Even the most creative creation can lose its shine without properly selected underwear. It isn’t easy to imagine that underwear accessories, which are today one of the essential elements of both women’s and men’s wardrobes, in their contemporary form, entered into widespread use only a few decades ago.
When wondering how our ancestors dealt with lingerie issues, it is worth taking a closer look at the lingerie calendar, which is hugely stretched over time, full of colourful figures and extraordinary inventions. Since the stories of women’s and men’s underwear, although both equally impressive, took place on entirely different tracks, it is best to tell each of them separately. Ladies have priority.
Ladies’ underwear is an invention of ancient Egyptian women, who were the first to start wearing a second, additional tunic, which performed a lingerie function. Ancient Greeks and Romans used to wrap their breasts with strips of fabric, which helped to emphasise women’s charms covered by the outer garment. However, underwear, which only served to protect the lower parts of the female body in ancient times, was not thought of. For centuries, the situation has not changed, and women under dresses and petticoats wore nothing except one or more shirts.
The lower parts of the body
Severe changes in women’s underwear took place at the end of the Middle Ages when a corset appeared in the fashion arena. At that time, however, the only lower part of the lingerie that was to be worn by a woman was the chastity belt. It was commonly believed that a wardrobe covering intimate details intensifies desire. The famous Venetian courtesans, dressed in calzoni – sewn from silk, velvet or linen, panties with knee-length legs – contributed to such sharp opinions. The church authorities even introduced an official ban on wearing them, calling the calzoni an outfit sowing debauchery.
The situation did not change until the middle of the 16th century when Catherine Medici ascended the French throne. In line with the morals of the time, body parts between the waist and knees were a taboo subject. When it turned out, however, that the ladies of Catherine’s court raised their legs high during horseback riding, showing the world all their charms, a general discussion arose. The queen, therefore, introduced the obligation to wear calzoni, also known as a buttock belt. The Medici calzones were only sewn on the outside of the legs, padded and wrinkled in suitable places so that they would slim or round the silhouette according to the current fashion. Over the years, this piece of wardrobe was sewn from more and more expensive fabrics, covered with more and more elaborate decoration in the form of embroidery and lace, and thus became increasingly heavy. After the death of the most generous supporters of calzoni – Katarzyna Medici and Maria Stuart, uncomfortable underwear lost its popularity again. In the 17th century, wearing calzoni, outside Italy called pantaloons, was only suitable for cold-sensitive, elderly or ill women. It was also mandatory to wear them when washing windows to protect themselves from draughts effectively. Until the French Revolution, pantaloons were made of muslin coloured leather. In the Napoleonic era, thick silks, satins and velvets became popular, while in winter – cashmere. Initially, the pantaloons resembled pants, reached to the ankles, had large legs, decorated with frills and lace.
Although Empress Josephine, the owner of countless creations, had only three pairs of pantaloons made of embroidered canvas and two pairs of silk ones, designed especially for horse riding, the women’s panties slowly gained more and more supporters.
Since 1807, girls learning on good salaries had to have pantaloons reaching below their calves during dance lessons and other physical exercises. This type of lingerie was also used during travels and for all activities that deserved to be called sport, i.e. horse riding, gymnastics or skating. Over the years, pantaloons have also become shorter and shorter.
The panties in the nineteenth century had a great deal of merit in making the panties famous, as the cancan dancers were the first to show their underwear in public. During their dance, they raised their legs so high that they were ordered by law to wear pantaloons, and a special inspectorate for pantaloons was established in the French police.
In the middle of the 19th century, there was a fashion for crinolines, i.e. gowns tied on a wire construction, usually very stiff and with a large diameter. When a lady dressed in such a gown wanted to bend over or sit down, the wire structure was raised to show everything underneath. Then the pantaloons became an essential element of a woman’s wardrobe and took the form of two separate legs, which were connected to the corset, tied with ribbons at the waist, crinkled at the bottom and finished with a large frill. They covered only the thighs and hips, while the belly, buttocks and intimate body parts were covered by a long shirt. This panties model became very popular in 19th century Europe – in England, it was called “unmistakable”, in France, and in Germany, it was merely a legwear.
In 1880, the pantaloons, reaching half a calf, gave way to a model who had his legs sewn together and was wrinkled below the knee. After 1890, so-called sabotages appeared in turn, with a broad and rounded portion at the bottom, decorated with a large, pleated frill trimmed lace.
Around 1900, during the period of fashion for skirts fitted at the hips, various underwear combinations began to appear, such as briefs combined with shirts and dresses, and later also corsets, combined with shirts and panties.
Colourful lingerie did not spread until the beginning of the 20th century when the progress in dyeing made it possible to obtain dyestuffs that were resistant to rubbing.
After the First World War, women’s dresses were becoming shorter and shorter, and as a result, the pantaloons, which began to resemble today’s lingerie from 1928, were also shortened.
In the 1920s, with the growing interest in sport, another lingerie reform took place. The panties, with legs fastened to the corset, turned into a model with an elastic band sewn from cotton fibre or jersey.
In the 1930s, the sport began to play an increasingly important role in everyday life, so lingerie had to become more straightforward and more practical. Cotton or jersey panties appeared, equipped with an elastic band at the waist. After the Second World War, wearing panties became a matter, of course. New models kept appearing on the lingerie market, among which the most famous were the panties without legs called panties. In the fifties, most women wore elastic, tight, high rise panties, which modelled the shape of the belly, buttocks and thighs. In the late 1950s, Triumph organised the first-ever intimate fashion show.
Over the years, lingerie models became bolder and bolder. The English model Twiggy, who in the 1970s signed a contract with a manufacturer of skimpy underwear, among others, contributed to their promotion.
The real lingerie boom occurred in the 1980s. The market started to conquer the Sloggy panties, which were associated with the highest quality and comfort. In 1981, the American company Frederick’s of Hollywood introduced the first tango panties, cut high at the sides, front and back and connected with a strip of fabric.
The nineties were the era of thongs, whose name derives from the English word for string. However, the first panties of this type appeared much earlier – they were one of the exhibits of the World’s Fair – World of Tomorrow, which took place in New York in 1939. The first copy was designed for erotic dancers who were banned by the New York mayor from dancing naked in night clubs.
Today, the lingerie offer includes hundreds of panties models, sewn from various fabrics, with countless patterns and colour variations.
Upper body parts.
The medieval history of underwear covering the upper parts of a woman’s body proved that until the end of the fifteenth century, the fashion for the cylindrical shape of torso obtained by tying breasts with canvas was still cultivated, originating from antiquity. However, the beginning of the 16th century began the era of the corset, which lasted almost four hundred years, and with it the cult of the hourglass shape.
The first corsets were sewn from starchy canvas or leather and reinforced with metal rods and wood. With time, they began to be sewn with valuable materials and decorated with gold lace. When corsets were equipped with so-called cornets, i.e. side frames supporting the dress, they became an obligatory part of women’s wardrobe.
The French Revolution, and with it the total disdain for aristocratic customs, shaken the corset’s somewhat privileged position. In the fashion of the Napoleonic era, the ideals of antiquity were returned, and women were dressed in loose dresses, fastened with a belt just under their breasts. The corsets that Napoleon Bonaparte called “the murderer of the human race” were therefore wholly abandoned.
However, the time of respite lasted very short – already in the 1820s, the corsets returned to their favours again. To achieve a perfect waist, that is to say, a core that can be embraced by hands, the ladies tied their corset laces as tightly as possible, often exposing themselves to fainting and deformed ribs. Despite appeals such as ‘Letters to the Married Ladies’, published in 1827 by the American doctor Hugh Smith, proving that wearing corsets is ‘a slow and fashionable poison that has deposited many beautiful bodies among the dead’, the hourglass figure cult continued for another hundred years.
In the 1960s, tightly-fitting corsets with a spring clasp at the front were introduced, allowing a 40-50 cm waist circumference.
Elegant Europeans and Americans, for a more spectacular effect, placed pillows under the gown, at shoulder and hip height.
The fashion for the hourglass figure was also popularised by an American cartoonist Charles Dan Gibson, who published illustrations of Gibson Girl – a personification of the ideal of beauty at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, young, dressed following the latest trends, a representative of the wealthy middle class, arousing widespread admiration for her unnaturally narrow waist.
In 1904, English suffragettes were the first to fight to free women from tight corsets. However, the real breakthrough came only two years later, thanks to French fashion creator Paul Poiret, who in his designs proposed a return to a gentle silhouette inspired by the 18th-century empire style. His long skirts, flowing down from the high waist marked with a ribbon placed just under his bust, were a spectacular success. Poiret made another fashion revolution, about which he wrote: “It was also in the name of freedom that I announced the death of the corset and the birth of the bra.
Although women were freed from the dictatorship of the ‘wasp waist’, they did not give up undergarments that modelled their silhouette. Corsets deprived of whalebone started to be sewn from elastic fabrics, emphasising breasts and allowing for a flat belly and rounded hips. During the First World War, when women began to work until now reserved exclusively for men, corsets were first shortened and then replaced by an elastic waist belt worn together with a bra.
Among those involved in the history of fashion, there has long been a view that the beginnings of bra history should be looked for in the second half of the 19th century. However, this theory was challenged in 2008, when four linen bras were dug up in Tirol’s castle Lemberg, built in the 15th century, which was under the illusion of modern underwear. Unfortunately, no other evidence has been found to this day to confirm the medieval origin of this element of women’s wardrobe. It is therefore still accepted that the first bra was the one designed in 1859 by an American, Henry Lesher.
In 1887, in England, the so-called “bust enhancer” was patented, made of wire and silk stretched over it. Available on mail order for only 75 pence. However, it proved to be a very inconvenient model and thus did not find many buyers.
Two years later, the French corsetted Herminie Cadolle created her life’s work, or “le bien-etre”, consisting of a corset, topped with a straitjacket with two cups and shoulder straps supporting the bust. Since 1905, the upper part of “le bien-etre” started to be sold separately as “soutien-gorge” or “breast support”.
On September 5th, 1899, Christine Hardt, who lived in Dresden, obtained the Imperial Patent for the “women’s bust support outfit”, equipped with convenient buttoned shoulder straps.
The word “brassiere” or “brassiere” was first used in 1907 in the magazine “Vogue” and four years later was published in the “Oxford English Dictionary”.
The bra models created in the second half of the 19th century had one thing in common – their use was not incredibly comfortable. The breakthrough came only in 1913, thanks to the young New York poet Mary Phelps Jacobs. Legend has it that Miss Mary, wanting to present herself as well as possible at the dance evening, constructed a bra that perfectly matched her creation from two wipes and a pink ribbon. A year later she patented her invention called Caresse Crosby. However, having to deal with financial problems, she had to sell the rights to Caresse production to Warner Brothers lingerie company, for only 1500 dollars. This comfortable model has won the hearts of women all over the world at lightning speed, and the value of its patent has increased a thousand-fold in just a few years.
Shortly after the end of the First World War, bras in the form of a bandage, allowing for a boyish silhouette effect, began to enjoy great popularity. However, already in the 1930s, it became fashionable to expose female curves again. That is why Rosaline Klin, President of Kestos Corset Company, decided to create a new model of a bra, emphasising all aspects of femininity. Inspired by Mary Phelps Jacobs’ designs, she combined two crossed wipes, added a small tab at the front, thick shoulder straps and a comfortable clasp, creating a Kestos model unrivalled for nearly twenty years.
Invented in 1935, the elastic, lightweight and extremely durable nylon turned out to be the ideal material for sewing underwear.
The next lingerie revolution was made by Howard Hughes – an American billionaire, pilot and film producer (and at the same time the protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s famous film Aviator), who is 1940, for the actress Jane Russell, playing one of the main roles in The Outlaw, created a bra with reinforced cups, lifting and separating breasts. Hughes’ bold idea continues to inspire designers of women’s underwear to this day.
The year 1948 saw the first push-up bra, a model called Star, to enhance and lift breasts.
The 1950s was the time of the Triumph of the bardo, the heavily cut and underwired bra, which was the favourite underwear of the legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot, to whom she owes her name.
In 1964, American fashion creator Rudi Gernreich created No-Bra Bra, lingerie sewn from transparent materials.
During the moral revolution at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, the bras were regarded as a symbol of enslavement and were burnt during feminist demonstrations. However, they quickly returned to favour.
The next decade proved that lingerie also works well as a stage outfit. Created by Jean Paul Gaultier, the golden corset with a pointed bra became Madonna’s favourite stage costume during the legendary Blond Ambition tour.
In the 1990s, fashion designers repeatedly called for underwear to be displayed outside the bedroom. Jean-Paul Gaultier juxtaposed corsets with evening suits, Vivienne Westwood suggested wearing satin bras on blouses and dresses, and John Galliano convinced Princess Diana herself to wear one of her skimpy puppet dresses. Although such bold combinations continue to appear on fashion catwalks, it has already been proven many times that their use is entirely unsuitable for more official occasions.
It is impossible to list all the currently available models of women’s underwear. Such a rich offer undoubtedly makes it easier to make the most appropriate lingerie choices and thus avoids all fashionable incidents.