Madame Ornata bought herself V&A’s new ‘in detail’ book Underwear: Fashion in Detail, and was kind enough to lend it to me to drool over use for research and review purposes.
So here is the review!
Images of lots & lots of gorgeous, unique, and interesting undergarments, all supported by excellent research.
The book is particularly good at featuring unique one-off garments, or at least garments that are less discussed.
‘Underwear in Detail’ has the same problem that all the ‘In Detail’ books have: it can’t decide what it is. Is it a costume history book? Than why some of the artsier detail pics? Is it a history book? Then why divide the information into such peculiar chunks around the book. Is it an art book? Then why all the background info and sketches?
Despite their problems, the previous ‘In Detail’ books managed to walk a very narrow and occasionally visibly wobbly tightrope between coffee table pretty and serious history book, one that appealed to both the pedestrian fashion lover and to the dedicated costume historian. Underwear in Detail is, sadly, less successful. The problem is the topic: most underwear just isn’t visually spectacular enough to be interesting as close-up detailed images. The entire ‘In Detail’ concepts depends on visual splendor, and a lot of underwear just isn’t visually exciting.
In addition to the confusion over what the point of the book is, there are a few other things sure to aggravate the dedicated costumer. First there is the issue of repeats. Much of the content in Underwear in Detail has already been featured in the other ‘In Detail’ books, and while the information is (slightly) different, it will still seem like a double up.
In addition to the ‘double ups’ between Underwear and the other ‘In Detail’ books, there are double ups within Underwear, as the book discusses different aspects of the underwear (constriction and fastenings, for example) in different parts of the book. Aggravating!
Finally, the ‘In Detail’ method of organising the garments by category: Covering Up, Decoration, Control and Constrict, Fastenings, Support and Uplift, Volume & Inside Out, is particularly ill-suited to undergarments, and the book feels awkward and disorganised.
The Ugly Completely Pointless
Men’s Y-front underwear. OK, yeah, someday in the future it might be valuable to have info on it, but for now it’s just a waste of space in the book. Unless you are buying the book for icky reasons I don’t want to think about.
If you are a serious costumer/costume historian with an interest in multi-period costuming, you are going to want this book. Yes, it has flaws: you are going to spend equal amounts of time drooling over it and pawing through it in frustration, trying to find that thing you saw/read about, but can’t remember what section it belongs to, but in the end, it does fill an important nice and present a number of garments that aren’t seen elsewhere.
If you are focused on a very specific era (Georgian, Civil-War etc), or have serious budgeting or space issues I’d recommend borrowing the book and seeing if it really deserves a spot on your bookshelf. It’s good, but it isn’t must have.
So I’m just going to envy Madame O for owning the book, rather than being completely brokenhearted that I don’t!