For the longest of times, women have been looking for ways to support, suppress or accentuate their female body parts.
From the origins of basic undergarments to the birth of the underwire bra: It turns out we have ancient Egyptians to thank for it. Egyptians wore a band of linen under their diaphanous robes to flatten the bust line, while in China they were developing their own solutions – women wore single-pieced underpinnings that covered the breasts and belly, but left the back exposed. In fact, outerwear has always dictated the look and function of undergarments. 3000 years ago, Cretan women pretty much invented the corset to get a wasp-waisted look that predated actress Mae West’s hourglass figure.
But how did we get from there to sophisticated lingerie brands such as La Perla or Agent Provocateur, ruling the eclectic world of lingerie?
In fact lingerie did not arrive fully fashioned for seduction, it has evolved over decades.
Talking the history of briefs, for the most part, underwear was a status symbol worn by the nobility, while the rest of the population went commando. Catherine de Medici is credited with inventing the panty, so she could ride her horse without exposing her “Lohans” to the world. Early undies consisted of two seperate legs joined at the waist. The Can-Can craze of the 19th century created the need to join the two halves and the desire to make drawers frillier and more fun. As skirts got shorter, skivvies became more streamlined and the brief was born.
In 1904, the Charles R. DeBevoise Company first labelled a woman’s bra-like garment a “brassiere”. It was actually a lightly boned camisole that helped stabilise the breasts. By 1907, the term “brassiere” began to show up in high-profile women’s magazines. Eventually, around 1912, it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.
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.
In the 40s and 50s, technological advances in fabrics, such as nylon and polyester lead to a boom in the American lingerie industry. Underwear was engineered to create cartoonish curves like starlet Jane Russell’s B-52-shaped Playtex bras or the wasp waists needed to get into Christian Dior’s “New Look” fashion. As lingerie manufacturers, like Frederick’s of Hollywood, began to glamourise lingerie, the choices of intimate accessories exploded. Pin-up models of the day, now posed in bustiers, filmy negligees and naughty nighties.
While most women were trapped up in girdles, notorious 1940s pin-up model Bettie Page made her name in the 50s, wearing more risky lingerie. Whips, rubber and bondage gear were her regular accessories.
In 1946, the bikini was introduced at a fashion show in Paris by its designers Louis Reard and Jacques Heim. To that time though, they couldn’t find any female celebrities that were willing to risk wearing the bikini in fear of ruining their reputations. So they hired Ms. Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer who was working in Paris at the Casino de Paris.
The bikini has been stretched and shrunk over time and has gone from traditional to thong, to string, to micro cuts. Sales for the 64-year-young bikini remain as brisk as ever with annual sales in billions.
Perhaps the world of fashionable swimwear owes a dept of gratitude to Ms. Micheline Bernardini for being willing to bare it all on that great day of fashion history. After all, this same design appeared on Roman women in sports competitions in 300 and 400 BC, according to some very reliable cave walls.
For the world of lingerie, the 1960s became more youthful and girlish, with playful babydoll nighties and frills to match the coquettish mini dress of the time. 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. Developments in underwear technology in the 60s allowed women to choose the style of bra they wanted and the first recognisable ‘modern’ shapes were born.
The girly style of the 60s gave way to a more sophisticated, womanly look in the 1970s, with luxurious fabrics like silk and lace in elegant designs. Big hair, sensuous fabrics, as well as a touch of marabou were the quintessential elements of the 70s style.
The 1980s brought us thongs, the G-string and bodysuit, as infamously worn by Cher, while the 90s were defined by a cool minimalism, personified by the newest supermodel on the block, Kate Moss, looking stunning in Calvin Klein’s black and white campaigns. Calvin Klein’s branded waistband became a style status symbol, and was soon to be spotted poking above the waistband of jeans.
Ever the trend-setter, Madonna ushered in the vogue for underwear as outerwear on her Blond Ambition tour in 1990 with a little help from Jean Paul Gaultier and his pointy bras.
After all this 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 advertisement of all time. Also Kate Moss became the face of Agent Provocateur and smouldered in several campaigns.
Nowadays, American brand Victoria’s Secret is the biggest lingerie seller in the world. Their catwalk shows are legendary and see the likes of Adrianna Lima, Rosie Huntington Whiteley and now a host of new faces introduced at the 2016 December Paris show, strutting their stuff in elaborate carnival-styled costumes.
The magic element that made lingerie “sexy” has been redefined over the decades. What should it cover or expose? Should it look more romantic or edgy? Today a lot of designer brands have unabashedly plundered the demi-monde or BDSM, and lingerie freely samples from almost every era of underwear history. Stars like Katy Perry have reclaimed the high-waisted shorts of the 40s and the bullet bras of the 50s. Stella McCartney has made the Granny panties popular again, and even chemises, covered in leopard print from the modest 1920, are back in trend.
Discover the entire history of lingerie, as well as the most iconic lingerie brands in Fashion Industry Broadcast’s “Girls Guide to Lingerie,” available on Amazon.