Ancient Greece to the present day

For thousands of years, women’s underwear has served to transform the female body both for functional purposes and to cater to contemporary beauty standards. It is a story of changing fashions and evolving social mores.

The story starts way back in the Bronze Age. Although modern bras are a relatively new invention, women have been wearing garments to support their breasts since ancient times. Minoan cave paintings in Crete dating as far back as 3000 BC show women wearing a piece of cloth wrapped around their breasts and fastened at the back with pins. 

Known as an apodesmos, this item of clothing shows that something resembling the modern bra has been around for several thousand years, though it is unclear whether they were everyday wear or for special rituals and ceremonies. Most people at the time would have worn very little.

Since the materials used have not survived the centuries, the only source for ancient clothing is artistic depictions such as the Minoan cave paintings. As far as we can tell the apodesmos was confined to Crete as there is no evidence of women from other Greek civilisations wearing anything to support their breasts. 

The Romans

Fashions changed slowly in the ancient world but fast-forward several millenia and the proto-bra makes its next appearance among the Romans. Back then large breasts were considered unattractive, so Roman women would wear a tight-fitting strophium or mamillare to keep their breasts in check. These garments also served a functional purpose, which can be seen in the famous mosaics from the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily. 

Situated just outside the town of Piazza Armerina in the heart of Sicily, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has one of the finest and largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world.

The mosaics date from the 3rd/4th century AD, and in a room called the Chamber of the Ten Maidens or the Room of Gymnasts are spectacular images of women athletes competing in ball games, running, weight-lifting and throwing the discus.

Room of Gymnasts, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily

Their chests are bound with the strophium - call it an early sports bra – and their two-piece outfits look remarkably similar to a modern-day bikini. In fact the Villa Romana athletes are often referred to as the bikini girls.

The victor (centre) is crowned by an official in toga (left). Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily

The Invention Of The Chemise (Shift)

 After the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval Europeans adapted the Roman tunic or tunica to create the chemise or shift, which became the standard undergarment. 

The chemise survives today as a delicate garment for women usually worn as nightwear but at the time it was worn by both men and women and its function was to protect their more expensive outerwear from bodily sweat and oil. Often made from thick fabric to ensure they could last a long time, the chemise could be washed regularly unlike outer garments and other clothes.

As a form of underwear, the chemise was worn in Europe from the Middle Ages until the 18th century. Although chemises had been worn as outerwear by the wider population in England and France during hot summer months, in the 1780s, Queen Marie Antoinette of France was depicted wearing what came to be known as the chemise a la reine (Queen’s chemise) or the robe en chemise (chemise dress), made from a similar cut and material but with a waistline and longer skirts so it could be worn as outerwear. 

Marie Antoinette caused a bit of a scandal in French society by wearing such a loose-fitting outfit in public, and the Queen was sent to the guillotine in 1793 for her bold fashion statements. 

During the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era, women’s dresses became increasingly lighter, leaving little to the imagination. Princess Catherine Bagration, the wife of Russian war hero Prince Pyotr Bagration, shocked Viennese society by appearing in translucent gowns which earned her the nickname ‘the naked angel.’

While the chemise dress prospered following the French Revolution, its popularity as underwear declined in the early 1800s, only making a resurgence in the late 20th century.

Who Invented The Corset?

While the chemise was typically loose fitting and its purpose was largely functional, the corset was very much the opposite. For several centuries, girls and young women from certain Caucasian tribes have been wearing corsets from childhood until their wedding day.

The corsets helped them maintain a thin figure but also served a ritual purpose when women were married. Some of these corsets had as many as fifty laces. After her wedding night the bride would have to present the corset intact to demonstrate the groom had exhibited self-control in the marital bed by carefully undoing every lace.

Originally known as ‘bodies’ and later ‘stays,’ corsets were introduced into Europe by Catherine de Medici, a 16th century Queen of France whose other hobbies included massacring Protestants. The ladies of the French court duly followed their Queen’s example and established a new beauty standard.

These type of corsets were tight fitting laced bodices which served to shape the torso into an inverted cone and raise the waistline. They were typically accompanied by a farthingale which supported skirts with a stiff cone, creating a symmetrical effect.

Until the 1800s, corsets could be worn both as underwear and outerwear. Although corsets were primarily worn by aristocratic women, it was not uncommon for their male peers to also wear them. 

As was so often the case with European fashion, where France led the rest of Europe followed. While the earlier corsets were made with layered fabric to maintain their shape, over the 17th and 18th centuries they commonly incorporated frame made from whalebone or wood.

In spite of their reputation for being restrictive, well-fitted corsets were comfortable and did not prevent the wearer from breathing normally or from carrying out their everyday duties, though they did prevent them from bending down.

19th Centurys Onwards

By the end of the 18th century, corsets replaced chemises as the primary form of underwear. Longer corsets were replaced with ‘short stays’ which were less restrictive and did not extend far beyond the breasts. 

It was only under the Victorians that tight-fitting corsets were introduced to create a narrow waist and the iconic hourglass shape. This was also when the term ‘corset’ replaced ‘stay’ in the English language to describe this type of clothing.

With the advent of industrialisation, the whalebone frames were replaced with those of steel. Previously handmade, corsets could also be machine-produced using looms. Both these factors made corsets cheaper and accessible to a larger number of people, who were now able to follow the latest fashions. Not everyone was impressed with these developments.

On the one hand, women’s rights advocates saw the corset as restrictive of women’s freedom and an imposition by patriarchal society. On the other hand, Victorian moralists believed that women who wore corsets were frivolous and damaging their health for the sake of their vanity.

Such opposition usually fell on deaf ears, and corsets remained popular as female underwear until the turn of the 20th century.

When Did Women Stop Wearing Corsets?

The decline of the corset was in part thanks to the First World War. In 1917 the US War Industries Board encouraged women to give up their corsets to free up metal for the war effort. In all 28,000 pounds of steel was collected from corsets, enough for two battleships. 

What Is A dudou?

The history of lingerie is not restricted to Europe. The origins of the Chinese dudou is sometimes credited to Yang Guifei, beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (8th century AD) and one of the fabled Four Beauties in Chinese history. Literally translated as ‘stomach band,’ the dudou is a rhomboid piece of fabric worn around the neck which drapes over the breasts and hangs over the belly tied round the back.

It was only at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, around the time of the Black Death, when the dudou became universally popular. They are usually made from bright red or pink fabric decorated with flowers, scenes from Chinese legends, and other auspicious motifs. It is likely that they initially served a medicinal purpose as they would include small pockets for herbs which were understood to protect against diseases. Their efficacy against coronaviruses is unknown.

The popularity of the dudou as an undergarment declined alongside the Qing Dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century, when the new Chinese Nationalist government sought to encourage the Chinese population to follow western fashions.

In 1927 it was officially banned as underwear and continued to be suppressed during the communist era. In recent years the dudou has enjoyed a resurgence both in China and further afield. By the turn of the 21st century, Chinese stylists, presumably bored of the Mao suits, began to create outerwear inspired by the dudou.

As with the chemise in late 18th century France, this practice of wearing undergarments in public has attracted criticism from more conservative sections of society, though as far as we know nobody has been guillotined for it. Yet. 

Who Invented The Bra?

Whether in China, Europe, or North America, since the beginning of the 20th century the most common form of bust support for most women in the world is the bra. Bras, or brassieres, began to appear in Europe at the end of the 19th century but were not particularly popular. 

In the United States, the invention of the bra is usually credited to American socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, known later in life as Caresse Crosby. At a debutante ball in 1914, she had worn a stiff corset and cover which poked through her gown. 

The quick-thinking young lady asked her maid to bring her two handkerchiefs and some ribbon and sewed it to make a simple brassiere. The other ladies were impressed by how flexibly she could move and immediately asked her to make them bras too. Crosby patented the design for her ‘backless brassiere’ and started a small business. 

Though the business failed and she was persuaded by her husband to sell the patent, women quickly flocked to bras with the wartime metal shortage. Early bras were one size fits all, made from stretchable material to fit different cup sizes.

The A to D cup system was invented in the late 1920s. By the 1930s the introduction of the elastic strap further fuelled the bra industry. Bras became more widely adopted during the Second World War when women working in factories were given standardised bras as part of their uniform.

In spite of radical feminist ‘bra burnings’ of the 1960s, the bra remains popular among women and is worn by 95% of women in the western world.

In terms of the history of lingerie over the course of the 20th century, the bra is only half the story – more precisely the top half. Following the decline of corsetry at the beginning of the century, women turned to the girdle to shape their waists.

Technological innovation in the form of elasticated materials helped to maintain body shape without boning. Manufacturers were keen to emphasise the flexibility offered by girdles in their advertising. Thus, the girdle and the bra effectively fulfilled the same functions as the corset but allowed for greater comfort and flexibility. 

In spite of this, by the 1960s the girdle was already seen as too restrictive, and unlike the bra, many women decided to cast away their girdles and replace them with pantyhose or tights made of nylon.

Tights had already been around from the early 20th century, but were mainly restricted to sporting and athletic events. When the 1960s rolled around, tights were enthusiastically adopted by young women seeking greater freedom of expression.

As always, more conservative sections of society initially mocked women wearing tights for being “dressed like fugitives from kindergarten.” It took less than a decade for them to become universally popular among women of all ages.  

Lingerie continues to evolve as it has always done so in the past – as a response to evolving social norms, the position of women in society, and contemporary standards of beauty.

What is considered shocking and avant garde today might be completely ordinary in less than a decade. While some women have eschewed the bra altogether, modern lingerie trends are also catering for a greater range of body shapes and sizes as cup sizes expand further along the alphabet.

Meanwhile, many leading lingerie brands have turned to history to offer a modern twist on chemises and corsets. Some niche brands are even making lingerie for men.

With the growth of online shopping, consumers all over the world regardless of gender or age now have an ever-increasing range of fashionable lingerie to choose from, not only to impress their partners but to feel more positive about themselves.

And that cannot be a bad thing.   

April 23, 2024
Tags: Blog