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Undressed exhibition

Date

Annabel Ross

Frances Hartog with the Queen's bloomers.

Frances Hartog with the Queen's bloomers. Photo: Glenn Daniels

It might not be surprising to learn that the underwear worn by Queen Victoria was rather large – she became obese in older age – but it’s another thing altogether to discover that at least one pair of her briefs were crotchless.

Before you let your mind go to the gutter, though, consider that voluminous crinoline skirts were also coming into vogue at the height of Victoria’s reign in the mid-1800s.

Crotchless underwear made it easier for women to “spend a penny”, as Frances Hartog, conservator of textiles for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, puts it.

Queen Victoria's bloomers.

Queen Victoria's bloomers. Photo: Glenn Daniels

“Because you were wearing so many layers it made life a bit of a nightmare,” Ms Hartog says.

“If you’re wearing a large crinoline, it makes life extremely difficult when you’re caught short.” 

Still lost? She's talking about using the loo.

As well as being quite large, the regal bloomers are rather ordinary.

“They’re just plain cotton, crotchless knickers ... and they’re just terribly simple, with a tiny monogram with Victoria’s little crown on it,”  Ms Hartog says. “It’s exquisitely done just inside the waistband.”

Ms Hartog has spent the past fortnight in Bendigo installing a touring V&A exhibition that will make its international debut at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

Called Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion, it comprises more than 80 garments traditionally kept under wraps, from 17th century corsets to modern-day Marks and Spencer knickers.

Couture pieces from designers including Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace and Christian Dior also feature and a small section is dedicated to men’s undergarments, not an item of clothing traditionally kept for posterity.

“Men’s undergarments were traditionally quite functional and practical and so they were worn a lot, they were worn out, whereas ladies undergarments tend to be better preserved,” Ms Hartog says.

A men’s shirt might seem an unusual inclusion but Ms Hartog says it’s an example of one of the earliest undergarments.

“I think to reveal anything other than the cuffs and collar was considered improper or risque, the shirt body itself was strictly an undergarment.”

The preservation of the garments is approached by the museum in the same way it would approach any other costume.

“If a figure if very disfigured by staining, we’d probably wash it, if it’s washable,” Ms Hartog says.

“There is one pair of women’s striped drawers and they’re purple and black and they are quite heavily stained and we did discuss washing them but we found to our amazement that the black was extremely fugitive, it ran as soon as water hit it,” she says.

“Queen Victoria’s drawers, they were basically clean but they were just looking rather grey and sorry for themselves so we washed those.”

Undressed is at Bendigo Art Gallery from July 19 to October 26.

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