A pair of gender-neutral underpants by the Swedish brand Acne are to be displayed as part of the Victoria Albert Museum’s major spring exhibition and will become part of its permanent collection.
The briefs will be shown as part of Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, which opens in April. Other stand-out items will include the long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother, a 1960s Mary Quant body stocking and the sheer slip dress by Liza Bruce that was famously worn by Kate Moss in the 1990s.
The Acne underpants may not be the frilliest, most sensuous items in the show – they are wilfully anything but – but when they launched, in 2014, they were huge talking points in fashion, interpreted as part a wider trend towards gender fluidity in clothing, and in underwear specifically.
“We decided to include them because they are part of a bigger story about people rejecting conventional ideas of masculine and feminine and making their own choices about what they feel right in,” said Edwina Ehrman, curator of textiles and fashion at the VA. “I think that, on the one hand, the pants have become a bit of a symbol for the concept of gender fluidity and, on the other, that they have got people talking, and more importantly thinking, about how nuanced gender really is.”
The underpants are just one of many items that aim to explore the role of underwear’s role as protection, and constraint, of the body, and to examine its part in reflecting contemporary ideals of morality and fashion.
Its 200 pieces will also include an 1890s whalebone-and-cotton corset with a waist that is under 19 inches, early bras created in the 1910s, a 1950s Playtex rubber girdle and Spanx designs from 2010, as well as designs conceived for enhancement: men’s aussieBum briefs from 2015 and a woman’s push-up bra from the 1990s.
The show will also ask how underclothes and nightclothes became fashionable beyond the bedroom, with the inclusion of an 1840s man’s dressing gown and a 1970s kaftan, and will showcase designers’ use of the the tropes of underwear on the catwalk, from a skin-tight laced cocktail dress by Jean Paul Gaultier from 1989 to a 2013 Dolce Gabbana dress featuring a large cage crinoline.