Elaine Needham

Womenís Underwear Through the Years

Thursday, 5 December 2019  |  Elaine Needham

It’s something we all wear every day, but have you ever really thought about how underwear first came to be and the people who invented it?.

How Did Knickers First Come About?

The first recording of women wearing anything that could be considered as knickers is towards the end of the 18th century. At this time, women wore something that wouldn’t necessarily be recognised in today’s world as knickers but that’s exactly what they were.

Long, loose garments were worn which were joined at the crotch, hence the phrase ‘pair of knickers’ – that’s literally what they were.

It wasn’t essential for women to wear knickers up to this point as there was little risk of exposing yourself given the size and weight of the dresses worn in that time, as well as the multiple layers of underskirts!

It was only as fashion developed into the 19th century that our undergarments developed too.

Different materials have also played a part, with woollen knickers being very popular during the 19th century before central heating was invented.

This was evident towards the end of the 19th century when drawers, as they were then known, started to become decorated with lace and bands and women started to take more interested in the look of their underwear and how it made them feel.

As we skip through the years, knickers were usually worn below the knee until the 1920s when they became shorter, and colours started to come into play as well with pinks, ivory and peach favoured over the usual white.

Vintage Lingerie

During the second world war women became inventive with their knickers, ensuring they could still be accessible by making them out of old parachutes.

As the garments also got shorter, we developed terms for them such as French knickers, as anything risqué back then came from France!

Although women liked to jazz their undergarments up, knickers were still a very private item that generally wouldn’t be seen out in public. That changed in 1949 when American tennis player Gertrude Moran famously shocked a watching Wimbledon crowd by flashing her frilly knickers under her already-short playing skirt. This gained her the nicknames Gussie Moran and Gorgeous Gussie.

During the 1970s knickers because even smaller until the 1990s saw the invention of the thong. However, later on at the beginning of the 21st century boys style boxer shorts actually became a popular choice of women as well.

A Brief History of the Bra

The first recording of a women’s bra was a lot earlier than knickers, but it was developed a lot slower.

Ancient Greek women are known to have worn a form of bra called ‘apodesme’, but it wasn’t until the late 16th century that women started to wear corsets, fashioned from wire and whalebone. The aim of corsets was more to shape the torso and highlight a women’s frame than actually offer any support.

They were also well-documented to be hard, uncomfortable items that were usually tied far too tight. Remember the Pirates of the Caribbean scene when Elizabeth passed out into the ocean?

There was no real development between the 16th and 19th centuries as corsets and other items of that kind weren’t seen to have much of a purpose outside of shaping, but then in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob created the first modern-day bra from two handkerchiefs tied together with ribbon.

This then brought the need for cup sizes, which were introduced in 1932, and the first Wonderbra was created in Canada in 1963.

The Underwear Culture and How It Is Viewed Today

As previously mentioned, underwear is still generally a very private affair, but a necessity in everyday life and even though it may not be flouted in public as we walk down the street, modern day women still take a lot of time, thought and effect in selecting bras and knickers.

The largest lingerie retailer in the United States, Victoria’s Secret was founded in 1977 by Roy and Gaye Raymond in response to underwhelming, packaged underwear. Roy generally considered it ‘ugly, floral-print nylon nightgowns’.

The Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show was first created in 1995 to showcase the brands most recent lines and it has only recently been cancelled in 2019 amid a ratings drop and the increase we are seeing in the fight for more ‘body-relatable’ models on the catwalk.

This in itself says a lot about modern-day underwear and the women who wear it, and brands are constantly updating their lines to fit with the current-day mantra that any woman can and should be able to feel sexy by having access to the same pieces in multiple sizes.

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