15 September 2010

History of Lingerie

Lingerie as we know it is a relatively recent concept. Your grandmother would probably never combine the word sexy and lingerie in the same sentence. In the early part of the 20th century, women’s underwear was designed for functionality rather than sensuality. No one, with the possible exception of a Moulin Rouge Can Can Dancer, bought underwear to be seen in it. Until 1960s, women’s underwear served three main purposes:
  • shape
  • hygiene
  • modesty
Corset and Girdle
Shape was provided by binding the body to compress it at the center and move flesh from the waist to the breasts and hips. From the 16th to the 19th century this was accomplished by the corset, a device that would squeeze a woman’s waist to as little as 16 or 17 inches (40 - 43 cm).  
Some women as well as men would practice “tight lacing”, a practice of training the body to accept progressively narrower binding and achieve an extremely exaggerated, hourglass shape as shown in th cartoon commentary from 1893 shown below. For many, however, the corset was painful and limited movement.
This cartoon about Tight Lacing Corsets was published in 1893

During the 1920s, the corset was gradually replaced by the girdle. The girdle also shaped the body, but used elastic material rather than bindings, which was much more comfortable and less extreme. The girdle was designed to smooth a woman’s body, and give it a more appealing line. The girdle either started at the shoulders as seen in the photo, or at the waist. It was closed by either hook and eye type closures (such as in modern day brassiers) or zippers as shown in the photo. At the bottom of the girdle were usually fasteners that clipped to stockings to hold them in place. By the 1960s the girdle gradually disappeared and was replaced by the panty girdle. The panty girdle was replaced by (control top) pantyhose which will be discussed in more detail below.
There is much controversy about who first invented the brassiere.  Henry Lesher is credited by some with patenting the first brassiere, in 1859. While his design looks more or less like a bra, (though the figure of the person wearing it hardly looks like a woman), he designed it primarily as a “breast pad and perspiration shield”. While it was also designed to “give a symmetrical rotundity” it was not intended for breast support. (click to see Henry Lesher's patent ) Many attribute the invention of the modern brassiere to Mary Phelps Jacob mostly because her patent was the first to use the french word "brassiere".  Her invention was backless and was held in place by straps which wrapped around the woman and tied in front. But, as she writes in her patent description, on February 12, 1914 her invention was meant to be worn with evening gowns that were cut low in the back and was intended to “cover the top of the corset and hold the wearer in proper form”. Again, she did not mention breast support. (click to see Mary P. Jacob's patent) Still others believe that the brassiere was invented by Herminie Cadolle in 1889. Interestingly the company she founded, Cadolle Paris, is still in existance today, but no mention of Herminie’s invention is made on the company website. When contacted for comment or information, the company did not respond. Marie Tucek patented a breast supporter in 1893. While the design appears very similar in design to the modern day brassiere, there are some design flaws. Marie Tucek's garment was never marketed and would probably not have been very successful if it had been. (click to see Marie Tucek's patent)

Olivia P. Flynt writes in her patent application on January 10 1876 (38 years before Jacob, 17 years before Tucek and 13 years before Cadolle), that her invention is “specially designed as a bust support and improver”…”preserving and producing a more comely outline and comfortable feeling than the corset”. She further writes “this garment is specially adapted to ladies having larger busts, and will be used instead and take the place of a corset, thereby enabling beauty of form to be used instead and taking the place of a corset”. “The garment sustains the bust from the shoulders….and holds or presses up the lower portion of the bust”. (click to see Oliva P Flynt's patent) The woman was describing not only the first brassiere, but also the modern day bra. It is obvious that Olivia Flynt in 1876 envisioned and invented the modern day brassiere! Olivia was the holder of no less than 6 clothing patents and was a successful manufacturer of women’s undergarments.

Until 1970s, women’s underpants (panties in America, knickers in England) served one main purpose: protection and cleanliness of the outerwear. Neither sexy nor attractive, they were originally designed to be functional. In the 1800’s they were called ‘drawers’. Some drawers were full body outfits; others just came to the waist.  Usually the longer type had convenient flaps in the backs, as shown in the photo, so that the wearer did not have to get undressed when using the toilet.
Drawers and knickers had one thing in common that is almost unknown today; the underwear extended down to cover a part of the thigh as can be seen in this 1935 ad for Vanity Fair panties where three thigh lengths are offered.
As time went on, ladies underwear became smaller and smaller. First, the thigh covering became shorter and shorter until by the 1950s they completely disappeared and the panty was born. But even then panties were large, baggy and unattractive as can be seen in this 1956 ad for Lollipops ladies ‘briefs’. By the 1960s, companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood started to glamorize lingerie. In this ad from 1961, the string panty is clearly seen.
Though not a common place item for many decades to come the string, or glamour string as Frederick's called it, is proof that lady's underwear have gone from full body covering to the barest of essentials. Where will they go from here?
The miracle of the pantyhose is that it combined for the first time, the panty and stockings into one garment. Until the late 1950’s the girdle got smaller and lighter, but stockings were a separate item, to be clipped to a garter belt or girdle as seen in this 1953 ad for Silf Skin panty girdles.
In 1959, Glen Raven combined the panty with the stockings and created the first pantyhose as can be seen in their ad below which states “it is September 1964 and you are still struggling with garters? Isn’t it time you tried Glen Raven Panti-Legs?”


  1. Great blog Terrence. It is fun and beautiful to look at ads of Lingerie from the past, and great to learn how many came about. There are many stories of this, so it is enough of a big topic for so many to join in on.
    We hope to see more on this, especially sheer Pantyhose. (My boyfriend and I Luv sheer Pantyhose!)
    - Lindsay & erik

  2. Hello, do you know where the Glen Raven Ad came from? Which publication it was in?

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