Underwear: The 18th century’s answer to Cosmetic Surgery

31 March 2015

Underwear – purely functional or major role in society? Organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, travelling exhibition Undressed: 350 Years Of Underwear In Fashion has now arrived in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. It showcases more than 80 different undergarments, including those of Queen Victoria, to explain how pivotal a role underwear has played throughout history.

Museum Curator Glynis Jones explains: “It explores the role of underwear across all three sections [art, design and technology], as well as body image.”

Some of the items date back to the early 18th century, during which time underwear was purely practical, used to protect outerwear from bodily fluids and grime.

For poor people, practicality was most important, while wealthy folk were able to enjoy more elaborate designs including petticoats, crinolines, bustiers and corsets.

The wide skirts worn by noble women necessitated drawers underneath to allow the woman to maintain her modesty when getting in or out of a carriage. The fabric these drawers were made from even had a slit in them “to make bathroom visits easier”.

Over time, underwear became less of a practicality and more of a way of life. Corsets were worn to emphasise a woman’s tiny waist. They even came in a special maternity design to allow women to breastfeed their babies. It may seem odd for women who have just given birth to wear a corset, but according to Jones, it all came down to what they were used to.

“Children were corseted from a young age and, because of that, they didn’t develop the core muscles to stand up for long on their own”, she explains.

While this may seem barbaric, Jones says it was simply an act of manipulating the body, of changing your body to create an enhanced version – much in the same way as people use Cosmetic Surgery nowadays.

Before long, women became fed up with being told to mould their bodies into a certain shape, leading to the bra-burning revolts of the 60s and 70s. Nowadays however, corsets and shapewear are once again all the rage – there’s even a set for men which Jones compares to a similar 1930s style “designed for gentlemen with a portly stomach”.

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Image Credit Attribution: MartaJonina/iStock/Thinkstock