Underwear: The Evolution

When you walk down the high street it is not uncommon to pass a woman wearing a transparent blouse and brightly coloured bra, or look through a magazine and see a woman scantily clad in lingerie and posing provocatively. We have become accustomed to seeing lingerie almost everywhere we go. Styles of lingerie have developed drastically throughout history, whether through trends or necessity, meaning they now suit every shape, taste and occasion.

In 3000 BC, the year of the first recorded instances of lingerie being worn, this inclusive attitude was very much different. The undergarment shape and public perception of women have taken centuries to mature into what we see as ‘normal’ today. How exactly did these ideas and opinions change so dramatically over the years? An answer perhaps might be found in the development of two of our most popular items of lingerie, the corset and the bra – and what they have meant for women and their bodies.

The corset, or ‘stays’ as it was previously referred to as, is thought to have been invented in the 16th century. Originally made from whalebone, hom and buckram, it was designed to keep the torso straight and the chest pressed flat. Ouch. This created an inverted cone shape, and stayed fashionable until the 1800s.

The more curvaceous hourglass figure – that we now typically associate with corsets – did not arrive until around 1820. This was a time when waists were squeezed inwards, breasts were pushed upwards, and hips were emphasised and exaggerated. At its most extreme, cases were reported of women fainting due to the tightness of their corset, and pressure placed on internal organs was said to have occasionally proved fatal.

Thankfully, this changed in the 1900s when elasticated corsets and looser clothing became more fashionable. Corsets today still retain the ability to pull a woman’s figure into an hourglass shape, but it is a lot less damaging and far more comfortable.

Meanwhile the bra, or brassiere, was first recorded as being worn on the Island of Crete in 2500 BC, mimicking the push-up bra we see today – lifting women’s breasts almost out of their clothing. In 400 BC a modern-day sports bra was first debuted, with Roman and Greek women taking a different route and strapping their breasts down to reduce their size.

However, throughout many centuries the bra was not worn at all, with the corset as the ‘required’ and preferred undergarment. The corset acted as a bra, either flattening or enhancing the bust depending on the latest fashion. In 1889, the first garment to support the breasts from the shoulders was invented, shortly followed in 1893 by a bra similar in design to those we are now familiar with.

The cup size and measurement guide used today was first introduced in its basic form in 1932. From then until the present day designers have followed this guide, constantly pushing the boundaries with different styles and fabrics.

Looking back over the development of just two undergarments, it quickly becomes clear how women have in the past been expected to manipulate their bodies into shapes that aren’t natural; to hide and squash curves into painful corsets so as to appear desirable; to prevent themselves from appearing naked in front of husbands because it was deemed inappropriate; to dress according to social standing and to choose from a very limited range of lingerie.

Debates occur regularly in the media about the overuse of skimpy clothing, lingerie and risqué advertising campaigns, and whether they empower or degrade women. It is clear that some go much too far – to the point they in fact glamorise very little – but whether or not we agree on how public underwear has become, or how often we see it plastered on glossy pages or television screens, we should perhaps instead be thankful for the level of freedom we now have in choosing our underwear and the way we want our body to look.

Article and illustration by Sarah Boxall


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