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09-06-2009
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0000 Underwear: a history of hidden assets Exhibit London

Underwear: a history of hidden assets
A new exhibition looks at bras and briefs through the ages


Carolyn Asome

It comes as little surprise that the Marks & Spencer “bra-gate” scandal caused such a furore: women have long enjoyed a complicated relationship with their breasts. The question of how to dress/support/enlarge/diminish your décolleté is trickier than any other sartorial conundrum, especially when a fickle catwalk isn’t always in love with what Mother Nature intended. Over the decades, women have been encouraged to push ’em out (in the Forties and Fifties), shove ’em down (in the Twenties and Seventies) and flaunt ’em like a siren from a Dolce & Gabbana advert (the Noughties).

The exhibition Undercover: the Evolution of Underwear, at the Fashion and Textile museum in London, opens on Friday and explores our fascination with the whole fraught subject.

Are we surprised to learn that, in the US and Britain, bras perform a more perfunctory role in our wardrobes (M&S sells two every second) while our European sisters will pay a small fortune for wispy bits of lace?

“Despite their initial purely functional role, bras have always incorporated a decorative element,” says Dennis Nothdruft, the musuem’s curator, “although bras as we know them didn’t make their mark until the 1950s, when Christian Dior’s New Look [a silhouette that necessitated a wasp waist and structure] took off and Lana Turner’s popularity helped to promote the perkier bust.”

In Britain, without the lingerie designer Janet Reger, the utilitarian wastes of M&S’s underwear department might never have been transformed into a place of sexual discovery — or, at least, a one-stop opportunity to add to the sprawling family of padded, plunge and balconette that most women continue to buy. More recently, the pin-up glamour of labels such as Myla and Agent Provocateur, with their playful, often retro nod to the bedroom, has spread like a rash to celebrity brands, La Senza and the “two bras for a tenner” bargain bin of Intimisssi. By the end of the Nineties the UK bra market alone was worth half a billion pounds.

As for the future, Nothdruft muses that Wonderbra may have the answer. “For breaking new boundaries, the sculptural strapless bra has been developed without straps, underwiring or seams.”

If ever there was a time for women to break free from the shackles of complicated corsetry, this is surely it.

The boxer rebellion

When fashionistas rummage through racks of clothing at vintage fairs they are most likely to be looking for 1920s beaded dresses and hand-crafted hats. Volker Goerhardt, though, is interested in a particularly niche corner of the market: men’s old pants. The German head of design for Jockey Europe, he has been collecting vintage smalls for more than 40 years, and his collection dates as far back as the 18th century. “My favourite item is the linen shirt from 1790,” he says. “It was a 24-hour piece — you would not change it every day. It is really special.”

Goerhardt explains that underwear was then only for the upper classes, although there is nothing luxurious about these early items — some are made from wool, others linen, and one pair require a pair of leather braces to keep them up.

Ironically, austerity seems to have brought out the best in men’s boxers, and Goerhardt’s collection includes brightly coloured silk boxer shorts from 1931, which were apparently welcomed as an “exotic escape” from the Depression. He describes them in his German-accented English as “unbelievably beautiful”.

The designer’s collection inspired a touring exhibition celebrating 75 years of the Y-front earlier this year, which also featured items from the Jockey archives, including a pair of pants customised in 1983 by Andy Warhol with a large, scrawled dollar sign.

Having worked in the industry for more than four decades, Goerhardt is well placed to comment on changes in shopping habits: “Men used to let their mothers buy their underwear. Then, when they married, their wife chose their clothes and laid them out on the bed each morning. Thankfully this time is gone.”

Nowadays, Goerhardt says, men are split into two distinct groups — the boxer-wearer or the Y-front-wearer — and they are two very different creatures.

“You can change the Y-front-wearer to the boxer short but most boxer short customers will not experiment,” he says. “You could give them the nicest trunk as a gift and they wouldn’t wear them. These people cannot change.”

Goerhardt, who himself sports Jockey’s 3D seamless pants (slim-fitting shorts that look like a boxer-Y-front hybrid) says that no one pant style will ever win out: “There will be for ever the Y-front and the boxer shorts. This is the way.”


women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/fashion/article6458151.ece


I see London, I see France ......

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