Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Undressed at the V & A

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Undressed at the V & A

Article excerpt

The V & A is selling £35 Agent Provocateur pants. This is, of course, a business deal because Agent Provocateur -- along with Revlon -- is sponsoring the museum's new exhibition Undressed or, as I would have called it, if I were a curator with a gun to my head: Important Artefacts from the Ancient Kingdom of Boob; or A Trip Down Mammary Lane.

The atmosphere is vague and vapid, for this is fashion-land, where anger, if it even exists, is buried deep. But no matter; this is what I am here for.

I can now tell you that, in the 19th century, women wore cages on their legs (a metaphor?), and that most women in history panicked as to what to do with their boobs because they were the most interesting thing about them, and still are. Corsetry is the history of this anxiety. It has sometimes, Undressed notes calmly, caused serious injury; but it is less interested in the injury than the corset; and that is what is wrong with Undressed . Too much boob. Not enough woman.

I can also tell you that women have always been bullied by soap adverts.

Undressed answers some semi-interesting questions such as -- who invented the thong? (Rudi Gernreich.) Where did pyjamas come from? ('The East,' says the caption, portentously. What -- Kent?) Sometimes the blurb -- the apology -- speaks the obvious: 'Fashion and underwear are intimately connected'. Sometimes it exists to anger posh ghosts: 'Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, is believed to have owned these drawers'; or 'Stocking worn by Queen Alexandra'.

Much of it is about marketing. We are schooled in the tricks of Gossard, Playtex and the person who invented a shelf for the ball sac. This is all noted without fury, or polemic, or barely, it feels to me, interest, but perhaps that is just how I hear it. Coathanger speaks to coathanger through the void.

For some reason, there are pants with days of the week on them. I am not sure that women who need their pants to recall the day of the week should be enabled in their madness by having their pants calendar appear at the V & A; but it is too late for that.

The final section, which is rather beautiful, falls to celebrity culture; or anti-culture. I go to museums to hide from this but the V & A is prostrate; it seems to have become a creaky arm of Vogue , happily throwing boxes of pants decorated with David Beckham's face around. …

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