It is very often the case that cities around the world put on wonderful exhibitions that I really desperately want to visit. Unfortunately, these exhibitions are usually hundreds of miles away from where I am living. The underwear gods must have listened to my whinging because the perfect exhibition for a foundations obsessed girl like me is currently taking place, right here in Sydney!
From 28th March 2015 until 12th July 2015, the Powerhouse museum has joined forces with London’s V&A to display some of the finest pieces of underwear history, spanning 350 years. The two sections of the exhibition, Undressed (V&A) and Recollect: Underwear (MAAS) compliment each other perfectly.
Recollect: Underwear displays some extremely beautiful and diverse pieces of shapewear, ranging from modest and functional through to raunchy and provocative, with some featured pieces previously belonging to Madame Lash, an Australian Dominatrix and artist.
Every single piece on display has obviously been very well cared for and while it was undoubtably a challenge deciding which pieces to show, I think there is a very good selection of styles and functions. Interestingly, and probably ‘controversially’, a child’s corset is displayed. Children and foundations is something that I have very little knowledge of at the moment and this piece has again triggered my interest in researching the topic.
Despite all the stunning bras, corselettes and girdles in the exhibition, the one thing that almost made my heart burst out of my chest was discovering that there was a genuine Berlei ‘ Figure-Type Indicator’ on display! I couldn’t tell you how many hours I have spent trawling through the internet in search of one of these for sale! To be able to see a real one in person was a treat! If you would like to read more about this amazing device, click here.
The second piece that made me melt was this sample girdle with instructions of how to make it, sewn straight onto it.
I also very much enjoyed the advertisement that was playing on a screen, featuring a lady trying to convince another lady to wear some ‘proper’ foundations under her evening dress. The dialogue is hilarious, including this gem:
You can’t be without a foundation my dear, it simply isn’t done!
After visiting the exhibition, I had a million questions for the curators. Luckily Rebecca Evans, the assistant curator was very kind and answered my questions. Thank you Rebecca!
- How did this exhibition come about? What triggered it?
When we host an exhibition from another museum at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), we try to include an exhibition or small display based on our own collection. In this case, we present the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) exhibition Undressed alongside our own exhibition Recollect: Underwear. Recollect: Underwear is part of a series of exhibitions at MAAS that showcase the collection with minimal interpretation- to let the objects speak for themselves and display our rich and diverse collection. This exhibition features pieces from two large collections of underwear in the MAAS collection from iconic Australian brands, Bonds and Berlei. It also shows pieces worn by eccentric Australian artist and dominatrix Madame Lash.
This exhibition is also one of the first exhibitions to be part of the MAAS Centre for Fashion, which was launched last week. https://maas.museum/event/centre-for-fashion/
- Where has the collection been sourced from?
The pieces in Recollect: Underwear come from the MAAS fashion and textiles collection. Bonds and Berlei collections were donated to the Museum by the companies in the early 1980s. The Madame Lash material was donated by art collector and curator Elinor Wrobel also in the early 1980s.
- Were you forced to prioritise certain items over others for the exhibition? Ie. Were there a lot of other pieces that were not featured? If so, how did you choose which ones went on display and which ones did not?
Yes we were! Especially with the Berlei collection, we had hundreds of pieces to choose from. The items are chosen by what are the most significant pieces in the collection, what works well visually in the design and what fits on the mannequins available.
- Did you know much about these sorts of under garments before the exhibition?
I wear reproduction vintage underwear myself, so I was aware of such under garments before the exhibition. I had also worked with the collection previously. There were a number of pieces in the collection that I hadn’t come across, bras for breast feeding, medical corsets for fixing posture…. All very fascinating!!
- Do you wear vintage or reproduction underwear in this style yourself?
Yes I do. I quite like the brand What Katie Did for their girdles and seamed stockings.
- What is your favourite piece?
So tricky to choose a favourite piece. I do really like the merry widow, which we displayed on our original 1940s mannequin (who we named Sylvia).
- Is there anything in the collection that shocked you?
Not so much shocked but sadden me, is the child’s polio corset.
- What will happen to the pieces once the exhibition closes?
They will return to the Museum’s collection store.
- Is there anything else that you would like to share about this experience?
Only that it is it a real privilege to work with the MAAS museum’s collection of fashion and textiles and share it with others.
Although it was very difficult to stop myself from hugging everything in sight, I did manage to control myself! I will certainly be returning to this exhibition to drool over all the pieces again and also to take a second look at the V&A exhibition, which is equally as mesmerising.
I would advise everyone who can get to Sydney to visit this exhibition, it is very rare that these sorts of garments are displayed to the general public and I feel very privileged to have been able to see them in person.
If you would like to find out more, please click here to be taken to the museum’s official description of the exhibition.