Underwear has come a long way since the days of linen drawers. In the beginning stages, underwear was originally designed to serve several purposes – changing a woman’s shape, preserving her modesty and for hygiene reasons.
From bloomers to thongs, pointy brassieres to push-up bras, the history of lingerie reveals a lot about women’s changing role in society. It’s fascinating to see how lingerie has changed over the last hundred years, and how the transformation of undergarments has shaped us.
The Quilted Petticoat
The versatile quilted petticoat is more impressive when you remember that at the time of its birth, 1795, the sewing machine had not yet been invented and all stitching was done by hand. And while women have long dismissed it from everyday wear, the petticoat is frequently reinvented within modern fashion from Alexander McQueen’s theatrical versions to Jil Sander.
With its rigorous fastenings and controversial viewpoints, the corset is a landmark within the history of lingerie. Long before Jean Paul Gaultier, Madonna and Vivienne Westwood made corsetry memorable in the mid ’90s, it was an integral component of everyday dress during the eighteenth century. Using whalebone and sometimes steel, the corset straightened the back, pulled in the waist and increased the bust. Although originally a garment of propriety, it has always held both an erotic and artistic allure: the art of lacing and unlacing the corset is noted throughout Renaissance painting.
For more history on corsets, visiting our History of Corsets article.
Created in 1860, the bustle was designed to emphasis the posterior, it contrasted exquisitely with a tightly pinned waist, and ranged from classic hoops to elaborate embellishment. The bustle later developed into a feature of fashion on its own after the overskirt of the late 1860s was draped up toward the back and some kind of support was needed for the new draped shape.
Although archaeologists have discovered that the humble bra potentially dates as far back as the 15th century, it didn’t come into play until the 20th century. The soft design was originally patented in 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacobs and popularized by metal shortages during the war.
From pin-up Bettie Page’s flirtatious photographs throughout the 1950s to Mrs Robinson’s stocking-covered leg on the poster for The Graduate in 1967. But, before hemlines rose, stockings were a discreet yet rebellious glint of self-expression during the 19th century, featuring decorative insets and embroidery.
As delicately slinky as it sounds, the slip was originally designed by French couturiers to be worn under dresses. They became fashionable in the 1920s as manufacturers developed new, breathable fabrics.
The descendent of the corset, the girdle was considered an essential garment between 1920 and 1960, to create a rigid, controlled figure.
A history of underwear would not be complete without referencing this little piece of material. Rudi Gernreich is credited for introducing the slight garment to the masses in 1974. The 1990’s saw a questionable trend arise for exposing the top of one’s thong above the waistband of jeans, a decision that haunts many of us.