1900s - 1960s
What women wear underneath their clothes has long been a source of fascination, contention and debate. In the Victorian era, dress reformers declared that restrictive garments prevented women living healthy lives and dared to argue that underwear should not 'exceed seven pounds in weight.' But it would take the cultural upheavals of the 20th century for women to shed the many layers of undergarments acquired over centuries of fashion history.
Underwear was originally designed to serve several purposes – changing a woman’s shape, preserving her modesty and maintaining good hygiene. During the 20th century, lingerie has experienced a transformation like few other fashion categories. Early 1900s saw rib-crushing corsets that shape the ideal torso. The 1920s introduced the practice of bandaging chests for an androgynous silhouette. In the revolutionary 1960s, women burned bras as a statement of liberation. From pantaloons to briefs, pointy brassieres to push-up bras, the history of undergarments reveals a lot about the changing role women play in society – how we perceive ourselves and how others view us.
As fascinating as it is to see how lingerie has evolved, there are some undergarments that have persisted throughout the century. Stockings, girdles, brassieres and garter belts have remained intimate lingerie staples, even peeking through to some outerwear fashions. Corsets have even made a return through the thick spandex undergarment, Spanx, and belly-squishing waist-trainers, proving that no matter the idealized female form, undergarments have never gone completely out of fashion.
ESSE owes special thanks to the Old State House Museum Collection UA Little Rock Theatre Arts and Dance for their contributions to this exhibit:
All photos by Brandon Markin
The early 1900s embraced a “feminine” figure, which included big hips and breasts together with a very cinched “wasp waist.” Decades prior, it is thought that some women may have had ribs removed to make their waists appear smaller. Though less extreme, the turn-of-the-century look still required the use of a tightly bound whalebone corset coupled with layers of heavy petticoats. While the upper body appeared fuller due to the cinched waist, it did not yet have the definition that would be seen with the introduction of the brassiere.
S-bend corsets (also known as straight-front corsets or “health” corsets) reached the height of their popularity during the decade. At the time, the S-bend was thought to be a healthier option because it placed less direct pressure on the front of the abdomen and reproductive organs. The silhouette it created resembled an “S” with the shoulders and bust pushed forward while the bottom was pushed back. It also affected a woman’s gait and was later found to be worse for the spine than the corsets of the Victorian era.
Black and white photograph of Elizabeth Lucy Snow Ansley seated and holding her hat. Tan colored corset that laces in both front and back belonged to Mrs. Ansley.
As the century progressed, extremely restrictive corsets and bustles of previous decades gave way to a lean, straight silhouette. The corsets that were used in the first decade of the new century were longer, coming down past the hips and just under the bust. To achieve this streamlined look, hemlines rose to reveal the ankles and an “Empire waist” fell below the bust. As petticoats slimmed, roomy bloomers were replaced with closer-fitting underwear similar to what we see today.
These changes in undergarments ushered in aesthetically pleasing lingerie; the uniting of function and femininity. With the invention of machine-made lace, decorative underwear could be purchased for a more reasonable price, making embellished undergarments accessible to varied socio-economic classes. Lingerie ads also transformed from clinically promoting necessities to artistically embracing the beauty of lingerie.
The 1920s saw the desired figure continue to represent a boyish, lean aesthetic. Loose shift dresses were all the rage and looked their best on a figure with a small chest and hips. Therefore, corsets changed and were made to slim and flatten hips for a more androgynous figure. Many dance halls even had a corset checkroom where young women who had to leave the house wearing a corset could be free of the restrictive garment and dance the night away.
Some two-piece undergarments began to enter the market, but bras were used to restrict and flatten the chest instead of support. Many young women favored a new type of corset, the girdle. Made from elastic and usually sitting just below the bust, it flattened the figure to achieve a youthful and slender outline. As hemlines shortened even more dramatically, decorative garters and stockings worn rolled down below the knee became popular.
The 1930s saw fashion return to a more feminine aesthetic, including women’s lingerie. Slips became less common and two-piece undergarments became the staple. To accentuate curves, girdles were tightened and chests enhanced with bras. Ads of the decade catered to a glamorous silhouette influenced by Hollywood actresses.
Bras were cheaper to produce than the expensive corsets of earlier decades. Brassiere cup sizes and band widths were introduced in a 1932 lingerie ad. Previously, bras were custom made to an individual’s measurements. This new method quickly became the industry standard and helped to further decrease the cost. The Depression meant that every penny counted and that included underwear.
“Make do and mend” was the motto of the 1940s, encouraging women to sew their own clothes and update old garments to current styles. The post-war rationing of fabrics meant that a more angular, fitted look defined the decade. Hemlines were once again shorter, hitting just below the knee. Because nylon was needed to make parachutes, stockings disappeared from stores. In an effort to maintain the illusion of stockings, some women drew black “seams” up the back of their legs. Silk was also unavailable, making slips less common as well.
While soldiers fought on the battlefields of WWII, women helped on the home front by working in factories. Thus, they traded in their dresses and skirts for trousers and overalls (a style that required more form-fitting underwear). While there were new styles of undergarments in the 1940s, most women would reuse their garments instead of purchasing new ones.
At the conclusion of WWII, fashions embraced the new availability of fabrics and the female silhouette returned to a fullness it had not seen since the turn of the century. Fitted tops showcased a full bust and bullet bras lifted and accentuated the chest. Waists were cinched with a girdle and full skirts were ballooned with petticoats and bouffants. Stockings were again available and new “seamless” hosiery hit the shelves.
Underwear ads became increasingly sexual with marketing aimed more at men (purchasing for their wives) than women. Because women were back in the home, fashion once again outweighed practicality. The feminine ideal was a devoted wife and mother vacuuming carpeted floors in Christian Dior.
As feminism blossomed during the 1960s, many in the fashion world embraced more natural silhouettes and comfortable clothing. Skirts got very short, cut high on the thigh, causing slips and underwear to shorten as well. In particular, Mary Quant’s iconic mini skirt and dresses were a rejection of the silhouette of the previous decades.
Although girdles were still being sold, younger women began to embrace briefs with light colors, youthful patterns, and even ruffles. Developments in underwire meant that women had multiple styles of bras to choose from including some styles that are reminiscent of modern day designs. Late in the decade and into the 1970s, some women stopped wearing bras altogether and even the most the biggest “squares” had abandoned the restrictive corset.
Boxers of Briefs?
This question was unheard-of until boxers were introduced in the 1920s, and briefs in the 1930s. In the early 1900s, men wore tight-fitting flannel drawers or head-to-toe union suits, with button up fronts and rear flaps, known as “access hatches,” “drop seats,” or “fireman’s flaps”. In 1925 Jacob Golomb, founder of the boxing company Everlast, realized that the leather-belted trunks fighters had been wearing were not ideal. He replaced the leather with elastic and “boxer shorts” were born. Though they were not an immediate success, as they lacked support, boxers began to gain favor after World War II.
Underwear changed forever in 1934 when Arthur Kneibler, a hosiery designer, was inspired by bathing suits spotted in the French Riviera. After some experimentation, Kneibler introduced a new kind of snug, legless underwear with an overlapping Y-front fly. The new product was called "Jockey shorts" because the high level of support the garment offered was reminiscent of jockstraps. Chicago's landmark department store Marshall Fields sold out of the first batch of 600 Jockey briefs on January 19, 1935. Within three months, a total of 30,000 pairs had been sold.