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The current exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which calls itself the world’s leading museum of art and design, is all about underwear. Titled, Undressed: a Brief History of Underwear, the exhibit includes several tightly cinched mannequins to tell the story of (mostly women’s) underwear design from the 18th-century to the present day. While the point is fashion, it’s also a story of the body–how innovation of garments has shaped the body and, more specifically, how women’s bodies have been molded to conform to clothes.

The corsets featured are evidence of the suffering and disfigurement women endured to adhere to cultural attitudes about gender ideals and female standards of beauty. To give the illusion of a perfect hour-glass figure, women were laced into tight fitting corsets, often with bone, ivory and wood sewn in to enforce the shape. As a result, ribs were displaced and the diaphragm and lungs were squished, making it difficult to breathe. The constriction, as can be seen below, essentially stuffed women’s intestines into their lower abdomen. The swooning and fainting of tightly-bound women was once considered a sign of their innate emotional and delicate feminine constitution. They were given “fainting couches” to give them room to breathe, when what they needed was air to breathe in. The museum website features a corset dating from 1825-35 that was too small even for a specially designed mannequin. With a doll-like waist measurement of 17 inches, it had to be made even smaller. 

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While women today have been able to breathe much more deeply, girdles and shapers with latex and spandex keep us far from breathing freely. Still, most of us have nothing against trying to look better or feel sexier, and the exhibit highlights modern-day lingerie worn as fashion by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss. The corset has made a comeback in recent years–not as a fashion statement but as a tool for “waist training” and weight loss, neither of which it does. There is a difference between women being held in and being held back, and recent celebrity endorsements of corsets have made it a struggle to find that difference.

Hopefully, visitors will receive, along with up-close encounters with underwear, a critical take on what constitutes beauty as well as the ongoing continuum of garments for women that constrict our breath. The exhibit has received a good amount of press, but it remains to be seen if the display is a real lesson in history or just history repeating itself.