A friend of mine recently said that wearing a Wonderbra felt like ‘wearing scaffolding,’ which I thought was an excellent analogy. But that’s nothing compared to the underwear that Victorian women were forced to wear, as displayed in the Curvaceous exhibition at the V&A.

This fascinating exhibition looks at the current fetish item of choice; the corset. An item of underwear that literally forced women’s bodies into the ideal waist of 18-21 inches. A piece of clothing that women wore at night, in bed, playing sports and even during pregnancy because their bodies had grown dependent on them. A constricting cage that was considered healthy by the medical establishment for a long time. Something that represents containment and women’s submissive status in the period. It has many emotional and political connotations. Today, as then, it also represents sex.

Women’s bodies were forced into a desirable shape

Alright, so the exhibition isn’t just about the corset. It also looks at crinolines (more inconvenient than painful and dangerous – although they did have a tendency to catch fire) and bustles which make the question ‘does my bum look big in this?’ redundant. Both of these are items that were designed to create the ideal curvaceous silhouette. The exhibition is divided into four sections: Boned, Busty, Bell-Shaped, Bustled. But the corset is the ideal representation of the way women’s bodies were forced into the desirable shape of the time: the ‘wasp waist.’

What makes this exhibition even more interesting is that the V&A asked students of Central St. Martin’s school of fashion to create designs that would interpret and update the restrictive clothing of the Victorians for modern day women. The results are extraordinary and each item is very different. The clothes represent such concepts as the body breaking free from the cage, the modern woman’s freedom to control her own appearance, humorous visual jokes poking fun at the way these things were seen as healthy, and more.

The most striking, I thought, was a full length dress which took its reference from the many thin separate sections which corsets were made out of. The dress consists of hundreds of long thin brown leather strips flowing down the body, each connected to the other by hundreds of hooks and eyes. The idea is that the woman can tighten it or loosen it as she desires; giving her the freedom to define her own shape that the Victorian women never had. It looked incredibly comfortable to wear but it must take bloody ages to put on! It was one of those things you really want to touch, even though as a vegetarian I’d (reluctantly) have problems with the leather (I know, I know: a feminist and a vegetarian! How politically correct am I?!)

The historical connotations are hard to shake off

As I walked around, looking at the intricate construction of the corsets: the sections, the lace, the ribbons, the eye-holes, I thought how ironic it was that something which looked so pretty could be so painful and crushing. They look so innocuous that you have to consciously remind yourself of the torment women had to endure to wear them. It was almost sinister. The displays also raised other questions to me. Were corsets sexy? If so, why? Are our ideas of what is a turn on still rooted in Victorian values? Was it the fact that the woman’s body is constricted (a repulsive notion, although probably true for some)? Or was it more the design of it; the lace, the satin, the ribbons, the colour. Could a feminist enjoy wearing these things? Yes, I concluded. Because women now have the choice; and these days corsets are presumably designed for comfort. Even so, the historical connotations are difficult to shake off.

The other issue raised was the concept of changing the shape of our bodies. “We no longer rely on rigid underwear to support our clothes…” the introduction to the display said. “…genetic engineering, cosmetic surgery, exercise and dieting help schieve today’s desired shape.” Hmmm. One of the fashion students adressed this question directly, asking herself what was the modern equivalent of the ‘corset’? She came up with an intentionally dismal sack dress embroidered with the details of a hideous sounding cabbage soup diet.

Should we reject or embrace the desire to change our bodies?

I’m glad the exhibition accepted that women still desire, for whatever reason, to change their shape; and that the V&A didn’t adopt a pious ‘look how liberated we are now’ attitude. But is this desire, as one student suggested, ‘a human need’? Is the desire and the ability to change the shape of our bodies, a freedom or a cage? Is it something we should accept or reject? Shouldn’t we be asking why this need exists and why historically it has been women more than men who have been the victims of it?

All in all, a very interesting exhibition – and the rest of the dress gallery room is definitely worth a look too. I was surprised to learn the the Victorians had a sense of humour: they created a novelty bustle for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee which contained a musical box and played God Save the Queen when the wearer sat down! Makes the whoopie cushion look pathetic.