Frick Pittsburgh exhibit 'Undressed" explores history, beauty of underwear
The unmentionables are being mentioned.
Lingerie is at the forefront of the new exhibit at the Frick Pittsburgh in Point Breeze with its latest offering — “Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear.”
The museum invites visitors to discover the fascinating history of underwear design from the 18th century to the present in this blockbuster exhibition organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The Frick Pittsburgh is the only North American venue for this exhibit.
“There was a concern it might be more risqué,” says Frick Pittsburgh's executive director Robin Nicholson. “But it is more fascinating. You will see some intricate bodices and underwear that constricts the body as well as body-shaping pieces that show how synthetic fabrics have transformed the way people think about underwear. Underwear over the years has transformed fashion.”
The exhibit tells the fascinating and sometimes controversial story of underwear design from the 18th century to the present day. “Undressed” illustrates how undergarments reflect society's changing ideas about the body, morality and sex, and examines the intimate relationship between underwear and fashion and its role in molding the body to an always changing fashionable ideal.
Organized into thematic sections, the exhibit 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)
• Support (bras and girdles)
• 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.
Most of the pieces in “Undressed” are women's lingerie although there are a few men's pieces.
Having the exhibit at the Frick Pittsburgh makes sense given the museum's permanent lace collection, says Sonnet Stanfill, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who is in PIttsburgh for the opening and spoke at a news conference Oct 20.
“The galleries have been transformed — this is one of the best I've seen,” Stanfill says. “I love to see the collection in a new setting. The Frick Pittsburgh understands that fashion is a way of welcoming a new audience into the museum.
There has been a debate as to whether fashion is museum-worthy, but we have won that debate and Robin Nicholson agrees. He has been committed to showing fashion in an exciting new way.
The collaboration between the museums has been amazing, says Stuart Baird of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. He says the exhibit not only showcases fashion, it connects two amazing museums. Some of the pieces here weren't shown in London.
“It is wonderful to get this show to Pittsburgh,” says Baird, who also was at the Oct. 20 event. “We hope it opens up different ideas of fashion as art.”
This collection is truly “art as fashion,” Nicholson says. Every piece is pristine like it was just bought off the shelf yesterday — and created with remarkable craftsmanship. It took two full weeks to install the nearly 243 pieces.
Underwear is something everyone has to engage in, Nicholson says.
“Most people don't think of preserving underwear, but this collection contains some of the most well-preserved pieces,” Nicholson says. “This has been a most complex exhibition to install because each item has to be encased in glass with proper lighting — the same as watercolor paintings.”
Hosting another fashion exhibit fits with the vision Nicholson had when he came to the museum in 2014 to make these kinds of collections a niche topic at the Frick Pittsburgh. “Undressed” follows “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe” which was at the Frick in 2016 and was extremely popular, Nicholson says. Having such style collections can be a way to attract new patrons to the museum, Nicholson says.
“I claim no expertise in fashion,” Nicholson says. “But it's been kind of fun seeing all the shoes and now all the underwear. I am quietly optimistic about ‘Undressed.' I am excited. I am already hearing that it has the great balance of being both serious and fun.”
Sarah Hall, chief curator, director of collections at the Frick Pittsburgh, says she's most excited about “the concept of the exhibition — the idea that we are spending time and thought considering the form and function of underwear,” Hall says.
“There are many terrific objects — from cage crinolines that look like contemporary sculpture, to body altering corsets, to breathtaking contemporary designer fashions influenced by undergarments,” she says. “And there are beautiful fabrics and details — lace, embroidery, silks — so it's a show that explores social and cultural history, but it's also fun and visually delightful.”
Hall says the fashion exhibits at the museum complement the impressive collection of clothing and accessories from the Gilded Age at the Frick. Over the past three years, the museum has made a concerted effort to do more research on its collection, to display more of it, and to make progress in terms of care and conservation of the collection.
“That collection includes many beautiful corset covers, camisoles, drawers, nightgowns, boudoir caps and other forms of lingerie or underwear,” Hall says of the pieces owned by the Frick. “It's always fascinating for people to get a better understanding of the number of layers that were typically worn by women — relatively not that long ago. This exhibition helps to contextualize our collection and tell a bigger story.”
Putting it all together
The biggest challenge to setting up this exhibit has been the physical logistics, Hall says.
“It's a large exhibition — so with that comes a lot of physical work,” she says. “There were about 100 crates, many of them quite large. There are, I think, 243 individual items of clothing — some are combined on one mannequin, but there are still more than 100 mannequins or dress forms in the exhibition.
“Also, historic textiles are particularly fragile. Think about it — colors fade, fibers become brittle, some fabrics are attractive to pests. So the cases need to provide adequate protection from dust and have flexible lighting to meet the low levels required by the objects.”
“There's a lot of substance to the show,” Hall says. “But also it's fun, and there are examples of beauty, innovation and technology as well as things that are mean to entice, enhance, shape or embellish. You may never look at underwear the same way again.”
In conjunction with “Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear,” there are various exhibition programs at the Frick Pittsburgh.
Already sold out is “Stacy London — The Power of Personal Style” at 7 p.m. Nov. 3. London, a fashion consultant, author and television host, is best known as co-host of TLC's “What Not to Wear.” She will share her experiences both personally and professionally on the healing power of personal style.
Revealing Conversations — Fashion and the Female Body: 2-5 p.m. Nov. 4. $15
Foundations of Fashion — Shopping and Getting Dressed in the Gilded Age: 7 p.m. Nov. 9. $15
Adorning the Boudoir: High-Fashion Nightwear Party: 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, East Liberty. $74, $125 for VIP
Irrational Attire — A Pittsburgh Artist Takes on the Corset: noon, Nov. 14. $10
The Frick's Readers' Series, Beneath the Image: Discussion of “Strapless” by John Singer Sargent and the “Fall of Madame X,” by Deborah Davis, 10 a.m. Nov. 18. $10
Bodiography Contemporary Ballet: Unblemished Disclosure: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 1 $15
Adult workshop, Strapped for Style: 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 10. $25
Film at noon, “Silk Stockings”: noon Dec. 12. Free
LKHD: Langston Kelly Human DJ: 6:30 p.m., Dec. 15. $15