- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Do you wonder about the history of women’s undergarments? From the time of our origins until the 1500s, no underwear was worn. This made toileting, e.g., squatting, easy.
So what was the purpose of early undergarments?
2. Comfort from the rub of rough fabrics
3. Absorbing body oils and sweat to keep fabrics clean
4. Shaping the body
1500s – This century claims the earliest documented evidence of underwear, meaning garments worn beneath clothing. Layers and layers of outer garments indicated a woman’s social status. The undergarment was made of two separate panels (like kitchen towels) that were tied at the waist, i.e., crotchless.
1700s – Hoopskirts were popular. Women couldn’t reach their bottoms with all the layers and the rigid dress form. (Remember: squatting.) They wore a shift, which was like a long-sleeve nightgown, for warmth and to keep outerwear clean.
Bathing was infrequent and outerwear difficult to launder. Intimate relations could be had while fully clothed. Recall, homes were cold and small, and relations often occurred in common areas.
1800s – The corset, often worn on the outside, cinched the waist and supported the breasts. They were first tied with strings. Crotchless “bloomers” were added as dresses got shorter.
During the Victorian era of the late 1800s, undergarment fashion took on an erotic role, showing a little camisole at the breast line. This was the first association of undergarments with female attraction.
The bum roll and bustle, both added to make the hips appear larger, made it difficult to sit down or to squat.
1893 – Marie Tucek invented the first underwire bra with pockets for each breast and a rigid metal plate under the breast for support. Shoulder straps were added. The design shifted the weight of the breast to the center front with a lift to create the desirable shape. It was the first use of the hook and eye for bras.
1910s – Women’s involvement in sports and activism resulted in fewer layers of outer and underclothes. The shift was replaced with the slip, a loose-fitting, sleeveless, dress-like garment to keep outer clothes clean.
Rayon, introduced in 1917, made fabric more affordable. Women discarded cotton and wool in underwear. Clothes were simpler. Indoor toilets were becoming more common. The long underpants crotch was closed!
1930s – After the liberties of the Roaring ’20s, the ’30s were a period of form-fitting designs. Women embraced girdles and corsets for shaping and bras with rounded or pointed cups. Underpants got shorter.
1940s – Nylon had been introduced in undergarments but was discontinued during World War II. In 1947 it returned in the pushup bra by Frederick’s of Hollywood.
1949 saw the innovations of the first front-hook closure, padded cups, and adjustable straps and the invention of cup size. It was the prototype of the modern bra. Women were replicating the look of the pinup girl.
1950s – The underwire bra, designed in the 1930s, became popular. Lastex thread (rubber wrapped in cotton fiber) was used for shaping in bras and girdles. The rubber made them hot to wear. Girdles were effective in shaping but hard to get on and off (hence, the use of talcum powder).
This thread was replaced with Spandex by the late 1950s. It was stronger and more comfortable, and it created smooth shapes. New fabrics came in soft colors, were affordable, and were associated with “class” distinction. Spandex and nylon fabric were promoted as easy to rinse and dry overnight.
1980s – With pantyhose available after 1959 and the control top by 1979, women rejected the girdle for the simplicity of panties. The “teddy” was introduced, combining the panty and bra.
2000s – Spanx changed the industry with built-in support in the fabric. It was originally intended for shapewear but was quickly adopted for sports and outerwear.
The lifecycle of underwear has evolved. Today, referred to as lingerie and considered intimate apparel, they are marketed for the temptation of the risqué and the lure of romance rather than the necessities of the past. They seem rarely worn with Spanx.
But will we give up our granny panties? Hmm.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.