Undergarments or underwear have been coded as delicates, underthings, intimates unmentionables, and underclothes, suggesting the cultural mystique underpinning these most provocative and private garments. While men’s undergarments have remained relatively unchanged throughout most of the 20th century, women’s undergarments have shaped and reshaped women’s bodies since the dawn of fashion in the Middle Ages.
The influence of fashion on the shaping of women bodies is perhaps no better illustrated than by the case of the merry widow, a foundation garment that was invented for and worn by Lana Turner in the 1952 film bearing the same name. The merry widow foundation garment brought a renewed focus to the breasts while cinching the waistline, producing the ideal hour-glass figure popularized during the 1950s. The merry widow exemplifies the intertwined relationship of the American beauty industry, the fashion industry, and the American film industry, sometimes referred to as the beauty/fashion industrial complex.
Foundation garments like the merry widow structured external silhouettes by shaping women’s bodies from underneath. The New Look, designed by Christian Dior in 1947, was produced by foundation garments that sharply defined the breasts and narrowed the torso. In an effort to revamp the ideal feminine silhouette after World War II, Dior is said to have declared that without foundations, there could be no fashion. Hence, according to Dior, women’s fashion was dependent on foundation garments to fashion female bodies into desirable silhouettes. Other famous foundation garments include the corset, which until the 1920s reigned as the single most shape-enhancing garment in Western beauty and fashion culture from the 1350s onward.
The corset produced a myriad of figures throughout the centuries and tended to focus on the waist, although in some cases the hips and even the breasts were dramatically altered by the application of the corset. Fashioned on the Greek zoné or girdle, which shaped the lower torso, the corset similarly cinched the waist. Corsets were made of many materials, including steel and iron in the 16th century and heavy linen and whale bone in the 17th century. Whale bone continued to be the main material used in corsets until the 1929 invention of Lastex, a rubber elastic thread developed by the Dunlop Rubber Company. Corsets also came in many shapes, such as the swan-bill corsets of 1895 and the Edwardian s-bend corsets popularized by the Gibson Girl, which shaped women into the letter S. Straighter, longer corsets followed the s-bend corsets and hinted at the end of the Victorian era and the move toward more modern undergarments in the 20th century.
The all-in-one undergarment known as the corselette solved the figure dilemmas of 1920s woman who wanted to look like girlish imps in flapper apparel. By flattening the breasts, slimming the hips, and deemphasizing the waist, the corselette created a tubular effect. The ideal feminine flapper form was lithe, with graceful arms, legs, and collarbones all exposed, but this body ideal gave way to the more curvaceous and womanly figure of the 1930s.
In the United States, the silver screen goddesses Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo exemplified fashion’s ideal body, and Lastex made undergarments sleeker, more streamlined, and sexier without bumps or bulges. The motion picture industry glamorized and sexualized women’s bodies, figures, and silhouettes, and the bust again became a saleable commodity. Warner introduced cup sizing in 1935 and revolutionized the brassiere industry. Separating the breasts became a key focus of brassieres in the 1930s. DuPont’s invention of Nylon just before World War II foretold the role technology and manufacturing would play in developing stronger but lighter undergarments. The undergarment industry was poised for growth, but wartime production of parachutes, tents, and tarpaulins took precedence, and fashion waited until the war was over.
Foundations after World War II
With the end of World War II, inventions such as Nylon, Lastex, and power net could be brought to bear on women’s fashions and figures. Christian Dior’s New Look dominated postwar fashion. Women in the late ’40s and ’50s embraced the conical shaping of the breast. While technology in the form of foam rubber continued to contribute to bra padding, the use of wire and underwire to achieve conical breast shape intensified. Girdles and bras began to be worn in tandem in the 1950s, creating voluptuous figures.
The girdle, a cousin of the corset, is an elasticized or rubberized lightweight corset extending from waist to upper thigh. The girdle arrived along with an increase in women’s physical activity; however, the history of girdles has been somewhat tempestuous. They were simultaneously embraced and required in the ’40s and ’50s because they controlled jiggling and bulging while keeping stockings up. Fabrics such as Lastex, Nylon, and finally DuPont’s Lycra in 1959, increased the comfort, construction, and design of girdles during this time. Such new technologies spurred on by the progress of postwar industrialization showed up in an array of styles to fit the varying sizes of waists, thighs, and bottoms.
The end of the ’60s and early ’70s meant a decline in girdles and a virtual end to their prescribed rituals and practices. Although this garment underwent many changes—from open-bottom, to boy-leg, to panty-girdle; from rubber, to Lastex, to Lycra; from paneled, to single-seamed, to seamless—girdles continued to hold up stockings, flatten tummies, and shape American women for three decades. What happened in the late ’60s was a social upheaval, a feminist movement, and a fashion coup. Girls in particular wore dresses and girdles less often, preferring pants, pantyhose, and miniskirts, and many women flirted with the idea of wearing little or no underwear. The ’60s also signified a moment of social change in which the rules for everything from fashion to politics were broken. The decline of the girdle was part of this social change.
Breasts and Bras
Like the waist, breasts were constantly subjected to fashion’s ideal silhouette. While flapper’s breasts were flattened, Hollywood’s leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s allowed breasts to take center stage. Jane Russell’s appearance in the first ever cantilever-engineered wire bra in Howard Hughes’s then infamous 1943 film, The Outlaw, caused quite a stir. Hughes built a bra based on the theory that a bra is nothing more than a suspension bridge for the breasts. Russell has been said to have made a career of her breasts and appeared through the ’70s as the spokes model for Playtex’s 18 Hour Bra. Conical bras were replaced with cantilevered bras and other 1950s female movie stars followed Russell’s lead. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brigitte Bardot all rose to fame as their voluptuous figures projected fashion for the masses.
Like the fate of the girdle, the bra was threatened by dress reform in the late 1960s. Earlier dress reform movements, such as Amelia Bloomer’s 1851 promotion of bloomers, Turkish trouser–like pantaloons that gained popularity in the early 1900s when many women took up cycling as a leisure activity, would serve as a reminder of the relationship between women’s rights and gender-restricted dress. During the American women’s rights movement of the late 1960s and ’70s, many women sought to free themselves physically and metaphorically from the trappings of femininity. While bra burning was part of feminist protests and rallies, contrary to popular misconception, there were no bras burned at the 1968 or 1969 Miss America Pageant protests.
However, unlike the girdle, the bra survived the political, social, and cultural upheaval galvanized by the antiwar movement, the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement. The fitness craze of the 1970s kept women locked in the cult of the slender body launched by the 1960s model Twiggy. As breasts again came to be the focus of gendered fashion in the late 1980s and 1990s, push-up bras and breast implants rose to ascendancy while tall, narrow-hipped, broad-shouldered supermodels were in vogue.
Thong underwear, along with its closely related G-string, was once associated only with the risqué; yet, by the end of the 20th century it quickly became mainstream, but still controversial, fashion. Since the late 1990s, the underwear that literally hides in the crevasses of the body may not show panty lines, but the straps that follow the lines of the hips can be evocatively visible. Indeed, the first controversy to bring the thong to the attention of the masses came in 1998, when President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky received full media exposure, as did her admission of the thong’s flirtatious role in her tryst with the president. In 1999, what had been a relatively small share of the undergarment market witnessed a 100 percent increase. In 2000, for example, 40 percent of underpants sold at Victoria’s Secret were either thongs or G-strings. But the undergarment was also turning profits at stores that ranged from Macy’s to Kmart, suggesting a range of consumers that now considered thongs to be everyday apparel. So popular had undergarments become, that rhythm and blues artist Sisqo realized growing success with his pop chart simply titled “Thong Song.” While the 2000 hit song, just like the fashion statement, seemed to be everywhere in American culture, there were some limits with the consuming public. Indeed, in 2002, clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch faced a backlash after briefly attempting to market thongs to tweens, something that struck a nerve, especially with parents’ associations and Christian organizations. Finally, in 2005, the thong was again involved in a political scandal involving another tainted presidency. This time, the sensual garment became not a means to tease but to torture, designed to break Muslim detainees held at Abugraib. Mixing religion and sex, the underwear became a device of female interrogation that left much of the American public questioning military procedure and the ethics of the entire Bush administration. The thong is just one of many undergarments throughout history that has engendered controversy while exposing the contradictions that have given shape to society.