A History Lesson in Lingerie

A History Lesson in Lingerie

The School of Historical Dress Exhibition: Our Collection By Colour, No.1: White

Situated in South London (just opposite the Imperial War Museum) a charming 19th century building is home to the School of Historical Dress. An institute that promotes the study of classic cutting techniques through the analysis of surviving historical garments. It was here that I visited its first exhibition to the public titled “Our Collection By Colour, No.1: White”.

Storytelling through colour: this is one of three small exhibits at the school, with the first concentrating on white textiles and clothing. The space is filled with mannequins adorned in linen, lace and ruffs, with focus on the origins of muslin and new fashions from old. An inspirational narrative for garment, embroidery and lace designers, told in three parts below:

Story 1: Ruffs

The exhibit begins with a display of ruffs, shirts and smocks c.1500 - a combination of original pieces and reconstructions. Ruffs projected a frill worn around the neck, or used along the edgings of shirts and smocks. Originally made from starched linen and edged with lace, later on they were constructed entirely of lace which in the early 16th century was a luxurious new textile development. I find such intricate layerings and details,  inspirational for textile design: I envision new bobbin laces, embroidery bands with broderie anglaise or crochet edgings, white-on-ecru, with loose-threading for that antique, hand-crafted feel.

The school also creates costume for period TV and film. With one display showing a reconstruction of a man’s linen shirt c.1547. This was made and hand-embroidered by @whiterabbitlynens for Jude Law to wear as Henry the VIII in the forthcoming Tudor film Firebrand.

 A member of the team describes the technique used for this collar as “related to smocking - we would call the silk embroidery on top of the even gathering ‘pattern darning’ it is an all thread-counted running stitch.” I imagine these rushed ripples and silk embroidery strips in decorative strapping elastics and rigid trims.

Story 2: Muslin

The second story follows the origins of Muslin, a cotton fabric of plain weave that was imported into Europe from India in the 17th century. Against the backdrops of loom length hand-woven muslin, stands a muslin dress c.1840. With layerings of lightweight ruffles it is almost transparent when separated. This dress resembles the little white dress worn by Marie Antoinette in Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s 1783 painting: a revealing portrayal of the queen in a semi-sheer chemise that was considered quite the scandal during the time.

Also featured are empire-line dresses of the Regency period: a style that has resurfaced due to the popularisation of Netflix’s Bridgerton. Garment designers could take inspiration from the draping for flouncy new nightwear shapes or reinterpret these silhouettes into playful underwear sets. Textile designers may find influence in the whitework embroideries of the sprigged, spotted, checked and striped muslin variations shown above.


Story 3: New Fashions from Old

20th and 21st century designers have often referred to historical fashions to inform and innovate new designs. Featured here is Laura Ashley’s 1975 collection that was clearly influenced by the necklines and decorations of the 1900s. The embroidered panelling of the bodice can be reinterpreted into bra and bralette top hybrids. 

The interiors of an 18th century corset with magnified details of a flower motif in threads of silver strips. It’s wrapped in white silk core with a ground weave of silver and I imagine this aesthetic recreated in a todays stretch jacquards.

But, most exciting of the pieces are the late Dame Vivienne Westwood’s lace bodices from her Gold Label Couture collection c.2000. Made with power net and rigilene boning, Westwood was a pioneer to the daring concept of corsetry as outwear in the 1980’s and was also a patron of the school, stating that “there is so much to learn from how people dressed in the past”. 

The exhibition has been inspirational in our research for the latest Design Concepts AW 2024-25 book theme 'À La Recherche du Temps Perdu' inspired by Proust's writing, in which the influence of the past changes perception according to the age of the beholder and the time they live in. With Dior’s Spring/ Summer 2023 show showing Catherine de Medici's 16th century inspiration, we discuss the role of lingerie and the current growing trend to exhibit nakedness. All of this together signals a revaluation of real lingerie, driven by women's empowerment without patriarchal talk and behaviour.