A briefs history of time

The changing shape of our bras and knickers over the past 100 years offers intimate insight into women's lives. Harriet Walker delves into the nation's drawers

The world of women's underwear is as highly scientific and rarefied as it is diverse. Just as men seem to fear the contents of the female handbag, they're also woefully misinformed as to what we keep in our drawers too – chests of drawers, that is. Thankfully, the exhibition Undercover – the Evolution of Underwear opens soon at London's Fashion and Textile Museum and promises to deliver a revealing history of our smalls. From turn-of- the-century corsets to today's scantier bras and briefs, the exhibition charts a change which reflects not only the tides of fashion, but also the social shifts and developments within the women's movement over the past 100 years.

Turn of the century: All laced up

In 1900 Queen Victoria may have still been on the throne, but the large bustles and vast hooped skirts that characterised fashion during her reign were falling out of favour. The laced whalebone corsets and stays used to create tiny waists during this era were restrictive and cumbersome in the extreme.

By the beginning of the 20th century, undergarments had become less bulky. They were still designed to squeeze and smooth the wearer into an 18-inch waist hourglass shape, but Edwardian tastes were for narrower lines and as skirts became more fitted, there was no need for the clunking farthingales and hoops which previous generations had used to bulk up their bustles.

As the Edwardian age ended, clothes became less ostentatious and the trend was for the new female athleticism, which demanded a slimmer, sportier silhouette. Women were suddenly able to move freely, to participate in games, and underwear developed accordingly: Amelia Bloomer's long 'pantalettes' were ideal for tennis, and New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs invented a protoype bra, made of two handkerchiefs fastened by ribbon. Restrictive stays morphed into a shorter supportive belt or girdle, to be worn over looser camisoles and slips and the flappers' love of dancing meant that the garter belt was invented, to help keep their stockings up.

1930 to 1960: From femininity to feminism

After the (literally) loose women and flappers of the Twenties, undies – as well as public taste – got all buttoned up again. But steel shortages during the Second World War meant that metal couldn't be spared for corsets, so softer 'liberty bodices' became popular. The Fifties saw a return to the hourglass, as Marilyn Monroe and A-line dresses and skirts embodied the fashion for extreme femininity. By 1959, however, younger women were wearing bra and girdle sets, which were more practical underneath casual separates. These were much more recognisably related to modern underwear, highlighting the increasing prominence of youth culture and of "the problem with no name", as feminist forerunner Betty Friedan termed the burgeoning women's movement.

1970 to 2009: Wonder bras

The image of the bra-burning feminist may be a myth, but the Seventies brought social and sartorial revolution. The rigid scaffolding needed to create a pneumatic Fifties silhouette faded with the rise of models like Twiggy. Bras were supple and minimal, with only a small underwire for support. Underwear also began to form an important part of fashion and commercial imagery, and became a crucial money-making arm of older fashion houses, like Christian Dior and La Perla (main picture). Risqué adverts created an aspirational – not to mention sexy – profile for the new generation of luxury lingerie. By the Eighties, power dressing 'glamazons' needed undergarments to match their formidable exteriors – so Gossard and Wonderbra stepped in, reuniting consumers with quivering cleavages. The 'Hello Boys' campaign with supermodel Eva Herzigova brought these brands and their wares into the global consciousness.

'Undercover – the Evolution of Underwear' opens 12 June at the Fashion and Textile Museum, www.ftmlondon.org

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect