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Gendered Fashion, Power, and Sexuality

A History of Lingerie

From the Old French linge, meaning “linen,” the term “lingerie” was originally introduced into the English language as a euphemism for scandalous underclothing. While the actual term “lingerie” was not in widespread use until the late 1850s, lingerie as it implies general underclothing has a rich and elaborate history that consistently switches between the feminine and boyish as well as the painful and practical. From the laced corset “wasp waists” and “false buttocks” to the uplifted busts of the early 1990 supermodels, lingerie has helped define what it means to look beautiful while at the same time revealing a great deal about a society’s cultural and political values (Steele 2001). The history of lingerie, then, is a history of gendered fashion, power, and sexuality.

Ancient Lingerie: From Egypt to Rome

It is impossible to say exactly when the history of lingerie started, but it seems that the first record comes from ancient Egypt around 3000 B.C. In general, clothing was a status symbol for the Egyptians, and higher-ranking women would wear narrow tunics as undergarments that started below the chest, extended to the ankles, and were supported by a crosswise shoulder strap. Sometimes they would draw tunics around to the front of the body to mold the waist. Slave and servants wore no undergarments; they wore only simple loin cloths or went naked. Several female terra cotta figurines found throughout the ancient Near East appear to wear several different types of undergarments. One of them is a Babylonian girl from about 3000 B.C. who is wearing what might be considered briefs that look as though it could have been derived from the loin cloth. Another female figure from 2000 B.C., found in Crete, depicts the first recorded corset-like bodice and crinoline (a caged or hoped underskirt) that shoves the bare breast upward (Ewing 1972). Both are interesting in that they show similarities to lingerie eons later in the western world.

In classical Greece, several female statues wear a crossed band over their shoulders and across the breast, as in the famous statue of the charioteer at Delphi. The Odyssey and Iliad mention women’s undergarments, as does Herodotus, Aristophanes, and the later Hellenistic writer Lacian (Ewing 1972). In these texts, women are described as wearing a band of linen known as the zoné around the waist and lower torso to shape and control them. Other Greek words also appear to describe women’s undergarments, including the apodesmos (meaning a band, breast band, or girdle), mastodeton (or breast band, which actually flattens the bust) and, occasionally, mastodesmos (with a similar meaning) (Ewing 1972). These garments appear to presage the bra as well as the corset.

ancient bikinis
A famous Roman mosaic from A.D. 400 shows several women wearing what appear to be bikinis or briefs
Roman women followed Greek fashion closely. The Roman poet Martial describes a cestus, which is similar to the Greek zoné but wider, and Cicero also mentions a strophium or breast band. Other Roman terms describing women’s underclothing include the mamillere and fascia, which were tight bands of cloth that primarily supported the bust rather than the abdomen. A famous mosaic from A.D. 400 shows several women wearing what appear to be bikinis or briefs (Ewing 1972). For both the Greeks and the Romans, underclothing (which sometimes was worn as outer clothing as well) was designed more for function than exclusively aesthetic reasons.

Medieval Lingerie: The Chemise and the Corset Prototypes

During the Middle Ages, nobility wore linen clothes under expensive outer dresses to both protect their expensive clothes from dirty bodies and to provide a layer of warmth. Most noticeably, two enduring pieces of lingerie, the chemise (or smock) and later the corset, were introduced in the fourth and sixteenth centuries A.D., respectively. The chemise looked like a tunic that was gathered into a square or circular neck and was frequently embroidered. Typically women wore a chemise under petticoats and later corsets.

The prototype of the corset appears in a twelfth-century manuscript. This manuscript includes a depiction of the devil or “fiend of fashion,” represented as a woman (Steele 2001). The figure wears a tight-fitting bodice extending from the shoulder to below the waist and closely laced up in the front. While the figure is most likely wearing a tight-fitting bodice rather than a corset in its technical sense, the manuscript is notable in showing the increasing focus on displaying the body. In contrast to ancient dress, modern fashion as it emerged from Medieval Europe concerned itself with tailored clothing designed to follow the shape of the body, and women (as well as men) used tight-fitting undergarments to manipulate the shape of their bodies. For example, during the fourteenth century, women began wearing stiff linen under their bodice called a cotte, an early French word meaning “rib,” that flattened the breast. Woman used paste as stiffener between the two layers of linen to create a stiffer, harder bodice, creating the earliest form of the corset (Steele 2001).

Elizabethan Lingerie: Farthingales and Corsets

During the mid- and late-1500s skirts began to be made enormous by a “farthingale.” There were two types of farthingales, the Spanish and the French. The Spanish version probably started as a petticoat that was “boosted” by a series of graduated, corded hoops made out of cane, wire, or whalebone that accentuated a woman’s child-bearing attributes. During the late 1570s, the French version was introduced and it is the farthingale seen in many portraits of Queen Elizabeth. It consisted of a vast horizontal hoop worn at the waist but tilted down at the front to accommodate the elongated front of the stiffened bodice (Ewing 1972). Some Elizabethans wore a roll or sausage of stiffened material known as a “bum roll” around their waist and under their skirts to hold them out (Steele 2001). Fifteenth-century women also wore a “basquine” or “vasqine,” a laced bodice that a hooped skirt or farthingale was attached to.

The corset is aarguably the most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion
The corset, arguably the most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion, was officially introduced when women began inserting rigid materials such as whalebone into the “busk” or “basque” of cloth bodices in the late sixteenth century (Steele 2001). The basque was a slot down the center front of the corset that was thicker at the top than at the bottom and could extend from above the bust to the waist. It was sometimes decorated with amorous images and phrases and was often used as a lover’s token.

The corset was often referred to as a “stay,” meaning “support,” perhaps implying the female body was naturally weak (Steele 2001). Scholars often discuss both the status symbol of the corset as well as its erotic appeal in the way it exaggerates the curves of a woman by making the breasts and hips protrude in an hourglass shape. The lacing of the corset is also often symbolic of sexual intercourse, and some theorists argue that the corset was a surrogate for the body itself (Steele 2001). The corset has had many dissenters ranging from doctors who argued the corset was responsible for causing miscarriages and deformities to feminists who argue the corset effectively repressed and victimized women (Kunzle 2004).

The French Revolution: Its Revolt against Underwear

The French Revolution in the late 1700s also revolutionized women’s lingerie. French women begin discarding petticoats, corsets, and camisoles as symbols of French aristocracy in favor of the “un-corset,” or a type of corset without stiffening. In a deliberate return to classic Greece, the birthplace of the freedom that revolutionary France was proclaiming, women sometimes would wear a band wrapped around the body similar to the Greek zoné under slim, high-waisted muslins that echoed Grecian rounded breasts and well-rounded figures (Ewing 1972).

The Victorians: Lingerie Innovators

The 1800s marked the end of the Napoleonic wars and the return of the boned corset. The high-waisted neoclassical dress with no stays was regarded as being part of the discord and promiscuity of the revolutionary era and, consequently, corseted fashion again surged in popularity. From the end of French Revolution to WWI, the aristocratic body became transformed into the feminine ideal that applied to all classes. While the Victorians are often seen as modest and prudish, they were the great innovators of underwear--and, not surprisingly, today’s most famous lingerie line, Victoria’s Secret1, adopted the era’s name (Workman 1996).

For example, in 1829, the first steel-front busk fastening was created allowing women to put on or take off the corset without assistance. In 1830, the elastic corset was introduced offering more comfort. In the 1850s, the crinoline returned--though if a woman tripped and fell, the crinoline would embarrassingly spread out like 3-D fan, exposing her to all in her company (Steele 2001). Victorian England also introduced laced trimmings and embroidery, the frilled pantaloon, as well as the first silk underwear. The invention of steam molding and dye also allowed lingerie to be colored and ideally shaped.

Victorian fashion highlighted a woman’s body with exaggerated full sleeves, minuscule corseted waists, and whalebone hoops and crinolines covered with yards of fabric and enhanced by bustles. Taking it all off was quite a task, and both textual and visual accounts associate Victorian clothing with sexual anticipation (Kunzle 2004). Not surprisingly, this era spawned the first striptease shows. In 1876, garters that hooked to a woman’s stockings were invented and French dancers created great excitement when they showed glimpses of their garters stretched across their thigh. The garters were actually functional because they anchored the corset so that it could not ride up, allowing it to be worn in a less restrictive and tight manner (Steele 2001).

The invention of the bicycle and the walking dress in the Victorian age also spawned the creation of knickers and “drawers” that were attached individually to a deep waistband which fasted at the back. For the first time, women had a dual wardrobe and dual underwear, one for fashion and one for athletic pursuits (Ewing 1972).

Early Twentieth Century: From Corset to Brassiere

In contrast to the Victorian whalebone bodices and corsets, the early 20th century brassiere was soft, short, and gave a natural separation between the breasts
As women in the early 1900s participated in more sports and vigorous dancing, they began to throw out their corsets in favor of more comfortable brassieres. In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob, later known as Caresse Crosby, felt the corset was too restrictive for dancing in the nightclubs and claimed she invented the bra by tying two handkerchiefs together with ribbons. In contrast to the Victorian whalebone bodices and corsests, Jacob’s brassiere was soft, short, and gave a clear, natural separation between the breasts. She later sold the patent to Warner Brothers. The tango craze in 1915--as well as World War I and, to a lesser and indirect extent, the woman’s movement--encouraged the demise of the corset. The farewell to tighter garments, however, was short lived as woman turned to the girdle to achieve the long, lean, and androgynous clapper look of the 1920s.

After the war, however, and during the Great Depression, bosoms returned. The “bra,” a shortened from of “brassiere,” changed from flattening breasts in the 1920s to accentuating them. In 1935, Warner Brothers introduced cup sizes, which acknowledged that women come in all shapes and sizes. The “alphabet bra” consisted of four cup sizes: A, B, C, and D. Double-D came along later and Double-A later still (Ewing 1976). During World War II, materials used to make undergarments, such as steel and rubber, were in short supply, so manufactures turned to synthetic materials which would eventually lead to Lycra, rayon, and Lastex.

1950’s-1970: Hollywood’s Golden Age of Lingerie and Its Backlash

The 1950s brought engaging and amusing bras due in part to the film industry. Stars such as Lana Turner became known as the “Sweater Girl” because of her famous cone-shaped brassieres. Jane Russell even had a bra designed by aeronautical engineer Howard Hughes that famously accentuated her bust. The glamor of the 1950s once again valued the hourglass figure, and lingerie manufactures began to flourish and were soon launching their own brand names to build customer loyalty (Ewing 1972).

But the feminist and hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s denounced lingerie as conformist and artificial. Bras in particular were seen as restrictive, uncomfortable, and mendacious and, famously, bra burning became a symbol of women’s liberation. The 1960s brought back the young, free, androgynous figure of the 1920s with women often wearing skimpy briefs and little else which allowed them to wear mini skirts and jeans (Steele 2001).

1980s to Today: Technology and the Wonderbra

By the late 1970s, cleavage made a return and developments in technology and fabrics led to more intricate and mass-marketed lingerie, including the Wonderbra2 which gave a “push up and plunge” effect. During the 1980s, padded and wire bras became top-selling items. Victoria’s Secret and La Perla3 lingerie lines grew in popularity as women demanded a soft and sensual style.

Currently there is lingerie for all situations and intentions, including lingerie that is padded, gel-filled, air-filled, strapless, and backless. Also offered are the sexy thong, teddy, chemise, and peignoir as well as a plethora of everyday bras and panties. Contemporary lingerie can be whatever women want it to be. From “granny panties” to G-strings to fetish wear, women have more choices now than at any time in history (Kunzle 2004).

1Victoria’s Secret is a registered trademark of Victoria’s Secret Direct Brand Management, LLC.
2Wonderbra is a registered trademark of Hanesbrands, LLC.
3La Perla is a registered trademark of La Perla Group.

-- Posted February 22, 2008


Ewing, Elizabeth. 1976. Underwear: A History. New York, NY: Theatre Arts Books.

Kunzle, David. 2004. Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body—Sculpture. Thrupp, UK: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Steele, Valerie. 2001. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Workman, Nancy. 1996. “From Victorian to Victoria’s Secret: The Foundations of Modern Erotic Wear. Journal of Popular Culture. 30.2, 61-73.