The Life and Liberation of Lingerie: The Evolution of Intimate Apparel and the Ways Women Have Shaped It

Source:  Pablo Heimplatz

Guest Contributor Angela Roberts is a senior journalism major at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her passion for storytelling developed through a lifelong love of performing arts. An affinity for cultural exploration and a minor in Italian further influenced the way she views journalism. You can find Angela’s blog and social media work with Italy Travels, or read her History of a Song article in Mundane Magazine’s second issue.

The roots of lingerie are in the whale-bone corsets of the 17’ and 1800’s. They were made to augment the breasts and constrict the waist – morphing any woman who could afford it into the ideal female figure of the time. This figure labeled a woman as socially and sexually more desirable. By the 1800’s, corsets were so stiff and constricting they were actually damaging women’s bodies – weakening the back, shifting organs, and disrupting the digestive system. The mold of the corset was breaking the woman. So, women broke the mold.

In 1910, Mary Phelps Jacobs invented the bra, allegedly by tying two handkerchiefs together. The rigid, heavy, restrictive mold of the corset was shattered into the loose, comfortable and supportive design of the original brassiere. This revolution of the undergarment was formative in its evolution over the next few decades, and possibly fashion’s first foreshadowing to the flapper.

The flappers of the 1920’s took the break away from inflexible hour-glass shaped clothing to a new level. They embraced boxy, flowing, “boyish” styles, and brought the slip into the world. The slip became the anti-garment to the corset of the previous century. Loose, sleek and invisible under tube-like dresses, it formed the garment to the body rather than forming the body to the garment. This decade revolutionized and re-defined sexy.

Just like anything else, fashion and culture happen in cycles. By the 1950’s, sexy had morphed into the curve-crazed idolization of the pin-up girl – sporting form-fitting, hourglass styles of clothing reminiscent of the corset. Only this time, the garments were meant to be seen. The original pin-ups served as good luck charms, meant to bring our soldiers home from war, and were originally fairly innocent. But the image of the pin-up morphed into a national sex-symbol, and naturally into the portrayal of lingerie. Curvy and suggestively posed pin-up models starred in underwear advertisements and set the new standard for sexy.

Silk and lace were introduced to intimate apparel by French corset maker, Ada Masotti, who found the Italian luxury lingerie line La Perla. Such beautifully crafted intimate apparel was very high-end, and reserved only for special occasions. It reflected the style of the era while elevating it to a much more sophisticated kind of sexy.

The pin-ups remained America’s sex-symbols through much of the 60’s. But this was also the decade that transitioned the country into  the cries for peace and freedom heard throughout the 70’s. This transition was reflected in the styles of lingerie. In a sense, underwear disappeared altogether, with the burning of bras and invention of  Rudi Gernreich’s no-bra, introduced in ’65. Women wanted freedom in their lives and in their garments, completely abandoning the constraining fabrics and forms of the past.

Through much of the 70’s, silky and lacy lingerie remained a luxury reserved for special occasions and high-end brands. But in 1977, the world met Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret made elements of luxury lingerie, like padded satin bras and lacy thongs, affordable, accessible, and appropriate for every day.

The 1980’s saw a return of classic lingerie styles. With slight homage to the corset and the pin-up, teddies took the stage as the sexiest style of intimate apparel. These one-pieces were often lacy, silky and skimpy, featuring high-cut legs and sheer fabric. Through the 80’s and 90’s artists like Cher and Madonna made their lingerie legendary, sporting sexy bodysuits during shows that would later become iconic.

It is no secret that throughout history and still today, lingerie has been used to objectify women. The fingerprints of hyper-sexualized and unrealistic expectations are all over its progressive evolution, and have not yet been completely removed. But in every stage of this saga, women are behind the wheel of the movement, reclaiming the standards with their bodies and their bras. Women have been seen, over and over again, using lingerie as a tool for power and progress.

The revolutions and evolutions of lingerie made it accessible to any person today. Lingerie is modest and sexy, comfortable and edgy, simple and high-end – offering something to every person browsing through. Every limitation ever put on lingerie has been broken by designers or consumers along the way. Lingerie is limitless. So long as the world keeps changing and evolving, lingerie will too.