It is well recorded that the female figure varies a greatly. History shows that it has always been like this!
Historically, what’s been fashionable for the shape of the female body has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous! However, the dazzling female body has always been subject to what is covering it and history shows us that it’s been covered in many different ways. Also, different parts of the feminine form have been accentuated, concealed, reduced, enlarged by the style of the current fashionable frill fripperies.
We’ve witnessed some almost unthinkable extremes, from devices that required a small army to force the unfortunate fashion victim into, to the flimsiest, most whimsical mere flutter of a garment. Let’s take a trip back at how sexy lingerie has developed and how it got to where it is today.
To start with, let’s get some terminology straightened out. Thanks to the world’s most passionate language, we now usually refer to female ‘underwear’ as ‘lingerie’ – unless we’re being derogatory in which case, depending on where you live, you can fill in the spaces!
When we (at least us men) think of lingerie, we think of a flimsy material embellishing the female body in a way that gives us a hint of the pleasure that lie underneath. But the ‘first’ lingerie, probably from one of the Ancient Greek islands, was much different. These bewitching Greek women used a boned corset fitted tightly around the midriff, not for support or even for a ‘slimming’ effect, but to attract their men by showing their thrusting breasts in a most conspicuous way. Maybe not what we would call lingerie today but with much the same desired effect.
As time passed, the female form took on new ‘perfect’ shapes dependent on the vogue. As each ‘perfect’ form emerged, frill fripperies were perfected and developed to flatter and accentuate that desired shape. The culture of the society dictated whether the breasts, the bottom or both would be highlighted and glorified. You could argue that nothing much has altered!
During Medieval times it was thought that the natural form and shape of a woman should be constrained and that the breasts should be firm and small. This condition was probably admirable for those normally built that way but perhaps not so good for those of a more luscious construction. Many types of corset were worn with the single purpose of flattening the breasts and/or the bottom. It has been said that, in order to draw attention to that part of the anatomy that shouldn’t draw attention, some women folk wore small bells over their breasts to remind the men folk of the pleasure that still lay tantalizingly beneath.
The ‘modern’ corset is said to have been introduced by Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on chunky waists at court attendance during the 1550s and had a questionable effect on women folk for the next 350 years.
The Renaissance saw another change in the preferred female shape. Women now required cone shaped breasts, flat stomachs and slim waists. In order to actualize this look, they also needed to employ maids or family members to dress them because the cinching up of their corsets was done from behind and required much effort.
Due to this unnatural method of bringing about ‘perfection’, Doctors and other notaries contended that these corsets restricted women’s bodies so tightly that their internal organs were being impaired and their ribs were being permanently misshapen. Around that time it was common for women folk to collapse or fall into a swoon. This was usually put down to their delicate nature but, in fact, it was because they simply found it difficult to breathe! There are many accounts of women folk dying because of serious punctures to vital organs due to this practice.
In the early 18th century the whalebone corset still kept women folk tightly bound but the artistry that reflected the times was painstakingly incorporated into clothing and the corsets were decorated with dazzling ribbons, lace and embroidery. A part of this lightening up was the fact that it became fashionable for the breasts to be pushed upwards to the point of almost popping out.
Towards the end of the 18th century the corset was being worn by the gentry, the burgeoning middle class and even by nuns in convents. It was often proudly displayed by its wearer because it was a visible outer item of clothing at that time. In itself it was an object of beauty and ornamentation and its display was part of social civility.
However, as people became more educated and aware, they started to question and critique many things including art, politics and, you guessed it, vogue. Backed up by professional people like doctors, public opinion became such that boned corsets were actually outlawed in many localities.
By the early 19th century, a much softer approach to the female shape became popular. The vogue still demanded the support that the old corset had given so it returned with more elaborate methods of construction. Boning was still used in small sections which allowed for better and more comfortable movement.
The vogue at the time was for a more separated look for breasts and a corsetiere by the name of M Leroy (who designed the wedding corset for Marie Luise of Austria when she married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810) perfected a model which he called a ‘divorce’, allegedly because of the ‘separation’ involved. The most significant aspect of this perhaps, was the fact that women folk were able to dress and undress themselves due to more elaborate lacing construction.
During the 1840s the extremely exaggerated shape for women folk caused whalebone to come back with huge hoops and crinolines that were covered with all kinds of fabric and fineries. Unfortunately for women folk, it became the vogue to have waists small enough for a man to put his hands around and the need for even harder waist-cinching became the female nightmare of the day.
It wasn’t long before hoops and crinolines were replaced by the soft ‘S’ silhouette. This style still used the corset but added a bustle to the back creating an exaggerated rump. Once again it was the women folk who had to suffer for vogue, needing to stand most of the time due to the cumbersome bustle on their rumps. Obviously men found this appealing because it gave them more opportunities to stare at the sexy women folk with their large bustles.
As more innovation came to vogue design, greater varieties of corsets were developed. During the morning, a lady could wear a lightly-boned corset for visiting friends, an elastic corset for riding sidesaddle, a boneless corset for an excursion to the beach and a jersey corset for riding her bike. The corsetry industry was in its heyday!
Towards the end of the 19th century the corset supported not only the breasts but also the newly developed stocking. Stockings were held up by garters and suspenders which were then attached to the corset. These devices, although a triumph of design, probably added yet another frustrating aspect to the vogue-conscious female of the day.
By the beginning of the 20th century, corsets were being laced down as far as the knee. But many people didn’t like that style, and vogue designers were leaning towards an uncorseted, more free-flowing style. Sexy lingerie was about to take a whole new dimension. With the advent of the industrial revolution, and the introduction of the sewing machine, Germany and France introduced the first corset manufacturing facilities.
In 1910 Mary Phelps Jacob a New York socialite developed a new type of bra. Not happy with the corset stiffened with whalebone which she was supposed to wear under a new evening gown, Mary worked with her maid to sew two silk handkerchiefs together with some pink ribbon and cord. It was much softer and shorter than a corset and it allowed the breasts to be shaped in their natural condition.
Mary Phelps Jacob was the first to patent an item of underwear named ‘Brassiere’, the name derived from the old French word for ‘upper arm’. a little while after, she sold the bra patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500 (over $25,600 these days).
In 1917 the War Industries Board of the United States asked women folk to stop purchasing corsets to free up metal for the production of war materials. This step released some 28,000 tons of metal, sufficient to build a pair of battleships.
It has been said that the success of the bra is due mainly to World War I. World War I altered gender roles for good, putting many women folk to work in manufacturing facilities and wearing uniforms for the first time. Women needed practical, comfortable undergarments. Warner went on to amass over 000 dollars from the brassiere patent over the next 30 years.
The other thing to take into consideration in the death of the corset was that World War I had taken its toll on the number of men. This meant more competition for finding a man so women folk needed to look their sexiest!
With the Roaring Twenties and its sophisticated parties, vogue was turned on its back, the boyish look was in. The crusade for flat chests and stomachs along with straight hips and buttocks led to the introduction of the liberty bodice, the chemise, and bloomers which were loose-fitting and light. For the first time pastel-colored underwear appeared to replace plain old-fashioned white. To enhance the boyish look the first brassieres were perfected to flatten the breasts. What happened to the corset? The rump part that held up the stockings was shortened and became the suspender belt.
The full-figured look came back in the 1930s. The feminine look once again became the vogue. Women were encouraged to look well-proportioned with a full-figure while remaining reasonably slim in the hips. Now women folk had a full set of underwear to help with the image: breast-enhancing brassieres, elastic suspender belts, not forgetting the girdle, which kept all the curves in their designated place.
The 1930s also saw one of the biggest advancements in the underwear industry when the Dunlop Rubber company developed Lastex, an elastic, two-way stretch textile made from the fine thread of a chemically modified rubber called Latex. This could be interwoven with fabric which allowed the industry to make underwear in several sizes to appropriately fit a woman’s body.
The beginning of World War II and its shortages meant that Germany was unable to import the fabrics they had used up until then and their industry failed. Forever inventive, people started making home-knitted underwear out of materials to hand. Not the sexiest of lingerie but at least they kept themselves warm.
At the end of hostilities underwear consisted of basic brassieres and suspender belts. This was acceptable to the majority of women folk but the teenage girl, just coming out of the oppression of the war years, became a target market. These young females could barely wait to become adults and wearing lingerie was a huge way towards achieving that aim. The German underwear industry developed lingerie sets that appealed to these young girls and the industry never looked back.
In the U.S.A., the underwear industry was trying to create something new and cutting edge. Women were bombarded with all kinds of undergarments and top clothing to help them look sexy. The film producer Howard Hughes developed a new bra, a special wire-reinforced device for Jane Russell. This caused the censors throw their toys out of the crib about Jane’s breasts being blatantly exposed all because of Hughes’ terrifically innovative bra improvements.
The Swinging 60s was a terrible era for the underwear industry thanks to the rise of women’s emancipation movements. Feminists burned their brassieres and many lingerie companies were forced to close down. However Lycra had just been developed and women folk began to wear tight-fitting leggings. The iconic vogue item of that era however, was arguably the sexy little mini-skirt and the demand for bikini briefs. Famously, for a fleeting moment in time, topless swimsuits and topless dresses were the rage. But, unfortunately for most men and fortunately for the vogue industry, they were merely a ‘flash-in-the-pan’!