The Evolution of Lingerie: A Journey of Self-Expression

Change in the History of lingerie Through the Years

Lingerie’ is derived from the French word ‘Linge’, meaning linen. Informal usage suggests visually appealing/erotic clothing. Women’s lingerie, throughout history, has served various purposes; from providing support to the chest to shaping and enhancing various body types. As our attitudes towards comfort and sexuality have evolved, so have the styles available to adorn oneself. In this blog, we will briefly examine women’s innerwear over the years; the way we view it as something normal, and the physical transformation of undergarments themselves.

Prehistory to the Medieval Ages

Ancient Indian paintings and sculptures solely depict women to be topless. The first documented garment, the choli, dates to the reign of the Chola Kingdom, when women wrapped unstitched cloth tightly around their breasts to flatten them and keep them small. During the Vijayanagara Empire that followed, the ‘Kanchuka’ – a tightly fitted bodice – was popular.

Women in classical Greece and Rome wore the ‘Apodesmos’, or ‘Strophium’, which has a band of linen or leather tied around the bust, offering support and compression. Effectively, this was a Bandeau Bra. Under-tunics were also worn beneath gowns, which served the same function a slip does to a dress. For the Greeks and the Romans, underclothing was designed for function rather than fashion.

Prehistory of Lingerie to the Medieval Ages
Female athletes competing in undergarments, 4th Century A.D., Sicily.

During Medieval times, a loose-fitting chemise was worn underneath tight dresses of wool/silk to show off a tight bottom and fitted waist, to protect clothing from body oils, and to provide warmth. The chemises would be visible at the neckline and wrists and provide an opportunity for the upper classes to display fine lace or embroidery. Fashion in Medieval Europe concerned itself with fitted clothing that followed the body's shape.

Women also began wearing stiff linen under their bodices called a ‘Cotte’, a garment that flattened the breast. The earliest corset appeared when women used paste as a stiffener between the two layers of linen to create a stiffer, harder bodice. Trousers were considered a symbol of male power and women who wore them were typically wives attempting to seize authority over their husbands. Bizarrely, no undergarments were worn by women in this era, since it was considered taboo for women to wear bifurcated garments.

The 16th century brought about a change in how women’s undergarments were viewed. The focus turned towards fashion over function, and this hasn’t changed since then. Opulence became the norm, with even the innermost layer of chemise boasting lace edges (called ‘Ruffs’), giving an opportunity to display one’s wealth. Other innovations included ‘Farthingales’ (hoops worn under skirts to turn them into a desired shape) and ‘Pairs of Bodies’ (a primitive corset, worn more for support than shaping).

16th century A.D., Italy. The History of the Chemise

16th century A.D., Italy. Notice the chemises

While corsets were omnipresent throughout history, the earliest evidence of one being found in the Minoan Civilization of Creole, they gained popularity in the 16th century. Initially, in the 17th century, they were made of whalebone or wood and the focus lay on creating a constricted waistline and a high, rounded bustline. In the 18th century, however, corsets became more elongated, with a focus on creating a smooth, columnar silhouette.

The French Revolution to the 19th Century

Interestingly, the upheaval of societal and political norms in France gave rise to innovations in the space of lingerie which focused on simplicity and practicality.

A few examples of the same include:

1) The Un-Corset or Chemise à la Reine: A loose-fitting, lightweight gown, it was worn as an alternative to the restrictive corsets of the time. It was made from light fabrics and featured a high waistline, flowing skirts, and a loose bodice. This style was popularized by Queen Marie Antoinette and represented a departure from the structured and constricting garments of the pre-revolutionary era.

2) Simplified Undergarments: During the French Revolution, undergarments became less intricate and ornate. The focus shifted towards simpler chemises which were made from plain fabrics like linen or cotton. These undergarments were less structured and offered more comfort and freedom of movement
compared to the heavily boned and laced corsets of the pre-revolutionary period.

3) Abolition of Sumptuary Laws: The French Revolution brought about the abolition of sumptuary laws, which were regulations that restricted people's clothing choices based on social class. This allowed individuals from all social classes to have greater freedom in their clothing and undergarment choices, including lingerie. The increased accessibility brought about greater ardour for something previously unattainable. Elsewhere in the world as the epoch ended, corsets still served the same function and were built in similarly arcane ways.

Chemises were still used beneath the corsets (now referred to as ‘Stays’), to protect the skin from chafing. Wealthier women also wore ‘Panniers’, structured cages to widen the silhouette of the hips. In the 19th century, corsets were still popular; from simple homespun versions to ones made of silk jacquard. By the middle of the century, extreme versions of corsets with narrower waists and rounder breasts became the norm, setting a dangerous precedent of unnatural beauty standards. By the end of the century, however, materials such as elastic were being used to make comfortable and flexible corsets. Undergarments worn in this era were, somewhat shockingly, split through the crotch into two halves, completely open down the middle. The functional purpose of this was that it allowed for easy use of the toilet.

In India, at the same time, in Kerala, the covering of breasts was closely tied to caste, and lower caste women were forbidden from covering their breasts, until the Channar Revolt which granted them the right to do so, while women in Bengal regularly wore sarees without blouses.

The 20th Century

An advertisement for Swanbill corsets in London, 1897, The History of Lingerie

An advertisement for Swanbill corsets in London, 1897

Reflecting changing social attitudes, fashion trends and advancements in textile technology, lingerie went through a significant transformation. To offset the accusations of ‘mannishness’ levied by the conservative press on the suffragette movement in the early 1900s, women wore sensual camisoles and petticoats of lace, chiffon, and crepe de chine. While the suffragette movement promoted a radical change in sexual politics and the amount of power women held, lingerie evoked a more traditional brand of femininity, objectifying the female body while also empowering it. Corsets were still in use but were shorter and less restrictive. Soon, however, everything was going to change.

Basics and History of Lingerie

Extant brassieres from the 1930s and 1940s

Mary Phelps Jacob (Caresse Crosby) discovered the modern bra in 1913 out of a desire for a more comfortable and supportive undergarment to wear with a particular dress. Frustrated with the discomfort of a whalebone corset, she crafted a prototype using two handkerchiefs and ribbon. This design featured separate cups to lift and support the breasts, attached to a band. Recognizing the invention's potential, she obtained a patent in 1914 and sold it to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in 1915. This marked the commercial production and distribution of the bra, revolutionizing women's undergarments and setting the foundation for the bras we know today. In the early stages, bralettes were created as a comfortable substitute for corsets. They featured lightweight fabrics, soft cups, and supportive straps, offering a more relaxed experience without compressing the entire torso. Stretch fabrics and underwires, which had not been developed at that time, were not yet incorporated into these brassieres.

But from now on lingerie would be divided into tops (bras) and bottoms (knickers). The modern style slip was also worn over bras and knickers to protect outer dresses from sweat. Initially made of linen, the progress of technology made it possible to use materials like nylon and polyester. By the 1940s, women’s undergarments became more functional, as women entered the workforce in a higher capacity and prioritized comfort. Due to rationing during the Second World War, silk and nylon undergarments were almost impossible to acquire. Therefore, some women drew lines down the backs of their legs to mimic the look of stockings.

An advertisement for Bras and Garter Belts, 1940s, history of lingerie

An advertisement for Bras and Garter Belts, 1940s

As the war ended and the economy was revived, the hourglass figure came into fashion, harkening back to the Renaissance and the Victorian eras, wherein form took precedence over functionality. Pointed bullet bras and girdles were paired with fluffy petticoats to achieve the desired shape. However, the 1960s feminist movement (with the bra-burning debacle) brought an end to the unrealistic beauty standards being set a decade prior. Also, sales of lingerie declined in the 1960s as the new silhouette defined by the miniskirt needed a more practical combination of matching polyester bra and panties with tights to replace stockings and suspenders. Simultaneously, the image of a sophisticated woman was established. Garter belts and stockings disappeared and made space for tights; long and skinny legs came to the fore. As time went on, several innovations were introduced. The introduction of textiles like Lycra, Push & Plunge effects on bras, thongs, plus sizes and fashion-forward designs changed the game, creating dramatic silhouettes while also increasing comfort.

The 21st Century

While technological and aesthetic advances will continue, the focus should lie on enabling customers to wear what they want and androgynous product ranges, with acceptance of the same. While focusing on reaching a threshold of product-related innovations, another important goal should be the inclusivity of models and size ranges. Collective steps must be taken to ensure the same. While no one can predict what will come in the remainder of the 21st century for lingerie and fashion, we can work towards more diversity, inclusion, innovation and some other surprises too.

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