By Ina Joseph
One of the reasons we love lingerie so much is because of the fine line it touts between public and private. From a taboo “underthing” reserved for the eyes of a woman (and her husband) to a statement piece that deftly navigates both day and nighttime apparel, lingerie has evolved exponentially. To understand where we are today in the world of intimate apparel, we need to know our underwear history.
Pre - 1800s – All Covered Up
The Victorian era was defined by the most traditional sense of femininity there is. Delicacy and modesty defined the pieces that women donned beneath their lavish gowns. Petticoats, chemises, and eventually combination pieces that tied the two together served as the foundation to women’s attire. The multiplex undergarments provided functionality with fabrics like smooth flannel, linen, and cotton, while also providing an understated touch of refinement with embroidery and lace. Of course, class and status determined the level of extravagance, but overall, the lingerie of the 1800s didn’t leave much unseen.
From top to bottom: Long white cotton linen corset with shoulder ties from 1805; beige, lace-trimmed waist corset from 1895.
1910s – Embrace the Skin You’re In
Like in many other aspects of Western history, wartime bought innovation to underwear history. The excessive fabric and layering of earlier undergarments no longer suited women’s needs. Functionality meant streamlined; undergarments began to fit closer to and cover less of the body (in other words, bare ankles!). Straighter shapes and longer corsets increased the allure of undergarments. Once more complex machinery made lace more readily available and affordable, lingerie started coming into its more sensual form.
1920s – Boyish Girl Next Door
The Roaring 20s signified the emergence of first wave feminism. As women fought for the right to vote, their expanding agency was reflected in the transformation of their undergarments. Taking cues from the streamlined form of 1910s lingerie, undergarments of the 20s removed shapeliness from the equation entirely. Boxy slips and bras that didn’t lift or define breasts placed less emphasis on the accentuation of the bust and hips. Instead, drastically shortened lengths, decorative garters, and elaborate stockings drew the eyes to the legs. Whereas corsets of previous eras were meant to exaggerate a womanly figure, women used corsets of the 1920s to conceal their curves. A “boyish” figure was all the rage- leaps and bounds from the traditionally “feminine”. The 20s showed us that the duality of “femininity” can be seen not only in action, but in our underwear history.
1940s- Knickers Make a Comeback
While functionality plays an increasingly important role in every era of underwear history, it played a particularly crucial role in the 1940s. The onset of World War II made undergarment materials scarce, meaning women had to do more with less. Rather than the delicate fabrics of the 20s and 30s, women used parachute silk to make their underwear. These knickers, reminiscent of the knickerbockers of the 1910s, became even shorter to accommodate the various trousers women sported as they began to support the workforce during the war.
1960s – What It Means to be a Woman
The 60s held a dichotomy between the re-embrace of a shapelier femininity, and a more functional and forward-thinking look. In response to the war’s end, women were called with increased fervor back into their roles of domesticity throughout the 50s. So, in the following decade, a tumultuous transition began to unfold in both the public and private sphere from housewife to feminist. Post-war consumption was on the rise, so whether it was practical nylon briefs or sweet lacey slips, women enjoyed a variety of fabrics and styles in their intimate apparel options. Lingerie, much like the women of this era, fought between serving the male gaze to represent an idealistic wife, and bolstering an independent, self-empowered woman of the future. Our underwear history, is just one extension of the pressures women have faced overtime to fulfill numerous roles at once.
From top to bottom: Black lace underwire bra from 1950; black lace two-part bra cup corset with garter straps from 1953; green-blue printed Emilio Pucci one-piece bathing suit from 1960; black silk four-part bra cup zip-up corset from 1968.
1970s – The Future Is Now, and it’s Natural
As the Women’s Liberation Movement took stride, so did the modernity of our underwear history. In correspondence to the rising popularity of wearing no bras at all, lingerie designs began to take on a more natural look. From fleshy tones, to lighter fabrics, and even bras that replicated the “no bra” look with an erect nipple design. The structured cone bras of the 50s and early 60s were done away with as women began to embrace bras that hugged the natural shape of their breasts. The first thong one-piece was also invented in the 70s, making the total reveal of the rear a staple in lingerie from here on out. For women still holding on to some sense of traditional femininity, supple, glamorous nightgowns embellished with lace were a beautifully aesthetic choice. However, their purpose was mostly served in the bedroom, as their length made them nonfunctional for daytime wear.
1980s – Sweet, Spicey, Sporty, Subtle
The popularity of natural or no-show lingerie continued into the 1980s as the feminist movement grew. But with the movement’s growth came complications and distortions, one of them being the concept of “choice feminism”. While choice feminism inhibited real progress for the women’s movement, it did reflect in our underwear history through – you guessed it—LOTS of choices. From sporty, high waisted briefs that could make it onto the field to lacey bustiers that could make it in a Madonna music video, the 80s provided multiple lingerie personalities. Speaking of Madonna, her rise in fame from the late 80s into the early 90s popularized the display of even the sultriest looks in public spaces.
1990s – Let it Show, Let it Show, Let it Show
Regardless of whether or not the 80s ever died, the trend of lingerie as outer wear certainly did not. Whale tail G-string thongs that were made to be seen (à la Manny Santos from Degrassi), push-up bras with bright patterns and colors made both bras and boobs very visible, and briefs with brand names along the waistband were a statement piece in and of themselves (and still are).
2000s – We Wear What We Want, How We Want It
Freedom and comfort are the name of the game these days. In the last 20 years we’ve progressed in so many ways when it comes to lingerie. The sale of thongs and push-up bras have decreased, while briefs and triangle bras have come back in style. Lingerie is no longer reserved for the bedroom; it’s become more and more normalized to rock bra-and-blazer combo or display delicate pieces underneath sheer garments. We’ve gone from comfortable T-shirt bras, to non-padded bralettes, to no bras at all. The rulebook of our underwear history has been entirely thrown away. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the movement for inclusive intimate apparel, whether that be through increasing the affordability of binders for trans and non-binary folk, or the visibility of pocketed bras for breast cancer survivors.
As women and people who wear lingerie, we can all take a little something from our history and incorporate it in the ways we express ourselves today.