We’re about to leave the bustling conservation studios of the Victoria and Albert Museum when the curator Edwina Ehrman draws me aside. “What’s it actually like,” she asks quietly, “to wear a corset?”

She’s in the middle of putting together an exhibition of 200 items of underwear. All around us conservators are intently bent over pants and bras, getting them ready for display. Given that many of the corsets in the studio are more than 200 years old, I’m not surprised that she hasn’t tried any of them on. But Ehrman knows that I have been in and out of corsets and stays from the 1550s to the 1950s, during the course of making various TV programmes about historical fashion.

I tell her the truth: that it feels fantastic – when you first put it on. Provided that you’re wearing a Victorian model, which creates a tiny nipped-in waist, rather than Georgian stays, which aim at a straight up-and-down tube, your figure is improved within seconds. “Yank hard!” I often find myself saying to my producer-slash-lady’s-maid. “Squeeze tight! I might even fit into that dress if you keep going.”

But then, as time goes by, the pain sets in. At the end of a long day filming, I tell Ehrman, it’s agony. The inability to bend, the chafing, the general discomfort of it all, make me think that there is certainly something in the idea that restrictive underwear is a wicked device of the patriarchy to keep women in their place. Why else did women in the 60s burn their bras?

Ehrman herself has no truck with the idea that women’s underwear is just another form of repression. “I like to give women more credit”, she says, discounting the idea that it was men who pushed women into wearing corsets that crushed their ribs, and hooped crinolines so large and cumbersome that they were actually known as “cages”. And of course, she’s right that these things grow more comfortable as you get used to them.

For many women in the past, fashionable underwear was put on gladly, to create the kind of figure that society admired, even to support the spine. Indeed one friend of mine, who earns a living impersonating the Victorian cook Mrs Beeton, tells me that wearing her corset helps her lift heavy saucepans.

But weren’t Victorian ladies always doing their corsets up too tight, and therefore fainting away at the slightest provocation? We discuss the vexed question of “tight-lacing”.

Yes, if you lace your corset up as snugly as is humanly possible, it will undoubtedly impede your breathing and make you more likely to faint. But it’s not certain that Victorian women really did that on a regular basis. On the one hand, evidence in favour of tight-lacing is the fact that special corsets made for singing survive, with side panels that you could loosen in order to breathe deeply. This implies that you couldn’t breathe deeply, or sing, in a normal corset. And the exhibition will also contain some x-rays taken in 1908 that show a living woman in a tight corset whose ribs are being crushed. On the other hand, a lot of our evidence that ladies laced tightly comes from Victorian campaigners for healthier underwear, and from satirists, both of whom had their own agendas. “We still need some truly nerdy people,” Ehrman admits, “to pin these things down.” In putting her exhibition together, she has had the help and advice of a team of private “corset collectors” from round the globe.

In fact, underwear is not an easy subject to research. Ehrman, for example, has combed the published letters of the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell who often comments on fashion. Yet underwear seems to be a surprising omission from her correspondence with her daughters. It could be that she was too prudish to mention it. But it could also be that her editors made the decision to leave it out: too ephemeral, slightly rude.

Worn beneath our clothes, underwear has been literally hidden from history. People often either take it for granted, or don’t like to talk about it, especially men, as Ehrman discovered when she tried to talk to modern men about their underwear during the course of researching her exhibition.

We turn next to the true corset, in its new, 19th-century form, designed to give the wearer a tiny waist to contrast with the enormous ballooning skirt of a crinoline. Ehrman shows me the trick of how to lace yourself into a corset if you don’t have a servant on hand to help. You start lacing from both top and bottom, meeting in the middle, from whence you can give yourself a good pull from the front.

This constant evolution of the fashionable form, she thinks, is entirely down to consumerism. Staymakers and fashion designers have always wanted us to purchase new clothes, so they change their output year on year – we feel out of date, and feel that itch to buy. Once this subtle consumerist pressure had seen the Regency classical column balloon into the crinoline, the volume of the skirt went backwards into the bustle. Sadly, it appears to be a fashion historians’ myth that a bustle was produced for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee that played “God Save the Queen” as you sat down.

Then the volume of the lower part of the silhouette disappeared altogether with the Edwardian hobble skirt. The pace of change has grown ever faster since the Industrial Revolution.

But Victorian corsets weren’t just for the ladies. A “waist belt”, which might include early elastication, helped a gentleman keep a straight spine when riding, and also had the (possibly unspoken) advantage of holding in his paunch. The particular model on display at the V&A was patented by the metalworker who invented the fine mesh of metal wires used in its expandable side panels.

The 19th century’s most notorious male corset wearer was George IV, who was described by the portrait painter Sir David Wilkie as looking like “a great sausage stuffed into the covering”. The king’s tailors kept the paper pattern for his “belt” (ie corset), which has strings that could be tightened just like the female equivalent. George IV would probably have been chagrined to know that the pattern for his stomach “belt” has ended up as a treasured item at the Museum of London.

The later 19th century saw a new wave of concern about health and hygiene. Jaeger, which produced woollen underwear, claimed to have a monopoly on truly healthy, breathable undies – until along came Aertex with their airy, cotton garments, which also had the seal of medical approval. The brassiere – the word appears during the first world war – was invented partly as a result of fears that corsets were squashing women’s reproductive organs.

Of course the fashionable bust shape went on changing constantly throughout the century. The 1920s flapper wore a bandeau, intended to minimise her breasts, while two decades later she might have adopted the conical, pointy bra that complemented the wide-hipped, full-skirted New Look of the late 1940s. The exhibition contains a “Peter Pan Hidden Treasure” brassiere from 1950 with its patented “merry go round” stitching, which forms a shape that might be too pointy even for Madonna. Sales of corsets doubled between 1948 and 1958, possibly as part of the process of putting women back into the box, as they gave up the jobs and freedoms that came during wartime.

The exhibition is sponsored by Agent Provocateur, so once we reach the present day there are a few of their “bedroom pieces”, the name for their upmarket lingerie and fetish wear. We look at a dress by Atelier Bordelle inspired by “shibari”, a form of Japanese knot-related bondage. “You’ve no idea what internet sites I open up for research and quickly close down again”, Ehrman admits. And we close with the contemporary idea that underwear can be worn as outerwear: with Ellie Saab’s beautiful lilac, lingerie-inspired dress for a film star, and the corset made by Mr Pearl for the burlesque artist Dita von Teese. Its waist is astonishingly tiny, and the crystal beading is in two subtly different colours to trick the eye into thinking that it’s even smaller. So the corset still has a place in fashion, as does – surprisingly – the codpiece. A pair of men’s “Aussie Bum” underpants has a little discreet padding.

Isn’t an obsession with clothes that nobody except the wearer sees trivial, unnecessary, leading to nothing but vanity and an empty purse? Well, no. One of the final items we look at is an “Austerity Corset”, made out of twisted paper during the first world war.

Underwear isn’t just a luxury. It’s a necessity if you want people to feel like themselves, to experience dignity. In the direst emergency, one needs food, water and a pair of paper pants.

 

A Collette Dinnigan archive lingerie set is featured in the Victoria and Albert Undressed Exhibition. On display until 12th March 2017.