'Undressed' undressed at the V&A
Undressed at the V & A, is disappointingly underwhelming in both its design, thematic choices and lack of message. The exhibition itself sits on two levels in a circular, dome like area of the V & A somewhat dwarfed by Raphael’s mammoth cartoons for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel tapestry and blending, almost fading into the permanent displays of historical clothing surrounding the exhibit.
After the success stories of Alexander McQueen, and my sketchy memories of Vivienne Westwood, I was hoping for something grand and artistic in its visual display and message but both are bland and inconspicuous. Having paid for a ticket at a scheduled time, I still have to persist to read the display panel and dodge viewers to get a spot in front of each glass case. There is no easy transition into this exhibition except a deep breath, bracing myself to concentrate and make sure I find something to take from it. Should it really be this hard work? A curator’s main function is to make choices for us in order to make a collection accessible in a variety of ways: To subtly align images, objects and information in a way that prompts interrogation, suggests provocations and leads to interpretations. Undressed however, falls short and struggles to offer an interpretation that is greater and more eloquent than the sum of its parts.
Undressed, promises commentary surrounding gender, its role and perceptions through time via the interpretation of changing and evolving underwear design. I look out for male vs female designers and inventors in order to discover what role the male gaze might have had in societies’ fashionable body shaping. This became harder and harder to extract as thematic displays jumped and skipped time periods and dipped in and out of societies at random.
One little nugget is Rudi Gernreich’s thong, invented in 1974 as a unisex bathing suit. Made in response to the banning of nude swimming, the emphasis is on nudity and nakedness, only when it is branded in 1975 as underwear for women does it work to solve visible panty lines or to sexualise the female body. Unfortunately there just weren’t enough little discoveries like this to string together to create my own dialogue in response to the exhibition.
Basic themes become more exciting as the upper level sports diamanté corsets, bondage and more erotic artefacts. Ascending the stairs from a claustrophobic warren of functional, hygiene items and corsetry, this open, light and airy floor is a breath of fresh air. Entering the temple of fashion the previous items feel base, drab and ugly while the tall encasements inhabit full length mannequins in a glamorous abundance. Function seems to have evolved into fashion and the overarching theme here is sex. Evolved or oppressed, the sexy sections lack in sensuality and the dislocation between ground and first floor is heightened by lack of context, in turn undermining each piece on display.
A video with thoughts from directors of sponsoring brands such as Agent Provocateur are waffley and vapid, undermining any commentary that managed to seep through this exhibition. I consider my own underwear drawer and what statements I can make with an avidly more colourful range of lingerie from the sexy to the sweet to the practical. There is more to this exhibition I feel that it’s there, I might have to dig a little deeper, but I shouldn’t have to.