Focus: Underwear

Henri de Montaut, Les etudes sur les Femmes. Plate XVII: Avant et apres le corset, 1882. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951. (51.624.3)

Henri de Montaut, Les etudes sur les Femmes. Plate XVII: Avant et apres le corset, 1882. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951. (51.624.3)

People who don’t necessarily understand fashion and its history could have always thought of underwear as something you wear to hold your boobs up and protect your, let’s call it “intimate region”, from direct contact with your clothes. That was true for a while since long before knickers, boilable linen (“linge” in French, hence “lingerie”) was worn next to the skin to protect valuable outerwear from soiling. What people fail to realise, though, is that underwear plays and has played a critical part in shaping (pun intended) the way our bodies look and feel. Underwear evokes style, desire, luxury, body manipulation, reform, and innovation.

If we look at the fashion of the past 100 to 150 years, it is evident that body shapes were played with to adapt to the fashion of the day. The only way this was possible is through one’s undergarments.

▽ The Bra

On May 30, 1889, 127 years ago, Herminie Cadolle filed a patent for a prototype of the modern brassiere. Essentially she cut the corset in two, attaching straps to the top portion. Within two decades the new undergarment was being marketed alone as the soutien-gorge.

Cadolle’s invention, which she called the bien-être, was exhibited at the Great Exposition of 1900, but IRL it was meant to remain invisible. This remained the case for about the next 60 years. (

first bra

It appears the push-up bra dates all the way back to 1880. A padded brassiere, discovered in storage at the Science Museum, in London, is believed to be the first breast enhancer, designed to give women a more shapely bust in the same way as a modern-day Wonderbra.

▽ Corsets

The big story is corsets. All women wore these stiff, complex whale-boned structures, so the many on show correspond to changing fashions. The early 19th century ones are cute and light, for Jane-Austenesque dresses, but by 1850 they are “hourglass”.

An 1864 baby-blue silk one and a shocking pink 1890s one are dazzling. Three X-rays show corset-deformed ribs. Even pregnant women wore them; while a rare working woman’s massive, grubby one looks made from corrugated iron.

From the Twenties, women wanted a youthful, fluid look, which new elastic fibres (1931 Lastex; 1958 Spandex) supplied, as girdles and bras.


Corset styles from 1900 to 1919

▽ Timeline

Underwear was originally designed to serve several purposes – changing a woman’s shape, preserving her modesty and for hygiene reasons.

Women have worn rib-crushing corsets, bandaged their chests to get an androgynous silhouette and burned their bras as a statement of liberation

The history of lingerie reveals a lot about women’s changing role in society – how we perceive ourselves and how we’re viewed by others.

It’s fascinating to see how lingerie has changed over the last hundred years, but even more intriguing to note what’s stayed the same – a bra from the noughties bears an uncanny resemblance to one from 1930, while an image of Isabel Black in 1967 could have been shot today.

 ▽ Underwear outerwear

Underwear as outerwear was presented in 1968.

In Paris, Emanuel Ungaro presented an ensemble that included an armor-like metal bra at the same time that Yves Saint Laurent shocked with his sheer “birthday suit” looks.

In Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Miss America pageant, women’s liberators reportedly protested by burning their bras. The New York Times confirmed in 1970 that no bra = women’s freedom.

Madonna, in her “Like a Virgin” phase, ushered in the era of visible bras—and bra straps—before co-opting Jean Paul Gaultier’s postmodern takes on the corsets and the 1950s cone bra for her Blond Ambition tour.

Gianni Versace would titillate the fashion crowd with his provocative 1992 Miss S&M collection.

This continued with Gwen Stefani, and I remember when she came out dancing in her bra, even little 10-year-old me was perplexed. And this kept going to get to where we are now, with our Rihanna’s and Miley Cyrus’ that just took it a bit too far for my taste. In an age when the “naked dress” is de rigueur red carpet fare, there’s something retro—dare we say modest—about an exposed bra.

Indeed, in an age when the “naked dress” is de rigueur red carpet fare, there’s something retro—dare we say modest—about an exposed bra. We found a way to make it less provocative and classier.


▽ Exhibition

The V&A is currently exhibiting underwear in its exhibition: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, highlighting the enduring themes of innovation and luxury. From the custom-made, such as a rare example of home-made ‘stays’ worn by a working woman in England in the 18th-century, to pieces by current designers including Stella McCartney, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith, the exhibition explores the relationship between underwear and fashion. It also covers notions of the ideal body, and the ways that cut, fit, fabric, and decoration can reveal issues of gender, sex and morality. (Saturday 16 April 2016 – Sunday 12 March 2017)

▽ Wishlist

There is no denying that women love underwear, and I could never pretend that I don’t. Beautiful underwear has a way of making a girl feel like a woman. It was Jane Birkin that once said: “My mother was right: When you’ve got nothing left, all you can do is get into silk underwear and start reading Proust.”

Here is my personal selection of underwear a woman must have in her drawers, with a couple of Coup de Coeur of mine. As a woman that absolutely needs underwire in her bras, some are probably not suitable for me, but good God, they’re pretty!

Underwear wishlist 2016 earth and jade

  1. Printed stretch-silk soft-cup bra, Carine Gilson – Net-à-Porter
  2. Morgane embroidered tulle and stretch-satin underwired bra, La Perla – Net-à-Porter
  3. Skivvies For Love & Lemons Darla Bra, For Love & Lemons – ASOS
  4. Contour color-block cutout stretch-Supplex® sports bra, Live the process – Net-à-Porter
  5. Voyager printed stretch-jersey sports bra, Mara Hoffman – Net-à-Porter
  6. I Am Proud printed stretch-jersey sports bra, Bodyism – Net-à-Porter
  7. Kaity floral-appliquéd stretch-tulle balconette bra, L’Agent by Agent Provocateur – Net-à-Porter
  8. Skivvies For Love & Lemons Lucia Halter Bra and briefs, For Love & Lemons – ASOS
  9. Talisman satin-trimmed embroidered Leavers lace soft-cup bra, La Perla – Net-à-Porter
  10. Missguided Crochet Lace Bust Cup Bralet, Missguided – ASOS
  11. Lace-paneled stretch-mesh soft-cup bra, Dolce & Gabbana – Net-à-Porter
  12. ASOS Pretty Lace Bandeau Top Co-ord – ASOS

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