Exhibition Reviews – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (V&A) and Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies (Imperial War Museum)

Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.

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Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.

Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!

Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.

Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.

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2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.

To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.

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Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot.  This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.

The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.

Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.

 

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear

Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/real-to-reel-a-century-of-war-movies

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4 thoughts on “Exhibition Reviews – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (V&A) and Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies (Imperial War Museum)

  1. It is a great pity indeed, that I no longer live in London. Both these exhibitions would have interested me, an been easy to access from my former domicile. Most of the films you mention, I either own, or have seen. And as for the underwear and lingerie…Enough said.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. Some of the films featured especially those from the 1950s I’ve not heard of until I went to the exhibition so it makes me curious to watch them. As for the underwear exhibition, well done to the V&A for including the men as they tend to get overlooked in exhibitions devoted to fashion.

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