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The Frick Pittsburgh presents "Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear"
Brassiere, 'Moonlight', designed by Kestos, c.1953, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

PITTSBURGH, PA.- The Frick Pittsburgh invites visitors to discover the fascinating history of underwear design from the 18th century to the present in Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear, a blockbuster exhibition organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Frick is the exclusive North American venue for this exhibition that takes a serious look at an alluring subject. Undressed features more than 200 objects that tell the story of the ongoing evolution of underwear, from its origins as a basic layer between the skin and clothes, to its use in fashion and as fashion. The exhibition beautifully illustrates how undergarments reflect society’s changing ideas about the body, morality, and sex, and how underwear styles reflect and shape the body to society’s current fashionable ideal. Undressed remains on view at The Frick Art Museum through January 7, 2018. General admission is $15; free for Frick members.

Organized into thematic sections, Undressed follows a general chronology while examining issues like health and hygiene (including corsets and women’s health), underwear designed for performance (like sports, pregnancy, or extreme climates), volume (creating a fashionable silhouette), and support (bras and girdles), with other sections devoted to hosiery, luxury lingerie, relaxation and loungewear, revelation, temptation, and transformation. The exhibition includes key designers and manufacturers from all periods and concludes with an array of styles representing some of today’s most notable designers, including Elie Saab, Alexander McQueen, and Agent Provocateur.

Highlights of the exhibition include an example of handmade stays made by a working woman in 18th-century England. Stays were particularly popular ladies’ undergarments in 18th-century England and were fully-boned, lace-up garments worn around the bodice and bust for support and structure. They were precursors to the more well-known corset.

A subsection of the exhibition devoted to corsets confronts the debate about corsets and women’s health and features an x-ray that showing the internal effects of tight lacing. Also included in the corset section are an austerity corset made from paper during World War I and a waist-training corset, illustrating a current trend endorsed by celebrity figures such as Kim Kardashian.

After the heyday of the corset, the evolution of the brassiere and the girdle is explored in a section on support. Bras gained popularity through the 20th century and originated in an often prettily decorated garment worn by younger women known as a bust bodice. Bust bodices were frequently embellished with lace and ribbon and made from fine materials. Today, high-tech materials provide support and control, and the girdle, which has seen a plethora of materials and construction techniques over the decades, has now seen a modern resurgence in the form of Spanx and similar products.

Originally, underclothes worn next to the skin were made of natural fibers that were not dyed and could be washed at high temperatures. This changed with the development of man-made fibers and advances in dyeing and laundry technology. Undressed illustrates these changes and the sometimes revolutionary impact of newly developed fabrics, like man-made silks and elastics, which have created longer-wearing, more affordable garments. Additionally, high-tech innovations allow underwear to be developed for purposes beyond typical everyday use—like keeping the wearer warm or cool in extreme temperatures. One early example of “performance underwear” is an 1860 petticoat from Ireland—sewn in a bold and cheerful paisley—the petticoat is quilted and filled with goose down for extra warmth. The down allows for warmth and is lightweight and comfortable, while creating a structure that helped to shape the voluminous skirts in fashion at the time. In contrast, the Japanese company Uniqlo launched a line of thermal underwear in 2003 called Heattech—made of special fabric that retains body heat and generates warmth from the movement of tiny droplets of moisture captured in the fabric fibers. It also contains an antibacterial agent to reduce body odor.

Recently, underwear has been recast in provocative ways, with designers pushing the boundaries between public and private, decent and indecent, by experimenting with visible underwear, and underwear worn as outerwear. In the 1980s the radical, transgressive clothes worn by punks were a key influence on avant-garde fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood. Corsetry, which became associated with fetish and pornography in the 20th century, remains a powerful inspiration for both men and women’s clothing. Other structural garments from the past also interest contemporary designers, many designers, like Dolce & Gabbana, have probed the relationship between the body and clothing through the use of hoops and crinolines. Reflecting this contemporary attitude, the exhibition includes a sheer dress by Liza Bruce famously worn by Kate Moss, and Antonio Beradi’s monochrome dress, worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, featuring a trompe l’oeil corset which reveals the underwear worn beneath.

Whether museum visitors are fascinated by the history of clothing, bewitched by luxury fabrics and trimmings, interested in contemporary fashion design, or intrigued by the broader cultural issues that are reflected in our underwear, Undressed will provide a fascinating (and occasionally flirtatious) look at garments that are typically not seen, while illuminating how trends in undergarments reveal things about ourselves.

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