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Advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, about 1936. Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate.

LONDON (AFP).- From rigid corsets to barely-there nylon briefs, a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum explores three centuries of underwear in Europe, focusing on Britain's relationship with its most intimate garments. 

"Fashion and underwear are inextricably linked," Susanna Cordner, research assistant on the "Underwear" exhibition, told AFP. 

"It's like the chicken and the egg, one influences the other and it's cyclical," she added. 

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Petticoat, Booth & Fox, about 1860, Britain, London, and Ireland, Cork. Given by Mrs I. Gadsby-Toni. Museum no. T.212-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The show, which opened Saturday, comprises more than 200 pieces and will run until March 2017. 

The story begins in the 18th century with a look at the heavy undergarments of the time, made form natural fibres that allowed high-temperature washing and helped hygiene.  

These were clamped in place by corsets that supported.

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Cage crinoline, the ‘Princess Louise Jupon Patent’, c. 1871. Photo Credit: ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One of the exhibition's centre-pieces -- a hand-made corset fashioned by an Englishwoman of modest means -- shows that such complex items were not confined to high-society, but had to be worn by all women for fear of upsetting moral sensibilities. 

The show also reveals how men also used corsets and other garments to provide support while playing sport and to flatter the shape, but not nearly to the extent of the women of the age.  

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Corset, cotton, whalebone, about 1890. Museum no. T.90-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A copy of a silk corset from 1890 boasts a 48 centimetre (19 inch) waist, compared to today's average of 71 centimetres (28 inches), and led to warnings from doctors and calls to ditch the restrictive garment.  

Other shape-defining garments on display include crinolines, the stiffened 19th-century petticoats that accentuated the hips and buttocks, but which had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire.

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Detail of men's cotton underpants, c. 1890s© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For men, a "jockstrap", originally introduced for cyclists in the United States in 1887, shows how underwear was used to enhance the male figure.  

Modern-day smalls on show reveal the importance of new, lighter fabrics in helping to produce less restrictive garments that hug the figure in a more natural fashion and are easier to maintain.

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Satin and lace corset, 1890-1895, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

"Every period had different preoccupations and different technologies that they used to express those different times and styles," explained Cordner. 

However, the second part of the exhibition shows how corsets have remained popular with designers such as Agent Provocateur, playing on the garment's erotic undertones. 

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Sequin snake stocking, c. 1910, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Other highlights include long cotton drawers worn by Queen Victoria's mother, and flesh-coloured leggings decorated with a mirrored-glass fig leaf, designed by Vivienne Westwood.

By: Ouerdya Ait Abdelmalek © 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse.

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Satin and ostrich feather bed jacket by Rosa Pichon, France, 1930-1935, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Dress, Elsa Schiaparelli, 1936 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Display figure and advertising card for Y-front pants, 1950s. Photo Credit: ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Nylon and lycra girdle, 1960s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Mary Quant nylon body stocking, late 1960s© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Thong, Rudi Gernreich (1922-85) for Lily of France, 1978, United States, nylon and spandex. V&A: FTF Unregistered Collection, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Jean Paul Gaultier, bustier dress, 1989© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Vivienne Westwood's nude leggings for men, with mirrored fig leaf. Courtesy of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Los Angeles.

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Shapewear and bra by Spanx, 2000s© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Brixton Boyz, Jennie Baptiste, 2001. Museum no. E.971-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Legendary corset-maker Mr Pearl's creation for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Close Trompe l’oeil corset dress, designed by Antonio Berardi, Spring-Summer 2009, worn by Gwyneth Paltrow. © Sipa Press, REX Shutterstock.

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Man’s top and pants, designed by Sibling, Spring-Summer 2013. Museum no. T.86:1-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Close ‘Tamila’ lingerie set from the Agent Provocateur Soirée collection, Spring-Summer 2015. Photographer Sebastian Faena, Model Eniko Mihalik.