Britain's knickers

A new show at London's Design Museum features underwear from sheepskin corsets to futuristic bras.

By Jack Boulware

Published June 8, 2000 7:11PM (EDT)

This month, England's underwear enthusiasts will no longer have to skulk into clothing stores or neighborhood porn shops to glimpse and fondle their coveted prize. Wiser minds have intervened upon this ancient undergarment fetish, dragging it up from the gutter and into a more upscale environment -- London's Design Museum.

Last week, the British Council launched a new exhibition of underwear and lingerie at the museum, including everything from a glow-in-the-dark bra to examples of scanties worn by the royal family. Council chairwoman and attorney Helena Kennedy admits that the appeal is twofold: "This exhibit is a compelling statement about British design -- but it's also quite saucy," she told reporters. "The perception of British people as being strait-laced is no longer real."

Strait-laced is definitely out of vogue here. Visitors to the exhibit are greeted at the entrance by a female mannequin splayed on its back, clad in pink fishnet stockings and a green teddy and panties -- as if to say, "Like what you see, lovey?"

Among the cavalcade of underwear, standouts include Vivienne Westwood's blue sheepskin corset and star-patterned mini-crinoline and Alexander McQueen's pink satin corset decorated with black Swarovski crystal, which are suspended inside giant, transparent inflatable legs. A wash line of clothing features Clements Ribeiro's red silk-chiffon polka-dotted panties dangling from pegs.

Some of the undies -- such as sheepskin corsets and flimsy cashmere vests -- suggest that if lascivious comedian Benny Hill were still alive, he'd be first in line when the museum opened.

Designers in the show have run amok with all manner of undergarments, but special attention has been reserved for the brassiere: the new red-white-and-blue padded Ultrabra Super Boost by Gossard, a tasseled and gray-beaded number by Stella McCartney and a sheer black net affair from Agent Provocateur.

And then there's the high-tech futuristic Techno Bra, made of conductive material with silicone gel inserts designed to detect heartbeat changes. Designer Kirsty Falconer says that one day the Techno Bra might include a personal alarm that will sound if the wearer is attacked. An accompanying pair of anti-radiation panties reportedly drains electricity from the body and protects the pelvic area from magnetic radiation -- no doubt the ideal choice for a woman planning to wade through a pool of waist-high toxic sludge.

British citizens obsessed with the intimate-apparel infrastructure of their royal family will not be disappointed by the exhibit. Sturdy foundation garments from Rigby and Peller -- support team for the royal bosom since the 1960s -- are also on display. June Kenton, personal bra fitter to the queen and the queen mother for lo these many years, told reporters that 80 percent of all women wear the wrong bra size and "have two drawers full of bras that they don't wear." She did not elaborate as to whether this statistic applied to Buckingham Palace as well.

The underwear exhibition runs through July 2, then travels to Japan and Australia, whose citizens presumably are eager for a glimpse of the harness that supports the mammary glands of the woman featured on their currency.

Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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