Inside the Collection

Underwear for down there

Underpants, photo by David Mist
Photography by David Mist © all rights reserved. 96/44/1-6/3/1. Above – negative of female model’s torso, 1969. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Venus Williams turned heads this week with her skin coloured underwear (see the controversial shot here), leading many to believe she actually forgot to put her underpants on! Venus designed the underpants for her fashion label ‘EleVen’, saying they were meant to “highlight the thigh-high and V neck splits” of her dress.

Skin-coloured underwear has been around for a long time. Until the beginning of the 20th century, underwear was usually white because washing was done with bleach and boiled water. As clothing became less voluminous and finer and more translucent fabrics (such as silk) were used, skin-coloured and white underwear was worn to maintain modesty.

The Powerhouse Museum has a diverse range of underwear that could easily rival Venus in the fashion stakes (even if they are completely impractical for tennis) and which are bound to capture the imagination of our readers!

Bra and brief set designed by Berlei
Designed by Berlei. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


Our first example is a matching bra and brief set of cream coloured stretch nylon with a silky satin finish, decorated with white fabric and yellow velour centred daisy flowers. It was designed and made by Berlei Ltd in Australia in 1970 as a reference sample. The Powerhouse Museum holds the Berlei Ltd archive in its collection.

Underpants designed by Issey Miyake
Designed by Issey Miyake. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


This is a pair of hipster underpants, belonging to an ensemble (known as ‘A-POC’– an acronym for ‘A Piece of Cloth’) which includes a top, skirt, bra, socks, gloves, hat and a bag designed by Issey Miyake in Tokyo, Japan in 1999. They are made from a stretch double knit fabric of cotton, nylon and polyurethane, unsewn and unlined, with a diamond and stripe design and short fringe around the leg holes. The pants, like all the pieces in ‘A-POC’, were produced using computer software linked to a basic knitting machine normally used for making hosiery.

Moulin rouge knickers
Designed by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


This is a pair of yellow cotton French knickers worn by Veronica Beattie for the Tattoo Can Can in the movie, Moulin Rouge. It was designed by Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie in Sydney, 2000 and features clear sequins and beads down the centre front seam and under the crotch; black embroidery and appliqué decoration around the gathered legs and the waist is fastened using a drawstring. This is one of six elaborate pairs of knickers designed and made for Moulin Rouge in the Museum’s collection.

Bonds cotton underwear set
Designed by Bonds. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


In October 2002, Bonds released a winter collection of women’s cotton underwear inspired by the bold prints and colours of 1960s graphic design, among which included this particular set. The hipster, boyleg-cut underpants, made of printed cotton elastine jersey, were designed by Georgina Braham in Wentworthville and made by Bonds Industries Ltd in China. This range formed part of the company’s move away from their traditionally plain colours and styles to a revitalized range of printed and coloured underwear, which catered for a younger, female market.

Leather and animal fur g-string designed by Madame Lash
Designed by Gretel Pinniger. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


This is a leather and animal fur g-string designed by Gretel Pinniger, aka Madame Lash, in 1981. It was actually made especially for display in the exhibition ‘The Fabric of History’ held at the exhibition centre, ANZ bank in Martin Place in July, 1981, along with other examples of leather costume and accessories, later acquired by the Powerhouse.

Men’s underwear from the 1950s made of Terylene
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


This is an example of men’s underwear from the 1950s made of Terylene (polyester), before the introduction of printed and coloured garments which emerged in the same decade.

Open leg bloomers
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


These open-leg bloomers were practical examples of underwear for women in the 19th century. They allowed women to squat and go to the toilet without having to remove layers of clothing, which was much easier than undoing tapes and waistbands which kept petticoats in place.

Women’s cotton underpants from China
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.


And, this is a pair of women’s cotton underpants from China dated to 1994. They are army green in colour and feature a sneaky little zippered pocket in the front with the words ‘High class anti-bandit underpants’! This suggests the pocket was used for hiding much sought after personal belongings, perhaps money or car and house keys, although it may have also been used for holding condoms – to serve as a subliminal message of safe sex and to try and curb the escalating Chinese population.

In light of these examples from the Museum’s collection, I don’t think Venus’s choice of underpants were that shocking after all! What do you think?

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