Last month, the V&A opened its new exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, and Lingerie Insight’s Sarah Clarke was one of the lucky few to get a sneak preview before the launch. She takes a look inside.

A new exhibition in London explores the history of underwear, from home-made ‘stays’ worn by a working woman in England in the 18th century to contemporary pieces by Stella McCartney, La Perla and Paul Smith.

With 200 items on display, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, which opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum on April 16, considers the varied perceptions of how both men’s and women’s underwear should be designed to protect and enhance the body.

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The show demonstrates that when it comes to the roles of underwear, little has changed. Like us, our ancestors wore underwear for hygiene, protection and modesty, and they wore structural garments, designed to shape and support the fashions of the day.

Where today’s underwear differs is the way in which it is designed to fulfil these roles.

The exhibition is spread over two floors, with the downstairs section separated into sections including Fashion, Health and Hygiene; Volume; Performance Underwear and Support: Bras and Girdles.

It opens with a selection of women’s lingerie and hosiery from the 1700s.

“Many will be surprised to know that women of all backgrounds wore stays during the 18th century, and one of the highlights of the opening section is a very rare pair of silk stays from the 1760s, worn by a young woman who lived in Whitby on the east coast of Yorkshire,” says exhibition curator Edwina Ehrman.

Moving on, the show looks at the fabric of underwear and how innovation from dyeing to laundry technology and the development of man-made fibres has transformed the range of underwear available.

In this section, the V&A has included a chic French 1950s bra and suspender belt made of Lycra, which was regarded at the time as a miracle fibre. A colourful set of days-of-the-week knickers by Cheek Frills bring this particular story up to date.

The downstairs section of the exhibition also explores how we have used underwear to shape and shift the body, to create curves and hide lumps and bumps.

There are 26 corsets in the exhibition, ranging in date from the 18th century to the present day, but at times it’s difficult to tell which era a corset originates from.

During the 1890s it was fashionable to have a small waist and a full bosom and hips. Today, we have come full circle with a corsetry renaissance driven by reality star Kim Kardashian wearing a corset on Instragram last year.

The tiniest corset at the exhibition – with a waist size of 18 inches – is displayed upstairs. This is a corset made for Dita Von Teese in 2012 by corset maker Mr Pearl. It’s encrusted with Swarovski crystals and has never been exhibited before.

Moving on from corsetry, the exhibition explores the 20th century development of the bra, the girdle and today’s shapewear. Key pieces include a body designed in the mid 1960s by Mary Quant and the ‘Little X’ girdle designed by Anne-Marie Lobbenberg in 1958 for heritage brand Silhouette.

Bras, like corsets, have shaped women’s bodies according to fashion. In the 1920s, the breasts were suppressed. In other periods, bras have been design to lift, separate and augment the breasts.

With the advent of the bra, the corset’s role became to suppress the waist, smooth the belly and trim the hips. Its transformation into the fully elasticated girdle came with the introduction of Lastex in 1931.

Made with an extruded latex core wrapped in cotton, rayon or silk, the supremacy of Lastex was unchallenged until 1958 when DuPont patented Lycra.

Four cases, scooped under the theme of performance wear, present maternity wear, underclothes designed to keep the wearer warm or cool, underwear developed to support, and fitted menswear.

“All these displays include historical garments from our archives, with some loans from our regional museums. But they are all are brought up to date with contemporary pieces,” says Ehrman.

The V&A also explores how underwear has been used to add volume to the body, from the 1800s to the present day.

We may have moved on from 1840s’ caged crinolines and bustles made to support the back drapery of women’s dresses in 1869, but underwear designed to enhance our assets is just as important today.

The V&A demonstrates this with key pieces, including the Ultrabra plunge bra developed by Gossard in 1994; the Wonderjock made by AussieBum in 2006 to enhance and define the genitals; and a butt-lifter developed by Ann Chery in 2015.

Unlike the 19th century bustle, which also created volume in this area, butt-lifters separate and define the buttocks.

Moving upstairs, the V&A looks at how underwear has been transformed into outerwear. But there’s nothing new about underwear as outerwear of course.

In the past, the shapes, fabrics and techniques used to make underwear were reflected in outerwear for decorative or functional reasons. More recently, underwear has been recast in more provocative ways.

In the 1980s, the radical, transgressive clothes worn by punks and in London’s clubs were a key influence on avant garde fashion designers. Many used underwear to excite controversy and challenge conventional attitudes to nudity, sexuality and gender. Corsetry, meanwhile, with its gathered associations with fetish and pornography in the 20th century, remains a powerful inspiration for both men’s and women’s wear.

Hero pieces on display include a sheer slip dress worn by Kate Moss for the Elite Models party in 1993; a trompe l’oeil corset dress, designed by Antonio Berardi in 2009, and worn by Gwyneth Paltrow; and a lingerie dress worn by Mila Kunis at the Oscars in 2011.

The Undressed exhibition closes in February 2017.