Today’s lingerie is thought of as elegant, beautiful and — for the most part — comfortable. But it hasn’t always been that way. Over the years, the “ideal” female figure has changed drastically, and therefore, so have the garments that accentuate that feminine shape. The bust and butt of a woman have always played a key role in the development of what’s stylish, but both have not always been emphasized. So, let’s take a quick look at lingerie over the years, and see why 21st century lingerie is the way to go.
The Beginning of Lingerie
The first undergarments go back to ancient Egypt (around 3000 B.C.). Egyptians of higher ranking would wear tunics as undergarments held up by a single shoulder strap. Because clothing was then thought of as a status symbol, slaves and servants either wore a simple loincloth or nothing at all.
In 2000 B.C., the first corset-type garment (see Corset History) was made in Crete, Greece. Lingerie then was specifically created to accentuate the shape of a women’s body, so women wore boned bodice corsets to tease their men. These corsets weren’t made for support or comfort, but to push the chest up and out on display for all to see, sort of glorifying this feminine attribute.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Undergarments were also a sign of wealth during the Middle Ages (from roughly the 4th to 14th centuries). The upper class wore linen undergarments to protect their expensive clothes from getting dirty. Two of those undergarments were the chemise (or smock) and corset. However, the glorification of the chest had vanished. Society felt that the feminine figure should be restrained, so women started wearing corsets to flatten their chest and torso. These were not the small-waisted, curvy corsets; they were straight-lined corsets that made the female shape look stiff.
Women started going to great extremes during the Renaissance (from the 14th to 16th centuries) to achieve this flat stomach and narrow waist. They would sometimes constrict their body so tightly that their organs and ribs were squeezed out of shape. This led to the swooning and fainting of many women — not because women were feeble — but because they couldn’t breathe. According to records from the time, one woman even died because her ribs were squeezed so tightly that they punctured her liver.
The French Revolution and the Industrial Age Bring Softer Undergarments
Mass production of underwear started in the second half of the 1700s when the spinning jenny and the cotton gin were invented. Both of these machines made cotton fabrics more widely available. This is the first time that people began buying undergarments from stores instead of making them at home. One of the most popular garments was the union suit (similar to today’s long johns), which was made of knitted material and covered everything from the wrists to the ankles. However, there was a flap in the back that could open up if you needed to use the toilet.
The French Revolution brought a brief, but much-appreciated, period of time in the late 1700s where women revolted against the symbols of aristocracy, including stifling fashions like the corset. During this time, women went back to wearing only simple bands wrapped around their breasts.
The Victorians Invent Lingerie
In the 1800s, women began wearing boned corsets (or stays) again. These corsets were more decorative, with embroidery, ribbons and laces. They were made to enhance the female figure by pushing the chest up and out at the top. The Victorian’s (although said to be prude) were the ones that actually took lingerie and underwear to the next level in fashion. In 1829, they invented a corset with a front-bust fastening that allowed women to put on or take off their corset all on their own. And in 1830, they created the elastic corset, which offered even more comfort. Victorian England also introduced the frilled pantaloon and started creating undergarments for all kinds of activities from riding your bike to visiting the beach.
Because this era accentuated the hour-glass figure of the woman, it led to the first strip tease shows. And in 1876 — when garters were invented — French dancers created quite an uproar when they would show glimpses of their garters stretched across their thighs (see Hosiery History). However, garters served an important purpose too, functioning as an anchor to the corset so that it wouldn’t ride up.
Lingerie in the Early 20th Century (1900-1950)
At the beginning of the 1900s, Chalmers Knitting Company turned the union suit (or long john’s) into two pieces, basically inventing the modern undershirt and drawers. There were lacier versions for women, known as the camisole and drawers.
Because women started participating more in outdoor activities and dancing, they began trading in their corsets for a more comfortable option: the brassiere. In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob made the first brassiere by tying two handkerchiefs together with ribbon. Originally, she did it just to cover the whalebone sticking out of her corset, which was visible through her sheer dress. But Jacob began making brassieres for her family and friends, and word of mouth soon spread. By 1914, Jacob had a patent for her design and was marketing it throughout the United States. At this same time, bloomers became popular because women were continuing to become more athletic.
During the 1920's, bloomers quickly became much shorter, looser and less supportive as the flapper-style came into fashion, and by the end of the decade they looked very much like modern panties (see History of Panties). The increased sexuality of the flapper brought about the era of lingerie that we’re familiar with today.
Lingerie for the Modern Woman
After the 1920s, many companies tried to come up with new and different lingerie options. In the 1960s, the creation of the mini skirt led to the popularity of bikini briefs. And by the 1980s, wire bras had become the number-one seller. During that era, the thong also became popular in South America, especially in Brazil (even though it had been worn by exotic dancers before then). It was originally made to be a style of swimsuit, but by the 1990s, the design influenced the popularity of thong underwear.
Although it took a long time to get here, today's lingerie not only compliments the modern woman’s body, but it keeps her comfortable too. From romantic babydolls to erotic leather bustiers, 21st century lingerie now comes in a variety of styles and fabric that still stem from our history’s past. Check out your options at Lingerie Diva!
For more on the history of lingerie, check out Lingerie Diva’s: