Lingerie – The Very Beginnings
Lingerie, we all love it. An absolute luxury that we love to buy and wear, it’s the most indulgent of indulgences. It wasn’t always that way though; Lingerie’s existence dates back to 3000BC and much like the boyshort or t-shirt bra of today, undergarments have provided support and comfort for women through the ages.
Ancient Egyptian Frescos suggest a hierarchical attitude to lingerie, where only the richest women in society had access to the undergarments. Cretan and Roman women are documented as wearing corset-like garments with straps that crossed the breasts and lower torso as supportive structures. In Ancient Rome these were called Strophium and, worn alone or under robes, these were functional, supportive garments that covered private areas and provided support.
By 2000BC a primitive corset had been formed. The Minoan women of Crete wore bodices made with bones that ended under the breasts since it was believed that the exposed breast was a celebration of a woman’s ability to create life.
Control-Wear is Nothing New…
If we fast forward to medieval England and France, we see lingerie used for an entirely different purpose. Noted as an era of sexual repression, it’s not surprising that it was a pretty uneventful time for lingerie development. Female undergarments became an instrument of concealment and protection; curves were flattened rather than accentuated and designs were aimed at concealing the body and protecting outer clothes from sweat. Washing clothes was a luxury so using linen chemises as an interlayer between clothes and skin was a good way of prolonging outer-garment life.
The late 16th century is when things get interesting in lingerie design. Curves began to be accentuated with the farthingale, a petticoat stiffened with reeds to form a cone shape which extended from the waist. It was later joined with a bum-roll, a padded roll that accentuated the hips and waist.
Dresses lay over these structures to create and illusion of a small waist and wide hip. Nonetheless, women were still swathed in clothing and fashions surrounded padded petticoats that fell heavily around the female form. Corsets became increasingly popular around this time too, as did metal boning.
During the 19th century, change in the field of lingerie was rapid. The bum-roll of earlier years was replaced with a basket-shaped bustle that created the ‘Cul de Paris’. It straightened the back and emphasised the posterior.
Later, the idea of lingerie as an appealing garment and not just something to sculpt and shape the body under clothing surfaced. Lady Gordon-Duff of Lucile revolutionised female underwear by creating more comfortable styles that were less restrictive. Towards the end of the 1800s, corset designs were much more female friendly – breathing became easier and the early bra became more popular that the corsetry of old.
The Start of Modern Lingerie
Industrialisation and the World Wars of the Twentieth Century meant lingerie began to change and develop much quicker than ever before. Such an eventful time in the public role of women was bound to be reflected in the clothes that they wore. Attitudes and necessities changed with increasing pace and so did fashion.
The early twentieth century saw revolutionary changes in fabrics. Women’s fashions were created with new, lightweight fabrics that were practical and enabled easy movement. The early decades of the century were all about emphasised buttocks, bust, and flat or concave stomachs. Lingerie reflected this in the bras and high-waisted briefs that were worn.
In the 1920s, the term ‘lingerie’ was finally coined. Boyish shapes were coveted as the flapper style became popular and women wore stockings (thanks to the invention of Nylon and Pearlon) and highly elasticated panty-girdles and figure-controlling corsets to minimise their hips – the complete opposite of the bum-roll of previous times!
The Second World War meant that lingerie was slimmed down to even more basic shapes – just a brassiere and girdle – as money became tight. In the hardest of times, ‘stockings’ were even drawn on using makeup to create a seam up the back of the leg, because hosiery was hard to get hold of!
In the 1960s, lingerie was glamourised. The invention of Lycra meant a prettier fabric that was easier to wash and wear. TV and advertising was more widespread than ever and this enabled wider distribution of popular brands. The development of man-made fibres brought us tights, eradicating the need for garters and suspender belts.
Aesthetic appeal became important as designs, fabrics and colours became bolder and over the next twenty years. Slowly, lingerie became what we wear today. Not much has changed in the way of garment structure since the 1970s, but colours, textures and hem lines continue to change with the fashions to keep us guessing… who knows what we’ll be wearing next year!
What decade or century was your favourite for lingerie design?