with plain red cotton and made up of five gored panels, is wadded with goose feathers in wide horizontal bands. This gives the look of a quilt and keeps the wearer warm.
MLB: Is this whole concept of underwear as outerwear anything new or not?
SH: Well, we’ve got a 1911 silk evening slip dress by Paul Poiret that could have recently gone down a runway, 1920s pajama playsuits for the cocktail hour and an ostrich-feathered bed jacket from the 1930s that blur the lines between underwear and outerwear. More contemporary selections are a corset dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow at a 2008 red carpet appearance in Paris and an Elie Saab lilac gown (lots of lace and alternating bands of exposed and less exposed skin) Mila Kunis wore to the 2011 Oscars.
MLB: Is there anything you’d like visitors to take away from the exhibit?
SH: It’s really interesting to understand how the ways we think about ourselves are reflected in our undergarments. The acceptance of our bodies as they are alternates with how we want to make ourselves fit some sort of ideal. There’s also the very basic idea of taking pleasure in the finery and feel of lingerie against our skin. —Janet Kelly