A revealing history of underwear

From riotously colourful corsets and ‘virile’ Y-fronts to punk-rock leggings, underwear has long possessed a rare ability to push creative boundaries and spark moral outrage. Edwina Ehrman, curator of a new Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, introduces Spencer Mizen to seven of the most influential designs of the past 300 years 

A 1954 advertisement for Cooper's Y-Front. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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When men went mad for Y-fronts

Today, they’re the butt of countless jokes but, in the 1930s, ‘virile’ men couldn’t buy briefs fast enough

Y-fronts have endured a dubious reputation over the past 30 years, arguably hitting an all-time low when The Guardian printed a cartoon of Edwina Currie wearing a pair of John Major’s pants on her head.

But, says Edwina Ehrman, when Arthur Kneibler’s ‘Jockey briefs’ first appeared in America in 1935, they were enormously popular.

“Until the 1930s, men were often condemned to wearing ill-fitting woollen pants,” she says. “Suddenly, with the Y-front, they had a tailored, snug-fitting fashion item that offered plenty of support.”

And, as the 1950s display figure, shown left, demonstrates, it wasn’t long before British men had caught the brief bug.

“The Scottish knitwear company Lyle & Scott obtained the licence to sell Y-fronts in Britain in 1938, and they’d soon become a symbol of masculinity and agility,” says Ehrman. “So, during the Second World War, advertising would feature models stood in their briefs next to tanks.”

And what did the British team choose as its official underwear for the 1948 Olympic Games? Yes, you guessed it: Y-fronts.

A colour explosion

This Victorian corset challenged the idea that underwear should be understated – in one big splash of pink

If you’re the kind of person who likes your underwear subtle, discreet, even demure, then this striking silk satin corset may not be for you. This is underwear as statement – and, as Ehrman puts it, it was evidently meant to be seen, satisfying what she calls “the voyeuristic aspect of underwear”.

Perhaps surprisingly, this corset, fashioned in the late 19th century, was mass-produced – though aimed at the more monied end of the consumer market. Less surprisingly, coloured underwear, when worn directly against the skin, attracted the opprobrium of the more conservative elements of society – some contemporary newspapers damning their wearers as high-class courtesans.

For all that – and despite concerns over the damage they wrought on women’s bodies when tightly laced – corsets were a mainstay of the underwear market throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bold as brass

This piece of jewellery from 1970 is, believe it or not, a bra – though you won’t have found it in the shops

Corsets reigned supreme until the turn of the 20th century when the bra – originally known as ‘bust supporters’ – became widely available, and changed the face of underwear for good.

Countless bras have been produced since then – but perhaps none quite like this beaten brass piece, lined with suede, which was the creation of the British jeweller Helen Newman in 1970.

“Newman’s bra captures a particular moment in fashion history when designers began creating items that drew attention to certain parts of the body, rather than hiding them,” explains Ehrman.

“Underwear suddenly started to be worn as overwear – and revealing items like hotpants took centre stage.”

It may look like a triumph of form over functionality but, in case you’re wondering, Newman’s bra actually works: the top section pulls apart and goes round the neck, while the spiral at the bottom curls round under the breast and covers the nipple.

Supporting act

In the 1770s, haute couture outfits were surprisingly reliant on what lay beneath the surface

“The primary function of underwear has always been to form a barrier between the skin and the clothing,” says Ehrman, “keeping the latter as free from dirt as possible.”

It has always been thus. But, by the time a woman named Miss Davis had bought the stays, shift and hoop pictured above from a London supplier in 1778, it had taken on another role as well: conveying the wearer’s elevated status.

“How people moved was incredibly important in displaying their rank,” says Ehrman. “And underwear – especially corsets, which pulled the shoulders back and made the wearer more erect – played a vital role ensuring that a woman moved with poise and elegance.”

It was also vital that underwear complement the expensive clothes worn over it. “The stays, shift and hoop are designed to support a wide skirt required for formal dress,” says Ehrman. “The dress wouldn’t have looked quite right without support from high-quality underwear – which is why Miss Davis bought it.”

Look at my legs

Georgian dandies loved to show off their assets, with the help of Spain’s finest stockings

It wasn’t just women who chose to make a statement through their choice of underwear. Whoever stepped out in these knitted silk stockings in the mid-18th century – we think it was a man, though we can’t be entirely sure – was certainly trying to make an impression with his legs. And it seems that he wasn’t alone. “In this period, legs were regarded as an important weapon in a man’s fashion armoury,” says Ehrman, “and the elite were actively encouraged to show them off to their advantage – even being taught how to do so by dancing masters.”

These stockings – made in Spain and featuring birds and trees running up the outside leg – would have helped a wealthy young man do just that.

The shame of nudity

Punk culture meets the Garden of Eden in Vivienne Westwood’s skin-coloured leggings

In the late 20th century, underwear designers were armed with an array of textiles of which their predecessors could only dream – nylon and lycra among them. This enabled the likes of Vivienne Westwood – who delighted in challenging conventional attitudes to sex and nudity – to produce ever more adventurous designs.

But, for all the modernity of her work, Westwood’s flesh-coloured leggings from 1989 (above) are full of historical references.

“Westwood explained that her design was inspired by the buck-skin breeches worn by men for country pursuits in the 18th century – the best quality were skin tight and moulded themselves to the wearer’s body,” says Ehrman. “And, of course, the fig leaf refers to the shame that Adam and Eve felt at their nudity in the Garden of Eden. Ironically, by making the leaf out of mirror glass, Westwood is almost making it impossible for the eye not to be drawn to the genitals.”

Exposed to the elements

James Gillray’s cartoon of three aristocrats wearing figure-hugging dresses outraged polite society

“Underwear always has a sexual edge,” says Ehrman. “Because it’s worn next to the skin, even the plainest garments can have an erotic charge.”

To the modern eye, the attire worn by The Graces in a High Wind (shown above) is anything but erotic. Yet when James Gillray produced this risqué cartoon in 1810, many people would have considered their figure-hugging muslin dresses deeply shocking.

“The mainstream took lower-body modesty very seriously at this time,” says Ehrman, “and so most women wore these dresses with several layers of heavier undergarments. However the ‘three Graces’ [all daughters of the baronet Sir William Manners] chose to push the boundaries and wear them with little underneath.”

And so when the wind blew and the muslin clung to the women’s bodies, the delineation of their buttocks and crotch were revealed – much to the horror of middle England when Gillray committed their travails to print.

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Edwina Ehrman is the curator of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, and author of Undressed (V&A Publishing, 2016).