It is well known that feminine shape varies a great deal. History tells us that it has always been so!
Throughout the ages, what’s been fashionable for the shape of the feminine body has gone from one extreme to the other. However, the charming feminine body has always been subject to what happens to be covering it and history shows us that it’s been covered in many different ways. Also, different parts of the feminine form have been intensified, obscured, reduced, increased by the style of the current fashionable adornments.
We’ve witnessed some unimaginable extremes, from devices that required a small army to coerce the unlucky fashion victim into, to the flimsiest, most whimsical mere flutter of a garment. Let’s take a look back in time at how sexy lingerie has developed and how it got to where it is today.
First of all, let’s get some terminology sorted out. Thanks to the world’s most amorous language, we now almost always refer to feminine ‘underwear’ as ‘lingerie’ – unless we’re being derogatory in which case, depending on where you reside, you can fill in the blanks!
When we (at least us of the male persuasion) think of lingerie, we think of a flimsy material embellishing the feminine body in a way that gives us a hint of the delights that lie underneath. But the ‘first’ lingerie, probably from one of the Ancient Greek islands, was far different. These captivating 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. Probably not what we would call lingerie today but with much the same desired effect.
As time rolled on, the feminine form took on new ‘perfect’ shapes dependant on the in thing. As each ‘perfect’ form emerged, adornments were designed and brought out to embellish and accentuate that desired shape. The culture of the society dictated whether the breasts, the bottom or both would be highlighted and revered. You could argue that nothing much has changed!
During Medieval times it was thought that the natural form and shape of a woman should be constricted and that the breasts should be firm and small. This state of affairs was probably fine for those built naturally that way but perhaps not so good for those of a more ample construction. Many different sorts of the 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 wore tinkling bells around their neck to remind the menfolk of the delights that still lay beneath.
The ‘modern’ corset is attributed to Catherine de MÈdicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on broad waists at court attendance during the 1550s and had a questionable effect on women for the next 350 years.
The Renaissance saw another change in the preferred feminine shape. Women now required cone shaped breasts, flat stomachs and slim waists. In order to realize 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 acquiring ‘perfection’, Doctors and other notaries made the case that these corsets confined women’s bodies so tightly that their internal organs were being damaged and their ribs were being permanently misshapen. Around that time it was common for women to blackout or fall into a swoon. This was usually put down to their delicate nature but, in fact, it was because they simply found it very hard to breathe! There are many accounts of women dying because of fatal punctures to vital organs due to this practice.
In the early 18th century the whalebone corset still kept women tightly bound but the artistry that reflected the times was painstakingly incorporated into clothing and the corsets were decorated with charming 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 courtesy.
However, as people became more educated and aware, they started to question and critique many things including art, politics and, you guessed it, in thing. Backed up by professional people like doctors, public opinion became such that boned corsets were actually outlawed in many countries.
By the early 19th century, a much softer approach to the feminine shape became popular. The in-thing still required 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 in thing 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) designed 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 were able to dress and undress themselves due to more elaborate lacing methods.
During the 1840s the extremely exaggerated shape for women caused whalebone to make a comeback with huge hoops and crinolines that were covered with all kinds of fabric and fineries. Unfortunately for women, it became the in thing to have waists small enough for a man to put his hands around and the need for even harder waist-cinching became the feminine 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 posterior. Once again it was the women who had to suffer for in thing, needing to stand most of the time due to the cumbersome bustle on their posteriors. Obviously, men found this appealing because it gave them more opportunities to stare at the sexy women with their large bustles.
As more innovation came to in thing design, greater varieties of corsets were brought out. During the morning, a lady could wear a lightly-boned corset for promenading, an elastic corset for riding sidesaddle, a boneless corset for a trip to the beach and a jersey corset for riding her penny farthing. 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 dimension to the in thing-conscious feminine 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 in thing, 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 opened the first corset factories.
In 1910 New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob brought out a new type of brassiere. Not satisfied with the corset stiffened with whalebone which she was meant to wear under a new sheer evening gown, Mary worked with her maid to stitch 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 person to patent an item of underwear named ‘Brassiere’, the name derived from the old French word for ‘upper arm’. shortly after, she sold the brassiere patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500 (over $25,600 today).
In 1917 the United States War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for the production of war materials. This step released some 28,000 tons of metal, sufficient to build two battleships.
Allegedly the success of the brassiere is due primarily to the Great War. The Great War changed gender roles forever, putting many women to work in factories and wearing uniforms for the first time. Women needed practical, comfortable undergarments. Warner went on to rake in more than 15 dollars from the brassiere patent over the next thirty years.
The other thing to consider in the downfall of the corset was that The Great War had taken its toll on the number of men. This meant more competition for finding a man so women needed to look their sexiest!
With the Roaring Twenties and its sophisticated parties, in thing was turned on its head, the boyish look was in. The pursual of flat chests and stomachs along with straight hips and buttocks led to the creation of the liberty bodice, the chemise, and bloomers which were loose-fitting and light. For the first time, pastel-coloured underwear appeared to replace plain old-fashioned white. To enhance the boyish look the first brassieres were designed to flatten the breasts. What happened to the corset? The posterior 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 in thing. Women were encouraged to look well-proportioned with a full-figure while remaining fairly slim in the hips. Now women 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 a multitude of sizes to appropriately fit a woman’s body.
The arrival of World War II and its shortages meant that Germany was unable to import the fabrics they had used before then and their industry failed. Forever inventive, people started making underwear knitted at home out of materials to hand. Not the sexiest of lingerie but at least they kept warm.
After the war underwear consisted of basic brassieres and suspender belts. This was acceptable to many women but the teenage girl, just coming out of the hardship of the war years, became a target market. These young women couldn’t wait to blossom into women and wearing lingerie was a fantastic step towards achieving that goal. The German underwear industry brought out lingerie sets that appealed to these young girls and the industry never looked back.
In the UK, 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 brought out a new brassiere, a special wire-reinforced design for Jane Russell. This caused the censors to throw a tantrum about miss Russell’s breasts being blatantly exposed all because of Hughes’ terrifically innovative brassiere improvements.
The 1960s was a bad decade for the underwear industry thanks to the rise of women’s emancipation movements. Feminists burned their brassieres and many lingerie manufacturers were forced out of business. However, Lycra had just been developed and women began to wear tight-fitting leggings. The iconic in thing item of that decade, however, was arguably the sexy little mini-skirt and the demand for bikini briefs. Famously, for a scant moment in time, topless swimsuits and topless dresses were the rages. But, unfortunately for most men and fortunately for the in thing industry, they were merely a ‘flash-in-the-pan’!
The 1980s saw the wire-reinforced brassiere become the number one bestseller. While these are still very popular today, the best-seller at the moment is the push-up bra. Statistically, the average woman in Europe owns six brassieres, one of which is a strapless bra and one is a colour other than white.
The modern feminine shape varies and is not as susceptible to fashion trends as in previously. However, the charming sex will always looks breathtaking in sexy, slinky lingerie!
So, there we are. From the push-up corsets of ancient Greece to the push-up brassiere of today. Sexy lingerie? Nothing ever really changes!