I See London, I See France: Museum at FIT Shows Off Underpants


It is with naked astonishment that one encounters a lavender Hanky Panky thong in a museum exhibition.

It is also, in fact, with some dismay that one spies the underwear one may currently be wearing (if not today, then tomorrow or the next day; they’re in the drawer somewhere) in a Plexiglas box at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s current exhibition, “Exposed: The History of Lingerie.”

Because the phenomenally successful underwear brand’s products are the stuff of dailiness, and a museum is something apart. If anything, an exhibition showcasing said undergarments — ostensibly a survey of lingerie, from corset to bustle to bandeau, and its influence on day and evening wear — is, in fact, a show about how the patina of time makes us more comfortable with exhibitions of contemporary mass merchandise.

Sure, this particular panty — a gift to the museum from “The Most Comfortable Thong®,” as a nearby placard informs us — and other everyday items are fodder for many a material-culture grad student. Historians understand that today’s outfit is tomorrow’s grist for societal analysis.

But still.

The comfort of distance is nowhere here, especially when said thong is shown alongside Gwen Stefani’s fall 2014 (in stores now!) L.A.M.B. x Hanky Panky camouflage camisole and panty. Nearby, a 2014 La Perla brassiere shimmers in cerulean blue tulle, silk, and stretch silk satin. It’s as if the lingerie departments of Macy’s and Barneys started making out in the dimly lit exhibition galleries.

Elsewhere in the show, Twiggy’s kohl-rimmed eyes peek out from the cover of a Trimfit stockings package, circa 1967. Sure, it was a product in its day. But now it’s comfortably relegated to the realm of artifact.

“Exposed” is of greatest interest for the kinds of questions it invites: about the functions of commerce and the public good and how they intermingle at an ever-faster pace and how one can’t help but feel some horror at the merger. We see variations on this theme all around us increasingly in the fine-art world. Earlier this year, MoMA debuted a suite of Jasper Johns prints, a task normally assigned to the commercial galleries that represent him. Every time a museum shows a living artist, it ups her value one CV bullet point at a time.

And now, as gallerists scratch their heads wondering why they pay astronomical rents for showrooms when it’s the art fairs that keep them in the black, energy drink titan Red Bull has opened an exhibition space in Chelsea. The company calls it a “multi-disciplinary project space,” and in addition to gallery space, the sleek two-level outfit houses a recording studio, radio booth, and theater. It opened in fall of 2013, and “Peter Coffin: Living” is the second exhibition to be mounted there.

Though the branding of the space is queasy-making — these are the people that drive those cars around town with silver and blue cans strapped to the back — Coffin is a legitimate artist who had a Hirshhorn Museum exhibition last year. Unsurprisingly, several works are pure showmanship: an old DeLorean straight out of Back to the Future with hundreds of bumper stickers plastered on; a sound-and-light rig, complete with smoke machine, that looks like a Spinal Tap set awaiting the arrival of the band.

The most interesting works are the least crowd-pleasing: a trio of round mirrors powered by motors that rotate at a slow but steady clip, their motion revealing slight distortions in the glass that make the world a bit strange; the artist’s ongoing “Music for Plants,” in which a wall of living flora is serenaded by a soundtrack of art-rock heroes.

Though the art seems almost beside the point in this brand-burnishing showroom, Red Bull assures us that the company not only funds the project but allows the artists to retain full rights to the work, including its sale. Say hello to the 21st century’s Medici.