Fashion

A brief history of underwear

Let's take a trip back in time to see how lingerie has changed over the decades.

Underwear was originally designed to serve several purposes – changing a woman’s shape, preserving her modesty and for hygiene reasons.

Women have worn rib-crushing corsets, bandaged their chests to get an androgynous silhouette and burned their bras as a statement of liberation – put mildly, underwear matters.

From bloomers to thongs, pointy brassieres to push-up bras, the history of lingerie reveals a lot about women’s changing role in society – how we perceive ourselves and how we’re viewed by others.

It’s fascinating to see how lingerie has changed over the last hundred years, but even more intriguing to note what’s stayed the same – a bra from the noughties bears an uncanny resemblance to one from 1930, while an image of Isabel Black in 1967 could have been shot today.

Click on the images below to launch our gallery of underwear through the ages.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1860

    The vast hoop skirts of the mid-19th century were supported by crinolines – steel, cage-like structures worn with a corset and petticoats. They were cumbersome and dangerous (it was tricky to sit down and to get in and out of carriages plus they could get trapped in machinery and catch fire) but at least they were lightweight and allowed the wearer’s legs to move freely. The crinoline reached its maximum dimensions in 1860 and then started to shrink to less ludicrous proportions.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1890

    In the 1890s women’s underwear started to become less bulky and restrictive, and corsets were gradually replaced by the brassiere (first patented by Mary Phelps Jacob).

  • A brief history of underwear

    1920

    The boyish fashions of the 1920s were unforgiving of bulky underwear, but developments in fabric technology allowed women to wear slinky petticoats that also helped them achieve the desired androgynous silhouette.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1925

    Manufacturers developed new lightweight, breathable fabrics that worked beautifully under the fluid dress shapes of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1925

    Camiknickers – literally, a camisole and knickers sewn together – were popular in the ‘20s as they worked well under the daringly short dresses of the time. They continued to be worn during the Second World War when women stepped into male roles and started wearing trousers more frequently.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1930

    This fabulously delicate brassiere by Ferrero in 1930 could be a contemporary offering from Agent Provocateur or Myla.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1945

    Before she became a Hollywood star, Marilyn Monroe put her famous curves to good use by modelling for lingerie advertisments, which in in the '40s were painted by hand.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1947

    In the 1940s Christian Dior’s revolutionary New Look required sturdy foundation garments to achieve an hourglass silhouette. A girdle was essential for the wasp-waisted look – this restrictive garment often extended below the hips and had suspender clips attached to hold up stockings.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1950s

    While most women were trussed up in girdles, notorious 1940s pin-up Bettie Page made her name wearing more risqué lingerie. Whips, rubber and bondage gear were her regular accessories, but here she is looking quite demure in classic stockings, French knickers and a bra.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1959

    Jayne Mansfield made her mark on Hollywood when her platinum blonde hair and pneumatic figure saw her being tipped as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. The impressive scaffolding of 1950s underwear helped her achieve the famously 'pointy' silhouette that was regarded as desirable at the time.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1950s

    The ‘50s were a glamorous time for lingerie and one that has been imitated regularly ever since. Seamed stockings and curve-hugging basques are as popular today as when they were first modelled by a young Joan Collins.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1961

    The 1960s saw a more youthful, girlish style emerging, with playful babydoll nighties and frilly knickers matching the coquettish mini dresses of the time.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1966

    While Betty Draper would probably have still been firmly ensconced in her girdle, by 1966 stylish young women were having fun with playful underwear shapes and patterns.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1966

    Developments in underwear technology in the 1960s allowed women to choose the style of bra they wanted and we start to see the first recognisable ‘modern’ shapes.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1967

    This red lace lingerie set modelled by actress Isabel Black in 1967 looks totally fresh and contemporary. The natural, unstructured shape of the bra was characteristic of the youthful style of the era.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1974

    The girlie style of the 1960s gave way to a more sophisticated, womanly look in the 1970s with luxurious fabrics like silk and lace in elegant designs.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1977

    Big hair, sensuous fabrics and a touch of marabou – quintessential ‘70s style…

  • A brief history of underwear

    1974

    The iconic cover of Roxy Music’s 1974 album, Country Life, featured two models wearing the decadent, daring underwear of the disco era.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1989

    The 1980s is the decade that brought us thongs, g-strings and the bodysuit – as infamously worn by Cher.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1990

    Ever the trend-setter, Madonna ushered in the vogue for underwear as outerwear on her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990 with a little help from Jean Paul Gaultier and his pointy bras.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1990s

    The ‘90s were defined by a cool minimalism, personified by the newest supermodel on the block, Kate Moss, in the gritty black and white ads for Calvin Klein. The branded waistband of the underwear became a style status symbol, and were soon to be spotted poking above the waistband of jeans the world over.

  • A brief history of underwear

    1994

    The Canadian Lady Corset Company first licensed the Wonderbra in 1939, but it’s most famous supporting role came in 1994 when the infamous ‘Hello Boys’ billboard starring supermodel Eva Herizgova reportedly caused several male motorists to crash their cars. The poster has since been named the most iconic outdoor advert of all time.

  • A brief history of underwear

    2006

    After all that ‘90s androgyny, in 2001 Agent Provocateur brought sexy back with a bang – specifically, Kylie Minogue riding a bucking bronco in AP smalls, in what has since been voted the sexiest ad of all time. Kate Moss became the face of Agent Provocateur and smouldered in several campaigns

  • A brief history of underwear

    2008

    Dita Von Teese is almost personally responsible for the revival of proper old-fashioned lingerie - corsets, stockings and suspenders. The burlesque star is known for her modern take on retro pin-up glamour and in 2008 designed a vintage-inspired collection for Wonderbra.

  • A brief history of underwear

    2008

    Today American brand Victoria’s Secret is the biggest lingerie seller in the world. Their catwalk shows are now legendary and see the likes of Miranda Kerr, Rosie Huntington Whiteley and Heidi Klum strutting their stuff in elaborate carnival-style costumes (and teeny-tiny pants).

Topics

Share this article

Related Posts