Reviews: resources, books, museums

Friday Review: Underwear in Detail

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!

The Good:

Images of lots & lots of gorgeous, unique, and interesting undergarments, all supported by excellent research.

A turn of the century bust enhancer

The book is particularly good at featuring unique one-off garments, or at least garments that are less discussed.

A turn of the other century bra-thigee

The Bad:

‘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?

Double images - what do they mean!?!

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.

This underwear is interesting, but just not that 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.

This looks familiar

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.

This corset looks 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.


Also exciting. At least the mannequin has a nice tush

The Verdict:

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!


  1. All my Detail-books has multiple bookmarks with scribblings for easier access to just the image I want… Still, I’m glad I own them.

  2. Looks like a very pretty book to peruse! But I know what you mean about the In Detail books–very weird organization, often skips the info I want for (admittedly droolworthy) artsy photos. Still–I’ve had lots of fun with seamstressing friends poring over the other In Detail books, oohing and ahing, so I’ll have to see if the library has this one!

  3. I like your timing. I have a gift certificate for Amazon and this was one of the books I was debating buying with it this weekend.

  4. It looks really good, but I’m happy I bought Corsets from Jill Salen. I think in suits me better, because I’m not a prof, I’m still learning.
    (do you own corsets? would love to hear your review!)

    • I do own Corsets, and have reviewed it already, as well as some of the patterns from it. I much prefer the organisation in Corsets, and it is a much better beginner book for making your own undergarments. However, the research isn’t as authoritative as the V&A books, and, of course, it only covers corsets, not other interesting undergarments.

  5. I bought it and love it. Not quite as much as the previous books, but it’s still fun to look at and I love the rarer examples, like you mentioned. Funnily enough the Edwardian wedding corset you don’t like I actually love and want to make a copy of someday 😉
    Not a big fan of the more modern examples in the book. Agent Provocateur, while pretty for modern underwear, seems to be little more than an attempt to copy of previous decades of underwear. I’d rather have seen more of the originals.

    • Oh, I don’t dislike the Edwardian wedding corset – I actually love it, but still have to admit that it is a very awkward corset!

  6. My thoughts EXACTLY. I went to a Barnes & Noble store and saw this… Luckily I had time to look at all the images I wanted and promptly decided that I did not NEED this book. Although, if someone wanted to buy it for me I would happily accept.

    ps. when I was in B&N, I was extremely embarrassed when I came across the Y front undies. Pages were quickly turned for fear of discovery!

  7. *laughing at an image of Mr. Lucas from “Are You Being Served?”*
    I’m still intrigued by the subject of the book: underwear. To think about it one of the reasons why “In Detail” books are pretty to look at yet disorganized inside could be cost and audience.
    A book about the construction of underwear would sell to a specific group thus it would be costly whereas a book about underwear used as a curiosity sells to the general audience at a reasonable cost.

  8. Thanks for the review! Like Rae, I also have a gift certificate for Amazon and was debating which costume book to buy next. I have two “In Detail” books and I get frustrated with them for the same reasons you do. I think I will hold off and get some more “must have” books from my list instead. Thank you!!

  9. The ” bra-thingee” is almost a dead ringer for a Choli or Saree blouse.

    • That’s actually exactly what I thought! And I figured I could adapt my choli pattern if I wanted to make my own ‘bra-thingee’.

  10. Susan Jarrett says

    Thanks for the review. I was pondering a purchase of this book and your review was of great help in my decision making.

    Quick question: When looking through this text, did you happen to see any pre 1870s corsets that employed flossing?

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