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History of Lingerie – From Practical to Sexy

History of Lingerie – From Practical to Sexy

  • Hairah Poingan

When we are heading to the fitness centre, we don't choose the same underwear we would if we were planning to seduce our partner. Today we can decide what lingerie we want to wear based on how we want to look, our moods and the shape of our bodies. Our choice is endless, and we have a lot of variety: satin babydolls, lace teddies, fishnet tights, silky robes and latex accessories. Lingerie is alluring, fashionable and supports our curves and men are fascinated as the layers of clothing slowly stripped away.

In the old days, underwear was practical with no particular erotic meanings. Women wore underwear for three reasons: to modify their shape, for hygienic reasons and modesty. As fashion changed, designers created lingerie also for seduction, because bras support the breasts, but at the same time, they create a cleavage what men love so much to observe.

Ancient times

Adam and Eve may have shyly covered their genitals with fig leaves, later the loincloth took its place as a garment. In ancient Egypt, the loincloth was worn more for a practical reason than erotic creating a second layer between the skin and the outer clothing.

In the Roman Empire, women wore strophium, a strip of cloth wrapped around the upper body for breast binding. With this, they differentiated themselves from the slave women whose breasts were exposed. Underwear appears to have developed in range, and complexity as the sight of a naked body became a social taboo.

Renaissance (1400-1500)

The primary function of lingerie was to protect the high-priced outer items of clothing from the dirt of the body. (We know well that in the Renaissance, bathing was underestimated.) Secondarily, the piece of fabric protected women against those men, who were trying to slip their hands under the skirts. It was less chance to touch the bare skin. In the same time, underpants were considered to be the most immodest part of the woman garment because of the direct contact with the female genitals. For this reason, they were worn mostly by prostitutes.

The 1700s

The corset was a body-shaping item used to compress the waist while simultaneously drawing attention to the breasts and hips.

History of Lingerie – From Practical to Sexy

Whalebone corsets were essentials parts of the everyday wardrobe. Children also wear them (until the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recommended to stop their usage for children.) It was not just fashion but shaped the required body form and created a tiny waist and pushed-up breasts. It was impossible putting on a corset alone, so the morning routine of dressing up happened with the aim of the court.

The 1800s

The concept of underwear began to change as fashion became more gendered. Men's underwear remained practical and functional, but for women, it became an article of expensive clothing helping to achieve the fashionable silhouette. Women were encouraged to buy undergarments with as much care as they did with their outerwear. The drawers' legs were as long as possible without being noticed under the skirt. The crotch was either open or sewn closed.

Long-line corsets were a popular choice among women, but sitting and breathing was a challenge in these devices. Not to mention the hoop skirt! This circular wire cage served as a frame for the full skirts that were popular at that time.

History of Lingerie – From Practical to Sexy

By the end of the century, corsets became smaller, less bulky and more compressing, the wasp waist corset took it to extremes. No wonder why Lady Duff-Gordon who worked under the professional name Lucile, was a pioneer in developing lingerie that liberated women from more restrictive corsets. She rebelled against the restriction of a girdle and launched slit skirts and low necklines that allowed breathing and added movement.

The 1910s

Mary Phelps Jacob also known as Caresse Crosby in 1913 in New York, invented the first bra by sewing two pieces of cloth together with a ribbon tie. Four years later, she made a patent for her design. The first bra was boneless and kept the midriff free while suspending the breasts from above rather than pushing them upwards as the corset.

During the WWI, women had to do men's work, so it was an urge for more practical undergarments, lighter and more breathable fabrics. As skirts became shorter, underpants became smaller too.

The 1920s

Lingerie as a word was first used in 1922 to refer to visually appealing or even erotic underwear and bras. Fashion designers were changing the ideal shape of the woman's body from hourglass to a slim, more androgynous figure. Women started to wear loose, shapeless flapper dresses. The curvy silhouette was popular in decades, but nobody wanted big boobs and butts anymore. The couturier Paul Poiret declared the corset dead as there was no longer a need for it.

History of Lingerie – From Practical to Sexy

The 1930s

There was a return to a small waist achieved with girdles. In 1935 bras were updated with padded cups to enchant small breasts. Three years later underwire bras were introduced but failed to gain popularity among manufacturers due to metal shortages during WWII. When the war ended, the supportive, structured style started gaining steam.

One significant development was Dupont's invention of nylon in 1938, which helped in the creation of ranges of easy-care, drip-dry underwear.

The 1940s

S. H. and Company first announced cup size and band measurement. This idea was quickly adopted by Warner's and became the industry standard. The first strapless bras gave women an alternative to bustiers when wearing revealing necklines. Frederick Mellinger—the man behind Frederick's of Hollywood, the famous lingerie retailer—introduced the push-up bra in 1947 and he was also responsible for the front-hook bra style.

The bullet bra grew in popularity during the late 1940s and quickly became the dominant style throughout the 1950s. Everyone wanted pointy breasts, full hips, tiny waist. Christian Dior introduced his famous New Look (a full-skirted, nipped waist outfit), which called for a belt to give that hourglass silhouette. The cleavage was also an important part of the look, which meant bras became wired and structured to push up and form the required shape.

Lycra made big changes in lingerie design. Before the Lycra, women wore tight clothes that didn't conform to the body. Beaming was added to bras in the 1950s by firms such as Warner's, who had bought Jacob's original bra patent.

Outside the world of erotica and the burlesque theatre, underpants were hidden garments. A naughty little accident made a scandal when tennis player Gertrude Moran revealed her ruffled lace-trimmed knickers under her short tennis dress during the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 1949.

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