Women’s Underwear

Economic, political, social, and cultural events have undoubtedly influenced costume and every fashion: and clothing fashions have, in turn, influenced underwear. Once hoop skirts, paniers and crinolines had disappeared, in 1900 the first whole dress made its appearance; the elegant and simple princesse dress. This was followed by a two-piece with a rather masculine line, the trotteur, then called tailleur. Already in 1800, Bloomerism (the long clothing worn under skirts introduced to Europe by the American reformer Amelia Bloomer, who intended to start women’s emancipation through clothing) had brought a natural evolution to underwear. But it was not until the 20th century that real progress was made. Every changed under outwear: baggy pants became tighter, underskirts were made in taffeta, satin, linen, madapolam (light and thin cloth), and bodices were made from elasticized fabric, strengthened with whalebone or strips of metal. It was custom made by bodice makers in the cities who visited their customers in their houses for fittings, while in the provinces a sales agent arrived with his case full of models, fabric samples, and whalebones. With the advent of art nouveau, came the corset (sans ventre for French, gegen das Kim for Germans) which needed someone else to tighten and fasten it behind. It emphasized the breasts, hips, and narrowed the waistline. Shortly after, the great Parisian clothes designer Paul Poiret replaced the flannel and muslin of the underskirt with cotton, batista, or silk to be worn under the new short, straight dresses: if not, how would it be possible to dance the Charleston, the One-step, or the Shimmy? By this time, underwear garments were starting to be purchased in haberdashers’ shops, or by catalogue, rather than being made to measure. And after a few years, lingerie also became available in refined shops and department stores. Another garment joined the range of underwear, the sexy negligée, the nightdress in which the movie stars of the 1930s received their lovers. This later became a simple night robe for common use (without feathers or yards of lace), perhaps in satin or silk, or — in Winter — in knitwear or wool. During the 1940-45 war, the lack of raw materials and heating in the homes and schools meant that the jersey in soft white wool was replaced by coarse long sleeved sweaters in rough sheep’s wool, a material that was also used, though reluctantly, for sheared or ribbed petticoats and long socks or culottes. The bodice was replaced by an elasticized girdle without whalebones, a “containing corset to hide curves,” and suspenders and garters arrived on the scene. As a reaction to the sacrifices made during the war, in the postwar period younger women looked for the most feminine and sexiest underwear they could find. During the 1950s-60s women reluctantly accepted the post-pregnancy elastic band around the tummy to get back into shape. Girdles made with nylon and rubber thread were abandoned in favor of light lingerie, likewise the hated high-necked, wide-shouldered petticoats that little girls had been forced to wear in the 1940s, though their mothers dressed in light petticoats and laces. The 1940s marked the magical moment when nylon stockings replaced their silk or wool forebears: the nylons arrived from America, where girls were photographed queuing to purchase their first pair, and who would then sit down on the sidewalk right outside the shop to put them on. Moving on from seams, baguettes, and the initial uniformity of color, stockings introduced a certain degree of fantasy: floral patterns, fishnet, lace, decorations to match a particular dress, etc. Shortly after came jersey leotards and, the next development, tights, popular due to their comfort, though they were not liked by men. Tights were made in various thicknesses and colors, sometimes in lurex, and decorated with strass, stripes and dots. The final development on the leg front was the self-supporting stocking (see Stockings).During the 1950s Vionnet launched large women’s panties, but the public preferred their tiny cousins, made with lace and inlays, matched to light, sheer bras, and sometimes forming an outfit with a nightgown and night robe.Sexy bras — the antithesis of the brassiere, which made the breasts suffer — came on the market, worn perhaps under a very tight sweater, and perhaps fastened at the front rather than the traditional attachment at the back. Dresses were often so low-necked as to make bras useless, but some dresses were designed with a bra incorporated.The next development in underwear was the leotard: the daughter — or grand-daughter — of the cami-knickers. Underwear became smaller and smaller, slips appeared and then the ultimate form: thongs.Trade fairs dedicated to underwear become popular, and up-market shops dedicated purely to underwear were opened. Petticoats arrived in the stores that looked better than dresses, nightgowns as beautiful as evening outfits, leotards lovelier than swimming costumes. And all the time the boundary between what underwear hides and what it reveals became increasingly narrower. Marilyn Monroe took this to the limit, preferring to wear perfume in bed rather than a nightgown.With the political events of 1968 and the 1970s, some women started to burn their bras, considering it an act of emancipation and freedom: what they either did not know or conveniently forgot was that their moms and grandmothers, in the 1930s and 1940s, had gained their own degree of emancipation, though without causing a scandal, by getting rid of an even more important garment, thick, baggy underpants. The younger women preferred not to go without any underwear for reasons of ethics and hygiene, and considered lace-up shorts or a slip sexier. Every now and then, depending on seasonal trends, there is a return to the guepière with whalebones, to show off a woman’s hips and breasts, and it was even made fashionable to wear it as an outer garment.Today there is a choice of everything: leotards with and without metal supports under the bra, see-through petticoats, two-piece bra-slip and panties combinations, and various items made from lace, satin, transparent muslin, and stretch tulle. Tank tops are also popular, and sweat suits, which are now also used for lounging around the house and as nightwear. And an eternal favorite is the long, baggy T-“shirt, worn it seems on all occasions, but which is a favorite with women for nightwear.”