lingerie history

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From the humble loin cloth, which is probably the beginning of briefs, early fashions moved from the boned bodice of the ancient Minoan ladies in 1600 BC through to the first bra and brief set seen on a 4th century mosaic in Sicily.

By the late 14th Century, European women wore a linen smock or shift, a forerunner of the Victorian chemise and a new garment, a stiff linen underbodice called a ‘cotte’ which roughly translated means a ‘rib-sticking garment’.

In the fifteenth century this had another name: it was known as a body or more correctly a pair of bodies since it was made in two pieces fastening at the back and front.

The period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars began with the waistline already raised and the emphasis placed on the bosom. Main garments were increasingly influenced by the Neo-classical movement in art which inspired the Grecian statuesque lines of their silhouettes. Rounded breasts and a well rounded figure were considered the ideal. In 1793, The Times stated that ‘the fashion of dressing is to appear ‘prominent’ and accordingly ‘false bosoms’ of wadding, also affectionately known as ‘bosom friends’ were employed by the less well endowed.’

The first pair of ‘knickers’ appeared on the scene in 19th Century as pantaloons. Called drawers because they ‘draw on’ or ‘draw up’ the legs, they were attached individually to a deep waistband which fastened at the back. By the late 1870’s ‘knickers’ became commonplace, usually a closed gusset undergarment The bra’s immediate ancestors were fine robustly made Victorian whaleboned corsets which were the triumphantly engineered aids towards that epitome of perfect womanhood – the hour-glass figure.

The first patented bra happened on the scene by pure chance. In 1913 a young New York debutante, Mary Phelps Jacobs , was preparing to go to a dance. Mary hated the restrictive, heavy evening corsets of her time and, with the help of two handkerchiefs, pink baby ribbon and her French maid, designed what the modern world would recognise as a bra.

After the 1914-18 War, everything went flat! Brassieres or ‘Bandeaux’ as they were often called at this time became nothing more than strips of lacy material with ribbon straps. Eton crops and ‘no bosom, no waist’ were the symbols of the 1920’s emancipated woman.

The ‘bosoms’ revival of the 1930’s meant that the ‘foundation’ business was booming. It was Warner Brothers, the vast American company, who introduced cup sizes in 1935, finally realising that women were different shapes as well as different sizes.

They brought in the ‘Alphabet Bra’ which had four ‘cup’ sizes-A, B, C and D. Double D came along a little later and double A later still.

Some of the most engaging, amusing and extraordinary bras come from the late 1940’s and 50’s. Helped by the resurgence of the film industry, the bra moved in confidence reaching its ‘pinnacle’ of success in the 1950’s.

To a whole generation of men and women, the Hollywood film actress Lana Turner became known as the ‘Sweater Girl’. Her cone-shaped breasts were to become the best known most pinned up ‘projectiles’ in the business. Jane Russell was another who added to bra mania by having her outstanding bosom clad in a bra designed for her by the aeronautical engineer Howard Hughes, for her part in the 1943 film The Outlaw. This was to be the heyday of the upholstered bra, enabling women to boast enviable cleavage enhanced by the fashionable whirlpool-stitched bras of the era.

The 1960s and 70s saw a change in attitude and a more liberal approach to underwear with the advent of the sexual revolution. Developments in technology and fabrics during the 80s and 90s brought more intricate designs to the mass market. New styles became popular and fashionable such as the famous Wonderbra, giving a ‘push up and plunge’ effect. Now fashionable underwear has been developed for all situations including padded, gel filled, air filled strapless, backless, multiway, bodycontrol – to name but a few! Gone are the days of purely functional underwear, women today have a wardrobe to suit any occasion. Traditional products known as ‘foundation wear’ and ‘corsetry’ are now things of the past.

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