A woman’s form can be altered by what she wears underneath. Corsets and other types of undergarments and shapewear create an illusion that the wearer presents to the world.
Despite the possible physical damage caused by restricting undergarments, ladies of all social classes have worn corsets and other means of shapewear
over the centuries achieving desirable silhouettes in observance of current trends.
As the silhouettes of outerwear have evolved throughout history, so too have undergarments in order to complement those styles. From restrictive and shaping to push-up and barely there, take a peek underneath and see how women’s intimate wear has evolved….
ANCIENT ROME (753 BC - 476 AD):
Women wore undergarments including a “tunica” and “strophium” (bandeau style bra) made of linen, which emphasized the ideal feminine figure of small chest and large hips.
MIDDLE AGES (500 - 1500 AD)
Women wore corset-like outerwear to enhance their figures. Woolen hosiery was worn under dresses and chemises. Teasingly, wealthy women would wear bracelets to match their unseen garters.
RENAISSANCE (1300 - 1700 AD)
The favored female silhouette featured a pushed-up bust and wide hips emphasized with a full skirt. Laced corselets and stiffened bodices were worn to achieve this specific shape.
1500 - 1600
Corsets made their first real appearance during this period. The farthingale also came into fashion, which was another type of undergarment used to create a specific shape of the female form. It cinched to a woman’s waist and spread the skirts wide, creating highly exaggerated hips.
The 1700s corset was long-waisted and in the shape of an inverted cone, imposing an even more constricting shape. The wealthiest and most fashionable women had corsets that pulled together their shoulder blades so closely that they would nearly touch. Although prostitutes began wearing them during this time, panties were not yet adopted by the mainstream as they are today.
The corset took on a new shape and was used to emphasize the hourglass shape with a very small waist. Corsets were made in beautiful colors with silks and satins and included garter clips at the bottom. Following the onset of crinoline in the 1850s, women wore drawers that extended to below the knee.
During the time of Intimate Apparel, the corset was still an essential part to a woman’s wardrobe, but also started to be thought of as standalone lingerie as much as an essential part of an outfit. (In the play, Mrs. Van Buren orders revealing corsets and undergarments from Esther and says she feels like a “tart from the Tenderloin”—an expression of forbidden desire.) The corset took on an extremely exaggerated “S-curve” shape, which created a very feminine shape. Silk became a popular fabric for corsets during this period.
After WWI, the corset’s popularity began to decline. As hemlines rose, underwear also became shorter and smaller. With the progress of women’s suffrage in 1920, many young women embraced a new sense of freedom and created an androgynous silhouette that featured bobbed pageboy-style hair and flattened busts with boyish hips.
After WWII, underwire bras grew in popularity and the “bullet bra” was introduced (remaining popular through the 1950s).
Women’s underwear emphasized the bust instead of the waist and the popular bikini brief was introduced. The “Pin-up Girl” displayed an overt acceptance of women pictured in lingerie. These models showed off the latest underwear trends (seamed stocking, bustiers) and embraced the curvy female figure.
Bras ablaze! The “bra-burning feminist” became something of a legend during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s.
Victoria’s Secret was introduced to the world as a destination retailer of women’s premium lingerie.
“Underwear” became “outerwear” and was worn by stars such as Cher in her infamous g-string bodysuit.
The “Wonder bra” (while first introduced in the 1930s) became popularized with a push-up design intended to enhance sex appeal.
Spanx, a slimming underwear brand, was introduced and quickly became a modern day shapewear essential.
Recent years have brought a shift towards more diversity and body positive thinking in lingerie.
Learn more in the Intimate Apparel Program and Play Guide.