Ok Ladies it’s finally here: The history of the undergarment! – A Guest Post by My Sister Veronica Neave
Let us take a look at the journey our breasts and booties have taken through the centuries.
It’s interesting to see visually what has emerged over the years with regards to our fashion foundation garments but it is more interesting perhaps to understand how these garments reflected women’s progressive emancipation. From the Spinning Jenny (the cotton spinning frame) of the industrial age to the introduction of the contraceptive pill of the 1960’s there is an indistinguishable connection between lingerie, politics and female emancipation. So let’s take a little look at the timeline.
One could start with the fig leaf and naturally move to the loin cloth (round about 7000 years ago) both fairly practical on all fronts, but as time went on men’s undergarments took a sensible route whilst women’s became progressively restrictive.
The beginning of the Renaissance was quite comfy with linen chemise and petticoats but things started to get a little strange with the introduction of the corset around about the 16th Century. Corsets were layers of fabric stiffened with steel, whale bone or reeds to create a long flat shape that flattened the bust. These corsets did not cinch the waist in to a tiny circle, that was to come in the 18th Century. Around 1820 the tight waisted corsets pushed the bosoms up and out and reduced the waist to a small ring necessitating “fainting rooms” as you can imagine. Added to this the ‘bustle’ was added around the mid 1800’s which was a frame or pad over the buttocks creating a larger bottom, small waist and bulging bosom. Interestingly this time of course was the industrial revolution which meant the mass production of clothing was beginning and undergarments were about to change and adapt to daily life more quickly. By 1880 there was growing resentment of the constriction of the corset and the Dress Reform Movement campaigned against the organ damage and pain cause by the corset. The Dress Reform Movement was really the first wave of feminism.
In 1913 in New York Mary Phelps Jacobs created the first Brassiere which was lite really two handkerchiefs tied together with a ribbon. With WW1 raging steel and other metals were in great demand and this was the final demise of the corset.
During the 1920 women were dancing more than ever and so garter belts came into being to keep stockings up. Its was these daring ‘flappers’ that ushered in the er of Lengerie. Then along came Ida Rosenthal, an American business woman, who reinvented the Brassiere and built and empire forging the way for underwear to be regarded as a fashion items in their own right.
The 1930’s saw dress hemlines drop again but the style was very straight up and down in various luxurious fabrics such as satins and silks. The dresses of the time were cut on the bias to accentuate the body shape but in doing so clung to the figure which in turn rendered past underwear not suitable as you could see them underneath. As a result, underwear began to get smaller and smaller where it often looked like women weren’t wearing any at all. This naturally led to more sexy lingerie being developed and worn.
With the onset of World War II, the need and availability of luxurious underwear went down the priority list due largely to the rationing of the times and it wasn’t until after the war in 1945 that lingerie became popular again with various advertising campaigns ramping up their campaigns to try and entice women to buy back into the underwear market. It didn’t take long. Before she became famous, Marilyn Monroe, modelled for such campaigns which were, in those days, painted by hand.
1947 saw another turn in fashion with the introduction of Christian Dior’s iconic ‘New Look’ which was characterized by a small, nipped-in waist and full skirt falling below the knee, which emphasized the bust and hips. The style became extremely popular, its full-skirted silhouette influenced fashion and other designers into the 1950’s, and Dior gained a number of high-profile admirers from Hollywood starlets to aristocracy in Europe. The New Look required a sturdy foundation of garments to achieve an hourglass silhouette. A fundamental part of this was the girdle as it helped to create the desired wasp waist. This restrictive piece often extended below the hips and had suspender clips attached to hold up stockings.
In the 1950’s we embraced the bosom as a powerful accessory with Chistian Diors’ bullet bra. Panty hose combined panties and hose into one, for great practical reasons but the emergence of the Womens Movement at this time curtailed the raging success of the pany hose and sales dropped radically.
The 1960’s saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill and this had enormous influences on womens underwear. A new sexual freedom pervaded and led to exposed mid-drifts and mini skirts so little or no underwear was required. There was a political wave that saw women reject all physical restrictions.
An unforgettable moment in the 1960’s was the appearance of “Lycra”. A vogue advertisement at this time read “A little Vanity, a little will power and only an ounce of Lycra will make you a lighter woman”.
Around 1970 s when Underwear really began to gain Sex appeal although at this time the Bra all but disappeared due to the explosion of feminism. Underwear was burnt as feminist protests and Breasts were on display as powerful statement. The Bra then re-appeared in the 1980’s but it was on womens own terms. In the 80’s Undergarments began to be worn on top of clothes as outer garment, thanks to the genius of Madonna and Cyndy Lauper and, love it or loathIt, the G-String arrived and took pride of place in the underwear draw.
There was a certain Androgyny about the 1990’s that then reverted back to smoldering sex int the 2000’s. The wonder bra was front and centre and Victorias Secret Angels began to rain down from heaven. At the same time there came a retro resurgence of coresetry and suspenders though now it is less about restrictions and more about expression.
Finally here we are today with a seemingly endless array of underwear to choose from. Today we can chose wear it underneath or on top, we can choose to go vintage or comando. Our underwear has had a long political history and will continue to reflect womens socio political issues.
“My mother was right: When you’ve got nothing left, all you can do is get into silk underwear and start reading Proust.” Jane Birkin
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