The bottom line: underwear revealed

Ever wondered about the story behind your underwear? Modesty laws, changing fashions, and a desire for comfort have all influenced the design of underwear over time. From the 'porno chic' bra, to the somewhat warmer padded petticoat, take a rummage through our collection and find everything from the practical to the provocative.

'The Thong'

The Thong . . . might be the thing to regenerate our ever so slightly withering sense of sexual mystery…

Anne Hollander, 'Thong of Thongs', New York Magazine, 18 November 1974

Designer of both the topless bathing suit and No-Bra bra, Rudi Gernreich turned his attention from the breast to the bottom and conjured up 'The Thong'. Created in reaction to Los Angeles' ban on nude public swimming, his unisex bathing suits met the new modesty law whilst still exposing the majority of the wearer's skin. In her 1974 article 'Thong of Thongs' Anne Hollander explains that the garment "clings tightly between the exposed buttocks in back but covers the appropriate areas in front like a skimpy bib, giving the body a virtually nude rear and a sparsely clad front. One must admit it is a triumph of dialectic".

Thong, Rudi Gernreich (1922-85) for Lily of France, 1978, United States. V&A: FTF Unregistered Collection. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While Gernreich's design sought to answer a particular social problem, his original inspiration came from his childhood in Vienna. He would watch trim, muscular labourers swimming in the local pool, wearing only small loincloths, and this memory eventually evolved into 'The Thong'. While promoting the new design, he also referenced the fundoshi worn by sumo wrestlers as a possible influence.

Although the design was originally for swimwear, 'The Thong' was produced as underwear for women from 1975 by the American company Lily of France.

Thong, Rudi Gernreich (1922-85) for Lily of France, 1978, United States. V&A: FTF Unregistered Collection. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The example in our collection was an anonymous donation. It was accompanied by a letter explaining that the piece had been bought in New York in 1978. Intended as a gift that was never given, the thong remains in its original packaging, making it all the more unusual.

The ribbon corset

Today the most approved type of smartness is supple elegance; the woman most admired being tall, slight, and of graceful carriage; she is not a stiff creature encased in whalebone armour.

Mrs Eric Pritchard, The Cult of Chiffon, 1902

A slim silhouette demanded lighter styles of corsetry, resulting in fashion commentators advising slender women to wear ribbon corsets. In 1896 American Vogue attributed their invention to the French fashion house Paquin. The magazine spoke enthusiastically of their daintiness and pretty colours, and how the interlaced ribbons held the waist "perfectly in place – round and firm". Surviving examples of ribbon corsets show that they were made from ribbons in a range of fabrics, from linen and cotton to silk, and in a variety of colours and patterns. They were recommended for the boudoir, for summerwear and for the 'athletic woman' – for sports such as riding, boating, golf and tennis.

Ribbon corset, about 1895, England. Museum no. T.18-1958. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The example in our collection dates to around 1900, is machine stitched, and made from ivory silk satin ribbon. It was probably worn by Fanny Harvey Fleetwood Raper, née Duder (1879 – 1957) and her family history suggests that she wore it in Brazil. Brazilian women were known for following French fashions, importing the latest styles from Paris.

Ribbon corsets were advertised until the end of the First World War. After 1910 they became longer, extending to the top of the thighs with a straight lower edge to which suspenders were attached. This reflected another change in the fashionable silhouette to a more elongated body shape and upright posture. These corsets were designed to control and support the waist, stomach and hips, and were often worn with a bust supporter or brassiere.

Ribbon corset, about 1895, England. Museum no. T.18-1958. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lounge pyjamas

The pyjama, once a novelty, is now an established mode . . . Here is a great field for the display of fantasy and individuality.

American Vogue, 15th March 1925

Pyjamas were introduced to the West in the 1870s by European men who had lived in the East, as an alternative to the nightshirt. By 1900 women had adopted them for sleepwear too. In the 1920s they were considered a striking and chic addition to the fashionable woman's loungewear and lingerie wardrobe.

Lounge pyjama ensemble, 1920s, China. Museum no. FE.3:1 to 3-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In November 1924, American Vogue described pyjamas as, "by far the smartest form of negligee", and previewed examples by Molyneux, Chanel and Lanvin. There were many different types of pyjama available – for sleeping, lounging, entertaining, or beachwear. While pyjamas were furthered by the established couturiers, Mary Nowitzky, who founded her Parisian fashion house in 1924, was a key influencer on the trend. Her designs, ranging from exotic flares to Oxford box trousers which emphasised freedom of movement and poise, continually appeared in the fashion press from 1925.

Lounge pyjama ensemble, 1920s, China. Museum no. FE.3:1 to 3-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The fascination with the East created an export opportunity for similar garments from China. These lounge pyjamas, dated to the late 1920s, combine a sensual fabric with a clean cut which flares smoothly away from the body. The love heart pocket over the right hip evokes the slightly subversive, fresh and playful nature of pyjama designs at the time.

Lounge pyjama ensemble, 1920s, China. Museum no. FE.3:1 to 3-2013 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Coloured underpants

From the late 19th century, men's underwear transitioned from being purely functional sanitary-wear to cleverly constructed garments in a range of colours such as flesh tint, lavender, and light blue. This pair of machine-knitted, striped cotton underpants date to the 1890s and were made for Mühlenkamp Brothers Ltd, a men's shirtmaker, hosier and outfitter with premises at 12 New Bond Street, London.

Underpants, Mühlenkampf Brothers Ltd., 1890s, London. Museum no. T.346-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The underpants are well made: all the seams in the body are covered with cotton binding for strength, and the waist has a shaped cotton lining. The waistband is adjustable, using the tabs at the back, which attach to one of three mother of pearl buttons. The crotch is shaped with a gusset and each leg is finished with a rolled hem, making them both comfortable and practical.

Underpants, Mühlenkampf Brothers Ltd., 1890s, London. Museum no. T.346-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These pink striped underpants are similar to a vest and underpants set retailed in the 1890s by Doucet Jeune, one of the leading Parisian shirtmakers with outlets in London, New York and Chicago. Made from machine-knitted silk, patterned with orange, blue and black stripes, the vest features a silk embroidered coronet and initials 'MA'. The initials suggest that the set could have belonged to Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905), who was notorious for his flamboyant behaviour. His recklessly extravagant lifestyle soon caught up with him and he was declared bankrupt in 1904.

Vest, Doucet Jeune, 1890s, France (Paris). Museum no. T.89:1-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The string dress

This striking formal afternoon or dinner dress was designed by Kostio de Warkoffska in 1937. The overdress is made from a metallic yarn crocheted in an open mesh. Worn over a simple silk dress, it has a matching jacket made of the same yarn but worked in a closer knit.

Evening dress of crocheted metallic yarn, Kostio de Warkoffska, 1937, probably made in France. Museum no. T.230&A-1964. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kostio de Warkoffska traded in Paris under the name Kostio de War, and then Kostio, from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. Born in Baku in Azerbaijan in 1896, her full name was Lyksa Kostia de Warkoffska. Although little seems to be known about her history, in 1925 a caption for a glamorous photograph by Madame D'Ora (Dora Kallmus, 1881 – 1961) describes her as a "well known Russian Society leader and noted motorist, resident in Paris". By 1936, images of her designs were appearing in the international fashion press.

Evening dress of crocheted metallic yarn, Kostio de Warkoffska, 1937, probably made in France. Museum no. T.230&A-1964. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

No information has been found explaining why Kostio chose to create a dress with such an open mesh. She specialised in knitwear and was also known for designing clothes for spectator sports such as horse racing, and active sports like cycling and golf. To a modern eye the mesh recalls men's string underwear, which was created in the 1930s by Norwegian textile manufacturer, Jacob Jacobsen, and Henrik Brun, an officer in the Norwegian Army. They were looking for a fabric which would keep the body warm without overheating whilst quickly dispelling the moisture caused by perspiration. Given Kostio's interest in sportswear it's possible that she was influenced by the practicalities of mesh, but scaled it up dramatically to create a very different garment.

'Porno chic' shelf bra

We magnify the body, we perfect the silhouette, we help to cheat

The Independent, 25 January 2016

The Paris-based House of Cadolle exhibited an early form of the modern-day bra at the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris. It was founded by Madame Herminie Cadolle and has been run by the female line of the Cadolle family for five generations.

'Porno Chic', Shelf bra, Cadolle, 2015. Museum no. T.13:1-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 'Porno Chic' shelf bra illustrates the two parallel drivers behind the history of underwear design – performance and presentation. The quarter-cup construction exposes the breasts, whilst still providing support. Curved stitching, building in lines under the bust, creates a taut ledge of fabric which raises the breasts, and further support is provided by underwiring. The bridge between the two cups has been opened to create a deep v, drawing attention to the cleavage, whilst the ribbon ties at the neck further lift and angle the breasts. Similarly, while the bra is backless, two parallel elasticated bands finished with ribbons extend from the wings and tie to create a secure, smooth fit.

'Porno Chic', Shelf bra, Cadolle, 2015. Museum no. T.13:1-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The close-fitting high waist briefs compress the stomach, trim the hips and cinch the waist, undoing with a pair of zips placed on either side. While they are made of strong elasticated fabric, further compression is achieved by the lines of diagonal stitching on the side and back panels, which make the fabric taut. Historically, the back lacing on a woman's corset held huge sexual appeal, as 18th-century satirical prints and erotic postcards show. The elaborate, but non-functional, ribbon lacing on the back of these briefs hold a similar erotic charge.

In an interview with W Magazine, 2 March 2016, Patricia Cadolle of the fashion house explained that "designing lingerie means knowing how a female body feels – on the one hand it needs support, on the other hand it needs freedom . . . It is a mix of designing new shapes [while] respecting mechanical codes".

Padded petticoat

Warmth of three folds of woollen fabric, and not the weight of one.

Booth & Fox advertisement, Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 6 October 1869
Petticoat, Booth & Fox, about 1860, London. Museum no. T.212-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This petticoat made by Booth & Fox in 1860 is padded with Arctic goose down, providing a layer of comfort and warmth to keep the wearer cosy. Such protection would have been very welcome in the 19th century, when public transport was unheated and homes were draughty with no central heating. The petticoat is made up of five panels, lined with plain red cotton, and wadded with goose feathers in wide horizontal bands. This gives the appearance of quilting and provides structure, as well as holding thermal qualities comparable to a duvet.

Booth & Fox sold a wide range of down-filled products including quilts, dressing gowns and mantles (shawls). An 1862 article in the Cork Examiner listed the many other kinds of feathers used by the company, including Russian geese and ptarmigan, German white poultry, English poultry and duck, gannet from the North of Scotland, eider down and Irish goose down.

Petticoat, Booth & Fox, about 1860, London. Museum no. T.212-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The petticoat is decorated with a conical 'paisley' print, interspersed with flowers. In the early 1860s, the ideal fashionable silhouette for a woman featured a moderately high waist, and an exaggerated, voluminous skirt. To achieve the desired level of volume, a smartly dressed woman would need to wear several petticoats. This petticoat perfectly boosted the shape of the skirt, whilst still remaining very light to wear.

Paper Garments

Textile shortages during the First and Second World Wars made paper corsets vital. This example of an ersatz (substitute) corset was produced in Germany and Austria. Made of woven paper twine canvas, with paper twine laces and metal boning, the lower inside edge is bound with tape. Although the corset has sustained damage from light exposure and there is corroding and rusting metal, it is structurally sound.

Corset, 1917-18, Germany or Austria, 1917-18. Museum no. T.44-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Britain, London's West End Gazette commented on the introduction of paper clothing in Germany in November 1915, "…dresses and suits of paper have been sold in enormous quantities in Berlin, and they are warm and keep out the rain remarkably well". By 1917 paper-based thread was available to the German public, suggesting that this corset may have been manufactured at about this time.

Corset, 1917-18, Germany or Austria, 1917-18. Museum no. T.44-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With the rise of the paper dress in the 1960s, paper transformed from being a merely practical substitute material, to becoming a key fashion trend.

Some of these garments can be seen by appointment at the Clothworkers' Centre.

Background image: Ribbon corset, England, about 1895. Museum no. T.18-1958. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London