Heist Meets Susanna Cordner

For International Women's Day, we want to talk about underwear (surprisingly!), and we thought there was no better person to talk to than Susanna Cordner.

In her role as Senior Research Fellow, Susanna Cordner manages the Fashion Archives at LCF. Susanna's previous roles include fashion researcher and Assistant Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V&A, which saw her help curate the insightful 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' exhibition.

Heist: It's great to catch up! Tell us a bit more about what you do…

Susanna: I am a fashion historian and curator with a particular interest in the ways in which we can use clothes and fashion to explore women's histories and experiences and to tell their stories.

Currently, I am a Senior Research Fellow at the London College of Fashion and I also run their Fashion Archives. This involves a mix of teaching, research and managing projects, programmes and schemes to get students and visitors engaged in the subject and in our collections.

2016 04 14 3072 1460615715. large
Susanna Cordner tends to lingerie exhibits at the 2016 'Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear' show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heist: This sounds super exciting. We notice you've recently focused on the history of women's underwear. In your eyes, how has underwear changed since the Victorian era?

Susanna: Underwear has changed dramatically since the Victorian era. It's hard to pinpoint or prioritise one particular shift. A combination of developments in technology and material production (and in how we clean our clothes!), progress in society (particularly in women's positions and freedom) and changes in the lines and shapes of the clothes we wear have all impacted the design and production of underwear.

At the end of the Victorian era, a man's shirt still counted as a piece of underwear and a woman would have had to wear layer upon layer of undergarments, acting first as a shield between her and her corset and then between her corset and her clothes. By the end of the 20th century, most men would just be wearing briefs or boxers, while women would be wearing bras, pants and hosiery.

Despite that huge shift in the design of our underwear and the coverage it provides, its primary function remains the same in either era - to shield and support the body, and to provide a hygienic barrier.

Heist: Tell us more about the way underwear has charted the changing role of women in society?

Susanna: Changes in underwear design have both reflected and influenced the growing independence society allows women. In a literal or economic way, the underwear industry has been a great employer for women for centuries, providing a form of independence.

In more bodily terms, the more independent women have been, the less restrictive, the less physically-inhibiting and fewer layers of underwear they have tended to wear.

The main move people tend to cite for this is the step away from corsets towards zonal garments like bras, tights and knickers, but I don't think we have progressed as far in this area as we would like to think.

panti-legs
1959 saw the launch of 'Panti-Legs', the world's first commercial pantyhose.

I don't like removing women's agency from history, though - just because we now look on a corset as a controversial idea does not mean that we should ignore the fact that many women chose to. The debate about women's underwear continues today.... whether women should wear designs deemed sexy or whether shapewear is repressive and demeaning.

I think the most important point throughout is individual responsibility and agency. We should be giving women more choices, not less.

Heist: We agree! Tell us about tights - when were they invented?

Susanna: Hose and stockings were the predecessors to tights and were an everyday item of dress for men and women up until the early 20th Century. From then on, socks became the common choice for men while developments in technology (particularly the introduction of nylon in the 1930s) improved the stockings worn by women.

Tights, as essentially a one-piece of a pair of stockings combined, were available from the early 1800s for women, but were considered something of an immodest choice, both because they would lie over the crotch and because they might deter women from wearing layers of petticoats to keep them modest and warm!

Tights were seen as a more convenient alternative to stockings during World War Two and in the 1950s, Aristoc had some success with pairs of tights which were really more like two full length stockings joined to a pair of briefs. Stockings remained the popular choice until tights took over in the 1960s - 1970s, in part because they were a more suitable choice when wearing a mini skirt!

Heist: Given the overhaul tights have had, in the future, which items of underwear do you think will change the most?

Susanna: I think it will be really interesting to see if and how 3D scanning and printing will impact the industry. Perhaps this will see a move to making custom-fit underwear, which used to be the norm, accessible again, and move us away from set and uniform sizing.

Heist: We think those innovations are hugely exciting… What do you think future underwear brands will look like?

Susanna: I hope they will be based on individualism and support. I mean this both literally, in terms of providing products which best support, frame and protect the body of their wearer, and figuratively, in terms of recognising and reflecting their customer and the ways in which their designs do or do not chime with the time in which they are creating them.

Underwear winds up being a key code and reflector in the way we read our cultures and histories, never mind of our daily experiences, and I like working with brands who recognise that and are excited to be a piece in that puzzle.

Heist: And we like working with women who know their stuff! Lastly, who is your underwear icon?

Susanna: My underwear icon is Roxey Ann Caplin. Roxey was an inventor who was based in London in the mid-19th Century. She designed corsets suited, she felt, to the lifestyles of modern women at the time. She wrote books in defence of the corset, which included illustrations and instructions on how to exercise in your corset, and set up gyms for women in London and Manchester. In her 'Health and Beauty' book from 1856, she argued that "the principal writers upon the subject of corsets have been medical men, who, great as is their knowledge of their part of the questions, certainly know nothing of ours."

Roxey Ann Caplin 1856
British inventor Roxey Ann Caplin demonstrates how women could exercise in specially designed corsets in the mid-19th Century.

Heist: Roxey sounded like a force to be reckoned with. Thanks so much Susanna, and happy International Women's Day!