Arts & Culture

Canadians won’t get Undressed

Throughout the Western world, underwear is increasingly visible on the street. Women’s peekaboo blouses reveal lacy bras. Men’s sagging waistlines broadcast the colour of their Calvin Kleins.

Canada has not escaped this trend. Nevertheless, this particular fashion craze is being snubbed by the Canadian Museum of History, whose motto might be: No underwear, please; we’re Canadian.

Back in 2013, when the history museum was transitioning from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the new management decided to cancel a planned, future showing of a travelling exhibition on the history of underwear from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Underwear was not deemed to be an appropriate topic for the Gatineau museum’s new mandate. Cancelling the show meant the history museum lost a $70,000 deposit. Somebody really, really did not want us to see this historically significant collection of bloomers and boxers.

Well, the exhibition titled Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear recently opened in London to rave reviews. The Times of London described Undressed as “the lingerie show that will take your breath away.”

Silk satin, lace and whalebone corset, 1890‚ Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Vogue, The New York Times, The Guardian and many other news organizations have waxed eloquently in their reports about this collection of more than 200 unmentionables dating back to 1750. (Actually, no ladies’ drawers date that far back; they didn’t start wearing such intimate apparel until the early 1800s, the exhibition tells us. Shocking!)

For all those who will not get to see Undressed, as a public service, we are providing you with some details and photos of the exhibition.

There is everything from some chaste cotton bloomers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother to contemporary Aussie-bum briefs designed to enhance the male frontal bulge. There are waist-constricting whale-bone corsets, crinolines, a Swarovski crystal-studded bra and thong, fetish wear, men’s old-fashioned Y-fronts, scholarly investigations of various trends and even current celebrity underthings: flimsy panties from supermodel Kate Moss and boxers from soccer phenom David Beckham.

Brixton Boyz, © Jennie Baptise, Supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, Jennie Baptiste, lith print, 2001

The exhibition even shows how the current desire to show off one’s underwear is really not new. Curator Edwina Ehrman told The Associated Press that people have been revealing their undergarments since at least the 16th century.

“Fast young women in the early 1800s would show the frills around their long underpants when they sat down,” she said. “And stockings were a great way of showing your legs. … So this trend has always been here, but we’ve carried it to extremes today.”

Cage crinoline, the Princess Louise Jupon Patent‚ c. 1871, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So, why are Canadians not going to see this exhibition?

Mark O’Neill, president of the History Museum of Canada, said in an interview with The Canadian Press in 2013 that Undressed didn’t fit the museum’s vocation as it changes its focus. “In a sense, that was it,” he said.

The museum denied that the Conservative heritage minister of the time, James Moore, had nixed the show. And Moore denied interfering: “I do not now, nor have I ever, had an official public position on the displaying publicly of underwear,” the minister told the Commons June 13, 2013. (Moore, it can be said, was never seen on Parliament Hill with saggy pants offering a peek at his Stanfields.)

But Moore had made it clear around this time that he did not approve of sexually explicit shows at both the National Gallery (Pop Life, 2010) and Canadian Museum of Science and Technology (Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition, 2012). Most savvy public servants, including museum directors, would surely court trouble by failing to take the minister’s well-publicized views into account when planning an exhibition schedule. There would simply be no need for a ministerial directive.

Monday to Friday pants, cheekfrills, 2015, ©cheekfrills

Here is how the Victoria and Albert Museum describes Undressed:

“This exhibition tells the story of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day. It explores the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in moulding the body to a fashionable ideal. Underwear is sometimes controversial, sparking debates about health and hygiene, body image and stereotyping. Its cut, fit, fabric and decoration reflect changing attitudes to gender, sex and morality; shifting notions of public and private; and innovations in fabric technology and design.

“Underclothes have also influenced outer wear. Nightwear has morphed into lounge wear and garments such as corsets, crinolines and slips have been recast by fashion designers to challenge convention and explore the dynamic relationship between body and clothing.

“This fascinating and thought provoking story is told through over 200 objects. Garments designed for men and women are displayed alongside advertising material, fashion plates, photographs and films to bring new insights into the most personal garments in our wardrobe.”

Alas, Canadians are being denied such insights. Britons, however, can learn everything there is to know about underwear until March 2017 at a museum named after the country’s two most famous super-prudes: Victoria and Albert.

Top image: Tamila‚ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soir. Photographer: Sebastian Faena, Model: Eniko Mihalik, 2015