This spring the Victoria and Albert Museum delved into the intimate world of underwear. Assistant curator Susanna Cordner takes us inside the new exhibition, in which Sunspel plays a small but crucial role.
We meet on a brisk February morning at Blythe House, the former Post Office headquarters in Kensington that houses many of the V&A’s study collections and the Archive of Art and Design. Also here is the Clothworkers’ Centre, home to over 104,000 pieces of the museum’s legendary fashion collection, spanning five centuries. Storied in giant, glossy rolling racks, each piece – from Ottoman Empire children’s kaftans to 18th century court dresses to Biba knee high boots – is meticulously catalogued and, hung on padded hangers inside bespoke Tyvek covers, individually hand-sewn by volunteers. Each garment is coded, the obtuse language of which betrays the poetry of what lies inside; T.40-1974, for instance, is a sleeveless, gazar Balenciaga black dress. “A real little beauty,” says Cordner holding it up in the prerequisite white gloves. Today, however, we’re here to talk pants.
Undressed’s ‘ordinary’ subject matter is exactly what makes it so interesting. Just as hemlines yoyo up and down with the socio-economic climate of the times, likewise underwear acts as a barometer for the mood of the day. “[Underwear] is a really interesting way of studying society or changes and innovation in design because it’s always present – there is no period when we suddenly didn’t wear it,” she explains. “It’s always a viable market that will develop and react to or shape the rest of fashion”.
With such a wide subject matter to play with, it begs the question: how did one go about the selection process? Interestingly, for both this exhibition and others, many of the stories are found in the more everyday pieces, those things people might not think to keep. “It’s not just ‘oh it’s pretty’ or ‘oh it’s sexy’,” she says of the garments that made it into Undressed. “One of the main themes of the exhibition is innovation and technology”.
Technology is an important theme in Undressed, particularly in relation to fabrics. Naturally, also, there’s a progression of fashion and tastes over time. However, at the core, the demands placed on underwear designers remain the same – whether you’re dealing with Chamois leather drawers, couture corsets or ‘tighty-whities’: fit and fabric, form and function are all of equal importance. Cordner echoes this, “The aims of an underwear designer don’t alter, it’s always about comfort, practicality and appearance”.
“What’s really interesting about Sunspel is there’s such a clear design integrity,” Susannah Cordner
Superlative fit and fabrics are among the reasons men have turned to Sunspel briefs for years, and what ignited Cordner’s interest in the brand. Admiring Sunspel’s innovative approach to fabric – like the lightweight, breathable cellular cotton developed on lace machines – she was keen to delve into the archives. “What’s really interesting about Sunspel is there’s such a clear design integrity,” she says. “These shapes have lasted for close to 70 years. Few other brands can say that. A lot of brands treat their heritage in quite a sentimental way, like a trophy, but for Sunspel it’s allowed to be part of the architecture and process, without being overbearing”.
It’s testament to the triumph of form and function over flash-in-the-pan fads that a pair of Sunspel boxer shorts, introduced by John Hill (the great grandson of Sunspel’s founder) in 1947, are still designed to that specification today. “I really like the idea that you have this design and you’ve continued working at it and adapting it to suit different time periods,” says Cordner. As such she considers Sunspel’s design the archetypal boxer short. It’s for that reason they not only found their way into the exhibition, but the permanent collection too.
Unlike an haute cuisine chef who only wants beans on toast come clocking off time, Cordner fully admits that clothes “are a bit of an obsession”. What her work has done is affect how she shops. She has a particular affinity for vintage, like the embroidered, ’60s jacket she’s wearing today found at a Brighton market. “Because my job is about looking for stories in clothes, I find it very hard to pick something when I know 40,000 of them have been made. I have to absolutely love something to buy it”. (Her fantasy wardrobe raid? Marie Antoinette’s for work; David Hockney’s “snazzy jumpers” for herself).
It’s this same enthusiasm that’s palpable when Cordner talks about Undressed; she excels at spotting the special in the everyday. “Underwear can be almost armour like, either as a defence system between you and the world, or because it completely changes the form of your body,” she says. “I think people completely underestimate their underwear, but it takes a lot for a design to become as everyday as a boxer short or Bridget Jones knickers”. One thing’s for sure, if anyone can get you fascinated by pants, it’s Cordner.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, 16th April 2016 – 12th March 2017 at the V&A Fashion Gallery.