By Matthew Hacke | Photographs from Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Sebastian Faena, Victor Virgile/firstVIEW.com

On the heels — literally! — of last year’s exquisite Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe exhibit, the Frick is getting ready to unveil its latest fashion-forward showcase, Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear. We recently spoke with the Frick’s executive director, Robin Nicholson, and its chief curator, director of collections, Sarah Hall, about the new exhibition opening October 21.

Cotton and whalebone corset, c. 1890.

The Frick is the exclusive North American venue for the exhibit Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear. How did that come to be?

Robin Nicholson: In the museum and exhibitions worlds, a lot of what happens is down to personal contacts. I have worked with the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where many of the 200+ pieces in the newest exhibit are on loan from] on several projects in the past. I was contacted soon after arriving at the Frick by the V&A’s head of exhibitions, Linda Lloyd Jones, to see if there was a project we could work on at the Frick. She let me know that the Undressed exhibition, which was not going to travel after the London exhibition, was now available to very limited international venues. We immediately said we would love to bring it to the Frick. The fragility of the objects limit the amount of time they can travel, so the current tour is London, then St. Petersburg, Russia, and finally Pittsburgh!

Sarah Hall: It’s very exciting! Personally, here at the Frick, we have a wonderful costume collection. Amongst the 2,000+ objects in our collection are beautiful examples of fine underthings — embroidered corset covers and camisoles, night gowns, boudoir caps, pantalets, petticoats, corsets, tea gowns — lovely things. So, we were looking for ways to highlight and connect to this aspect of our collection. Therefore, the V&A exhibition connects perfectly with our collection and the work we do. It provides a spectacular entry into the subject of the history of clothing. It’s a big, ambitious show, but also fun and irresistible.

Are there pieces that stood out to you in particular that we should be on the lookout for at the exhibit?

SH: It’s a cliché to say there’s something for everyone, but there truly is — from the opulent to the ordinary. You can see the handmade stays, a precursor to the corset, of a working woman from the 1760s, and a gorgeous lingerie-like couture gown by Elie Saab, worn to the 2011 Oscars by Mila Kunis. I will say that gown knocked my socks off when I saw it in person in London. It’s beautiful and photographs don’t do it justice. I remember thinking that I would go to an exhibition just to see that dress! I’m also a big fan of the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli, and there’s a wonderful 1930s evening dress by her included in the exhibition. In the slightly naughty vein, there’s a set of sleeves and briefs by Strumpet & Pink, and some of the early-20th-century bust bodices — precursors to the bra — which are just lovely, delicate, and beautifully trimmed.

What is a surprising or fun fact you learned about the evolution of underwear from working on this exhibit?

SH: Unisex underwear, which was a new concept to me, as well as the Playtex Rubber Girdle. I remember the ads for that on TV during my childhood; however I never reflected on the idea of actually encasing myself in a rubber girdle! It sounds incredibly uncomfortable and sweltering, but easy to wash apparently.

RN: My biggest takeaway is the profound impact synthetic fabrics had on underwear and thus, fashion as a whole.

From the Killer Heels exhibit last year, to the exhibit of famed Vogue fashion photographer — among other titles — Irving Penn that just ended, what has the draw and local reception been to featuring more fashion-centric exhibitions at the Frick?

RN: I often describe the Frick as being a museum of taste — taste in architecture, gardens, automobiles, collecting. The list goes on, but fashion is perhaps the most personal expression of taste, and so it is the perfect topic for the Frick to explore from many angles. When I moved here, I was told Pittsburgh was not a fashion-focused city, which is certainly not the case! There is a lively and active fashion community that has been very responsive to our programming

SH: The fashion programming is entirely purposeful and it’s been very gratifying to see the public response. We have a really supportive fashion community here in Pittsburgh, yet the exhibitions also have broad appeal and bring new audiences to the Frick, and provide something new to our existing audience.

The Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412.371.0600. thefrickpittsburgh.org.


“This dress plays with the idea of structure,” says Hall of this Dolce & Gabbana Wicker Dress from its Spring/Summer 2013 Collection.

Cage crinoline, the “Princess Louise Jupon Patent,” by S.B. Garrard, c. 1871. “This would shape the wearer’s gown to the fashionable silhouette of the time,” says Hall.

Display figure and advertising card for Jockey Y-front pants, c. 1950s.


Thursday, October 19

Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear Opening Gala
The Frick Art Museum, thefrickundressed.org

Why We’re Going:

  • The dress code is “Corsets to Couture” — need were say more?
  • Champagne on the museum terrace, fabulous food and drinks, music, dancing, and a private preview of the exhibit
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