IT'S A CINCH: Corset, unknown, 1890-1895.

It's a cinch: Corset, unknown, 1890-1895. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Location, location, location: with underwear, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about it. There they are - our knickers, bras and corsets, our tighty-whities and bog-catchers, our slinky thongs and lacy negligees - and they are all intended for our most intimate parts (or not, as Sharon Stone infamously demonstrated in Basic Instinct in 1992).

Therein, though, lies the problem, for the geography beneath our underwear – the nooks, crannies, bulges, mounds and peaks of our anatomy - can be mighty tricky zones. They are, in scholarly parlance, ‘‘contested sites’’ where conflicts between the private and the public, the intimate and the formal, the symbolic and the blatant, can reach an intense pitch. Hygiene, protection, decoration, eroticism, modesty and social status - underwear may be interpreted in multiple ways.

It is about decorating and being seductive. 

Except, perhaps, for the iron corset.

Fashion photograph, John French, 1940s.

Fashion photograph, John French, 1940s. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There’s little doubt about the purpose of this cruel invention, which popped up in France in either the 1600s or 1700s (no one can say for sure). It was perforated and hinged, sitting weightily upon a woman’s hips like a skin-tight cage, pressing in the lower spine, ribs and any attached fleshy tissue. It was possibly more painful than modern-day body-shaping techniques such as liposuction, but a lot less fun than a Zumba class. It was weirdly beautiful, too; the Marquis de Sade would have been interested.

Eleri Lynn certainly was. She discovered one of these iron corsets when she started at the Victoria and Albert Museum some years ago as a graduate intern, and one of her first assignments was to research corsetry. There she was in the beautiful wood-panelled storerooms when she opened a drawer and found an iron corset. It shocked her.

‘‘It grabbed me because it seemed like such a torture implement,’’ says Lynn from her office at the Historic Royal Palaces in Surrey. ‘‘It seemed so uncomfortable and such a dramatic object. That sparked my interest.’

She later discovered that a French army surgeon had once described metal corsets as being used to ‘‘amend the crookedness’’ of the body - that is, they were made to manage congenital spinal conditions. Ironically, though, they were also used by women who had habitually laced their stays too tightly, causing lasting damage - only an iron corset could help.

Such items pepper the history of underwear, which Lynn has made her specialty, culminating in a book and an exhibition called - with Y-front directness - Undressed. Few curators have been bold enough to tackle underwear, and Lynn says donors are often too embarrassed to put their names to their offerings: a Dior dress, yes; a Dior corset, no.

Undressed: Waspie corset, John French, London, UK, 1956.

Undressed: Waspie corset, John French, London, UK, 1956. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But here they all are - stays, suspender belts, garters, girdles, bras, bustles, crinolines and petticoats, all on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery, celebrated for fashion-centred art shows. It is among them - the iron corset is a centrepiece - we find all the conflicting meanings and ideas about underwear

Who was it, for example, who imposed those dreadful corsets upon women - not only the iron ones but the 18th and 19th century versions made of whalebone and other stiff materials? Was it men, who got about in simple, loose, probably smelly underwear? Or was it manufacturers and retailers, those age-old peddlers of fashion, eager to foist the latest new thing upon gullible consumers? Of course they were all implicated, but they were not alone.

‘‘Historically, the perpetuation of corset-wearing was mother-to-daughter,’’ Lynn says. ‘‘It was the mother that didn’t want the daughter to be considered unusual in not wearing a corset, so they would do exactly the same to their daughters as was done to them, putting them in a corset from a very early age for their health and their posture and because it was the social norm - your best chance as a woman was to marry well.’’

What does she mean by a ‘‘very early’’ age? ‘‘Toddlerhood. They were called stay bands and were like vests with padding. The idea was to keep the child upright and rigid. It must have been horribly uncomfortable but they got used to it.’’

Wait, though, there’s more. Corsets, she says, were also worn right through pregnancy for most of the centuries they were in use (they began to fall from grace in the 1920s, thanks to girdles and brassieres). In theUndressed exhibition, Lynn has a maternity corset on display. To prepare it, she got conservation specialists to squeeze in as much cotton wadding as they could to simulate a pregnant belly - they kept piling it in, she says, but the metal bracing of the corset kept accommodating it. ‘‘The force being pushed down on a womb must have been very dramatic,’’ she says.

Small wonder that many historians, especially feminist ones, have gone on the attack over women’s underwear, finding it a fertile field to explore gender and identity. As Jill Fields writes in her book An Intimate Affair, ‘‘this distinctive apparel has played a central role in constructing gender difference’’. ‘‘It is the chief division between male and female dress and remains fundamental to clothing design. Undergarments are especially significant to feminisation of the body because they are associated with sexual anatomy often perceived as vessels of essential femininity. As such, undergarments are broadly understood as powerfully erotic fetish objects.’’

Even so, there are many misconceptions about underwear - both from historical and contemporary perspectives – and Lynn explains that the vicious cycle of mother-to-daughter corsetry was based not only on ideas of social conformity but on the belief that women had different lungs to men, as well as weak abdominal muscles. Both conditions, of course, were actually caused by corset-wearing.

‘‘Society in general actually thought that a woman’s physiology was different to a man’s, that women were only capable of shallow breathing,’’ Lynn says. ‘‘They hadn’t realised the corset was tightening on the lower ribs and making it impossible to do really deep breathing. They thought it was a female weakness. And because they had been wearing them from childhood, their abdominal muscles hadn’t done any work. They thought they must put their daughters in corsets to improve their posture or else they’d be bent double.’’

While the torture theme is fascinating, it is the eroticism that is truly seductive. Lynn's book and the Undressed exhibition are full of such morsels: a gorgeous little garter made of satin with padded berries in crimson and midnight blue from about 1920, owned by one Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon; or a fabulous 1950s suspender belt in a bright floral print behind lilac nylon, still with its ‘‘Charmeraine, Paris’’ label intact; or the magnificent ‘‘S-bend’’ corset from 1905 Britain, made from black silk satin, plush, whalebone and - a whiff of S&M - steel. S-bend corsets, in general, were said to cause ‘‘new and greater discomforts than the old hourglass style’’ but this one was a bit different and Lynn describes it as the ‘‘Downton Abbey shape’’, for the big Edwardian lady with ‘‘the great huge chest and the bottom that sticks right out’’.

This corset is for a big lady indeed, and it is one of the surprising things about underwear of the past - Lynn’s studies have revealed that corset measurements were all quite generous.

‘‘No corset was really teeny-tiny,’’ she says. ‘‘The idea of a hand-span waist is a bit of a myth. From the surviving garments that we can see, it was all about the shape rather than the size. We have gone away from that and think it is all about the size and that people should be small and skinny; we try to impose that through diet and exercise. Before, people could rely on the underwear to really create a fashionable shape irrespective of their size.’’

Using underwear to manipulate body shape, bending it to the will of fashion as much as any material or fabric was perhaps less drastic than the methods we use today to do the same thing. Yet, historically, there were more options for accentuating shape.

Lynn is fascinated by hoops and crinoline cages - one in the exhibition is like a huge box - and upon these would be petticoats and then an outer-garment that would swing far out from the body. ‘‘Essentially you are walking with this extreme, abstracted body shape. It came from demonstrating social status - it is essentially saying that your father or your husband is wealthy enough to keep you in more fabric than you need, an opportunity for conspicuous consumption.

‘‘But it also demonstrates that you live a life of idle leisure because your clothes are so impractical you can’t possibly do any manual labour.’’

They could be dangerous, too. Lynn’s research has uncovered numerous tragic reports of women unknowingly swinging their monstrously large skirts into fireplaces, thanks to the crazy underwear, and going up in smoke. She also found one report of a woman jumping off a Bristol suspension bridge, but her suicide was averted when her hooped dress acted as a parachute, breaking her fall.

No wonder she tried to top herself, though: female underwear took up an enormous amount of time and effort, particularly in the 19th century. ‘‘You’d be wearing a linen chemise, then a corset, a bodice over the corset and several petticoats and a cage crinoline and stockings and garters and bustles,’’ she says. ‘‘It took several hours to get ready as a high-status lady. You had a lady’s maid to help you but getting into the corset in itself would take ages. One thing we mistake now is that we think you get into a corset and you pull it really tight and it’s done; that’s why you get fashion models fainting when they wear corsets for the first time. What really should be happening is that your lady’s maid should be putting you in the corset and pulling slightly tight then you would have a break of 10 minutes while your ribs adjusted to the pressure. Ribs are really quite malleable and can move without much stress on the body. Then the maid would do you a bit tighter, then wait. They would do this in increments over a considerable amount of time. So to get this hourglass shape, the body is adjusted slowly and slowly and slowly.’’

Time, lady’s maids - no wonder it was a high-class thing to begin with. But with advancing technologies and industrialisation, plus mass production of sewing machines, middle- and lower-class women began to wear them, too. ‘‘And so the fashions then start to change quicker and quicker as the higher-status ladies want to keep ahead of their maids. Previously, fashions changed slowly but it moved quicker and quicker until, these days, things go out of fashion after a week.’’

What has endured is the ‘‘secret language’’ of underwear - how these garments are often about private worlds, modesty, or seduction. ‘‘It is a really interesting thing,’’ Lynn says, ‘‘the notion of covering up and making sure you are not revealing too much, but then in private it is all the opposite. One of the earliest corsets was this luxurious item, one made of beautiful red silk satin damask. It is made to look attractive, but not for the public. It is private. It is about decorating and being seductive.’’

This hastened in the early 20th century when a Mrs Pritchard wrote The Cult of Chiffon, encouraging women to try and wear sexy underwear to stop their husbands philandering. ‘‘It was considered for the first time virtuous to be attractive and a bit sexy. So, suddenly, instead of lacy cotton they started using more transparent materials like chiffon and lightweight silk. It was still covering up a lot but it was a little more floaty.’’

As for men, they have got out of the whole undies deal pretty lightly - but they’ve also missed out on all the many pleasures associated with it; and women, for centuries, have had to put up with their blokes wearing dull, ugly undies, and usually - as Lynn observes - wearing it to death, so much so that little has been left over for museums.

Even so, men got a break when dandies such as Beau Brummell emerged in 1880s London. ‘‘There a few wonderful sketches of men being put into corsets and being padded up,’’ Lynn says. ‘‘They were wearing cork pads on their calves and thighs and the pectoral muscles and biceps to make them look more masculine. Now it has come back - you can buy men’s underwear with padded bottoms and a bit of padding at the front to make them look better endowed.’’

Certainly, though, there has been a massive loss of mystique; it’s wistful.

Lynn tells the story of the Coucher d’Yvette- a performance held in 1890s Paris considered to be the introduction of the striptease into Western culture. ‘‘All it was was a woman standing on a stage getting undressed - no dramatics, just getting undressed layer by layer right down to her petticoat and getting in bed. It was a form of demystifying these alien shapes that women were walking down the streets with. For a man who had never seen a woman naked, it must have been quite scary.’’

Still, not as scary as liposuction, skeletal supermodels and starvation diets.

Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion is at Bendigo Art Gallery, July 19–October 26. Tickets now on sale. bendigoartgallery.com.au