From corsets to cone bras: an undergarment retrospective

5th Mar 2019


It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s take a brief pictorial of the evolution of our undergarments! Since ancient Greece, women have been looking for ways to support, constrain, or enhance our body parts. Back then, the method of choice was wrapping the breasts with a band of wool or linen that was tied or pinned in the back. It’s taken a while, but thankfully over the years we’ve gotten a bit more comfortable (and stylish)!

1 Stays/Corsets 1500s-1700s: Over the centuries, corsets incorporated different materials, from wood to metal to animal bones. Their purpose, however, stayed the same: whalebone corsets were designed to mold the ‘ideal’ body form of a tiny waist and pushed up breasts. Sound familiar? 500 years later, and that ‘ideal’ hasn’t changed much.

2 Corset 1800s: Comfort was still not a consideration; the S-curved corset pushed the breasts forward and arched the chest back to accentuate the hips.  Undergarments for women at this time were generally about knee length and open crotch, as between corsets and petticoats, most women couldn’t pull down their drawers to use a chamberpot. When more rowdy dances like the cancan became popular in the 1850s, buttons started to appear to hold the drawers closed. Medical men at the time advised against this, believing that our lady bits required constant fresh air to prevent dampness and hysteria (symptoms of which included 'excessive vaginal lubrication' and 'erotic fantasy'.)

3 Lingerie- In the late 1800s/early 1900s English couturier Lady Duff-Gordon popularized less restrictive corsets and more alluring lingerie using lace, chiffon, and crepe-de-chene materials. Her disdain for boned corsets and wired underskirts drove her to craft sheer, provocative lingerie, designed to heighten sensuality. Also worth noting: she survived two shipwrecks, including the Titanic!

The shift toward the sexier lingerie we’re used to today seemed to be a teeny bit slow to catch on, as one female fashion journalist wrote in 1902, "'Lovely lingerie' does not belong only to the fast…. dainty undergarments are not necessarily [sic] a sign of depravity. The most virtuous of us are now allowed to possess pretty undergarments, without being looked upon as suspicious characters”. 

Note to self: Just learned that three adjectives to describe 1800s me would have been hysterical, suspicious, and depraved. Three cheers for progress!

4 Bra- invented by Mary Phelps Jacobs in 1914. Her design consisted of two silk handkerchiefs tied together with ribbon, and separated each breast rather than pushing them together, as corsets had spent the last few hundred years doing. Finally, no more uniboob!

5- Bras and Bloomers- The 1930s and 40s brought the first underwire bra, patented by Pauline Boris in 1938, and started to phase out the longer legged bloomers in favor of the traditional panty we’re familiar with today.

6- Lingerie- Thea Tewi, a metal and stone sculptor, turned to designing lingerie in the 1940s and won the Neiman Marcus fashion award in 1945. The Detroit Free press described her lingerie as “naughty nice” and featuring “daring cuts”. She was named America’s top lingerie designer in 1947. Two of her garments are featured in The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Costume Institute, including this silk and lace slip called “Ripe Roses”.

7- Bullet bra- The 1950’s conjures up images of pin ups with seamed stockings, bustiers and corselets. Women were beginning to own their sexuality, and the cone shaped cups of the bullet bra certainly highlighted and enhanced our curves!

The bra took many looks over the decades, from the conical looks of the 50s, to the free bra era of the 60s and 70s, to Cher and Madonna popularizing lingerie as outerwear in the 80s and 90s.

Today lingerie is more accessible than ever for women of all body types. Body positivity is finally taking center stage, and we're here for it! At Levana Bratique, we love changing lives, one bra at a time!