Eve may have cornered the market on fig leaves, but women’s underwear has come a long way since she tempted Adam with the forbidden apple. Going back to the days of the pharaohs, loincloths were the first recorded undergarment (aside from fig leaves) worn by women. The cloth was wrapped around the hips, through the legs, and often made of cotton or silk. Even thousands of years ago, women loved the feel of luxurious textiles against their skin.
In Ancient Greece, women wore the first pre-cursor to the modern day bra called an “apodesmos,” which was a piece of cloth wrapped around the chest and pinned in the back. Similarly, Rome had the “fascia”, a garment that flattened the breasts because their culture considered large breasts to be unattractive. Oh, how times have changed!
The Crusades came in the early 11th century and lasted through the 15th century, with women playing an active role. Whether for military purposes, spreading Christianity, or gaining territory for the Roman Empire, the Crusades were a dangerous time. As warriors, recruiters, and supporters, women were intimately connected to the Crusades, and with these new roles came the need for new undergarments. The e made its debut in this time, and was designed to keep sweat and body oils off outer garments.
Chemises were worn by both men and women, made from silk, satin, or cotton. They also served as nightgowns and looked similar to the Roman tunics from which the design originally came. This fashion lasted through the Middle Ages until the dawn of Enlightenment.
At this same time in history, the “dudou” was gaining popularity. This bib-type garment was the precursor to the bra and minimized the breasts. Chinese culture valued the boyish figure, as opposed to the more curvaceous one found in Europe.
Petticoats were firmly established in fashion by the mid to late 1500s. Used both for warmth and creating the desired shape of a dress, petticoats were worn under a dress to create a bell-shape, depending on the width of the petticoat. In the pre-Civil-War south, women wore multiple petticoats to create the wide hooped look which enhanced their corseted tiny waists.
In the 1950s, petticoats were shortened to a fun, flirty length and worn under poodle skirts. These shapely undergarments are still worn today, usually to enhance the silhouette of bridal gowns.
The corset has its own unique history, beginning in the Renaissance and spanning 5 centuries. They are still used today, though not as vociferously. When the corset first came to be fashionable, it was not a required garment. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the stays were a stiffened undergarment worn to create an almost conical shaped figure, flattening the breasts as opposed to pushing them up.
For a brief period, dresses came with almost built-in corsets, as the material was extremely stiff and bodices were made to fit snugly on a woman’s figure.
As time wore on, the waist slid higher, known as the “empire” waist during Elizabethan times. The old style of corset didn’t work with this look, so the new version took on more of a bra-style, with individual cups lifting and separating the breasts as its main function.
Cruising into the mid-eighteenth century we find the waist returning to its normal place with the corset shape we know and love today. Back then, corsets were worn to create tiny waists, while pushing the breasts up and together, which could create an hourglass shape on almost any size of woman. However, the trend of wearing a corset as tight as possible could make them detrimental to ones health. Around this time in history, fainting couches were more of a necessity than a luxury, because women could not breathe deeply enough to bring oxygen to their brain which often caused fainting spells.
Thankfully, today’s version of the corset is much more comfortable and has no real health repercussions. They offer support and slim the waists without suffocating the wearer. They come in a wide variety of designs, fabrics, and styles. Whether you fancy darker, sexier, and richer materials or favor the light, pastel, and soft fabric, you can find something to suit your desire.
Another fashion of the 1800’s was the “pantalet.” Often confused with pantaloons or bloomers, these were worn to cover the ankles of ladies, as dresses were worn higher on the leg at this time. The pantalets had lace hems and offered a touch of elegance when peeking from under the long dresses. In contrast, bloomers were baggy pants often worn by more radical women. Interestingly enough, bloomers gained more popularity and were later worn by men for activities such as bike riding.
Moving forward through history, the Roaring Twenties came flying in on the heels of World War I and, with it, women’s rights and lingerie. Women were becoming more free thinking and beginning to take the first steps in embracing their sexuality. This change in women’s perspective opened up avenues not only for equal rights, but creativity in the underwear industry.
These women had a freer sense of sexuality and wanted the underwear to match. The lingerie designed in this era is stunning, made of rich fabrics such as satin, lace, and silks. The goal was comfort, not constriction, which matched the attitude of women in this era.
During this time the bandeau bra and camiknickers were extremely popular, because of their softness. The bandeau bra was a comfortable piece of cloth worn to flatten breasts, as the boyish figure was still in style. Camiknickers were essentially rompers, worn under dresses instead of bras and panties.
In the 1930s, women finally began to wear pants which meant a new type of underwear was needed- girdles. These girdles were actually shorts that gave women a smooth shape in their new, bold step to fashion equality. Girdles of this era were made from rubber, which might be somewhat comfortable, but certainly not breathable.
In 1947 Frederick Mellinger revolutionized women’s underwear. He opened a boutique on Hollywood Boulevard called “Frederick’s of Hollywood.” and introduced the country to both black lingerie and the very first push-up bra. His philosophy was that lingerie should make a woman feel right in her body Celebrities flocked to his store which made other women began want to shop there as well- the rest is history.
As we move forward to the 1950s, we would be remiss if we didn’t touch upon garters and stockings, the precursor to pantyhose. Men were the first to wear stockings, typically knee length and tied off with a beautiful piece of embroidery. As tunics became shorter, the hose eventually went all the way up to waist high.
Conversely, women wore socks up until Queen Elizabeth I received her first pair of silk knee high stockings in 1560. Even still, silk stockings were a luxury that many could not afford. The combination of stockings and garters didn’t really take hold until the 1800s. Even then, it was not wildly popular, considering all the other layers of undergarments women wore then.
However, in the early 20th century, fashions became much simpler, and stockings were needed for warmth when bare legs were exposed. In 1959, Allen Gant Sr. invented pantyhose, which were an effective solution to the panty-garter-stocking combination. He simplified the design, creating one garment that comprised hose and panty together.
Along with pantyhose, the 1950s brought bikini briefs and bullet bras. Women were really beginning to own their sexuality and loving the freedom of wearing undergarments for comfort.
Bullet bras were designed to create shape and no pin-up model was caught without one. They cone style cups were extremely comfortable and fit many breast sizes without the need for additional padding or material like underwires.
You may find it hard to imagine today, but before the 1970’s women used worked out in their regular bras.
It wasn’t until 1977 that Lisa Lindahl designed the first sports bra, called the “jockbra”, which was invented by putting two jock straps together. Sounds odd, but we all love the design result! Finally, women could work out with support and comfort.
Brazil revolutionized the underwear world in the 1980s by releasing the thong. This style became very popular as they didn’t show panty lines when wearing tight fitting clothes. Thongs come in a wide variety of colors and fabrics, from silk to cotton, and everything in between. The rage with thongs carried through into the nineties and they are still popular today.
While Frederick Mellinger created the original push-up bra, the Victoria Secret’s Miracle Bra revolutionized the bra-world once again in the 1990s. These bras changed women’s lingerie because it gave women with smaller size breasts an opportunity to fill out their figure, and women who are well endowed got a lift. Truly a winning design.
All of the styles and modifications through history led us to the development of Spanx. Every prior piece of lingerie helped to shape women’s bodies, whether comfortably or painfully. Spanx developed into shapewear for all women of every size who are looking for a smooth silhouette under their clothes. They can be worn every day or just for special occasions as they are very versatile and come in a wide array of styles.
Today, underwear has become outwear in many ways. It isn’t unusual or unheard of to see a woman in a sports bra and leggings at the supermarket, or a version of the old chemise being used as a dress by adding a belt. From modesty to hygiene, lingerie has offered women throughout history the ability to express their sexuality in whatever style they deem fit.