20th Century Underwear Review

If you're a guy and are somebody's one and only, February's the month to hit the lingerie shops and buy something for your sweetheart, right? And you probably only care that it cover as little of your girl as possible. However, girls tend to care what the other girls are wearing this season.... or decade. It was always so. The following is a guide of what to buy should you engage in any time travel back to the good ol' twentieth century. (It's also intended to stoke your imagination for the upcoming Valentine's Lingerie show at Berbati's on the 13th!)

We start, naturally, at the beginning: 1900-10. The "It" girl of the decade was the Gibson Girl, so named thanks to the popular illustrations by Charles Gibson. She personified the American ideal of radiantly healthy femininity. The preferred silhouette was the mature form (think matronly bosoms). This was the famous "S" shape created by a corset, (the bra had yet to be invented). What this means is that breasts were really just propped up in place with very little support.

The curvy figure was replaced in 1910-20 with a leaner outline. WWI actually boosted the economy and encouraged fashion to look overseas, mainly to Poiret's Orientalist designs. To conform to the narrow skirt of the times, women wore hobble skirts or "hobblers" so as not to rip a seam while walking. The newly emancipated status of women did not show underneath their dresses. I don't care how prudish the times were supposed to be, the hobbler looks pretty kinky to me! It is also in this decade that we see the first bra--designed by Mary Phelps Jacobs (just fourteen years old!), but it didn't gain in popularity until the 1920's.

The 1920's took the lean shape to the extreme--the androgynous, almost boyish look of the "Flapper" was highly sought after. Women achieved this pre-pubescent look by binding their breasts tightly to their chests. Girdles and even panties became unpopular because they restricted dancing movement. Just imagine the thrill of seeing a panty-less flapper doing the Charleston when just a few years before, you were lucky to get a glimpse of a pretty girl's ankles! The new short length of dress drew attention to the legs and women showed them off by wearing brightly colored tights held up by leg garters.

In the 1930's there was a backlash to the promiscuity and literal 'looseness' of the decade before, undoubtedly related to the Depression. With little beauty around them, people looked to Hollywood for inspiration. The silent screen goddesses Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, etc. brought glamour to people's fantasies. Prudish morality flexed its muscle via the Hayes

Code, which forbade any explicit show of cleavage in the movies (and you thought the ratings system nowadays was harsh!). As a result, the back became eroticized; any classic movie fan will agree that suggestion can be more powerful and erotic than just plain old T&A. Bras and panties were by now the norm and the bra industry was revolutionized by the invention of cup sizes.

WWII dominated the 1940's and the government was forced to realize the power of bras and lipstick to raise morale. The 40's offered an interesting split in the American ideal of female beauty: women were working at what had been exclusively male jobs, yet underneath the coveralls and sober suit dresses were the most elaborate corsets, bras, and girdles, all with very restrictive boning and structure. The war also forced women to improvise; without rayon and nylon material, women created faux stockings by using make-up on their legs to draw stocking lines. I can only imagine how hard it would be to pretend you hadn't been 'naughty' on your furlough date when the lines up your legs were all smeared and messed up.

The men were back in the 1950's and so were the good times as we saw a sharp swing back to feminine curves in the ideal shape of women. These were prosperous times, and everything pointed up. Looking at the bras of the 50's it is easy to see where some postwar aircraft designers found employment. The torpedo or bullet bra, with its use of cantileverage, suggests the breast (in the bra) as a weapon. Sweater girls were innocent and sweet on the outside, but we all know what was underneath the buttons waiting to burst out in someone's backseat.

The 1960's underwear reflected the sexual revolution and general upheaval in American morality. Youth and androgyny were back--a complete turn from the curvy, bust-emphasized form of the decade before. The 60's also provided us with the first use of the bra as a political weapon (think of bra-burning women). Another fashion movement, the hippie, disavowed underwear altogether.

The 1970's continued the attack on the structured shape with the "no-bra bra." Sheerness and comfort were the key elements. The "it" girl was a disco queen. For the first time since the 1920's adulation of Harlem, jazz and the wonderful Josephine Baker, black beauty was the ideal. The 70's had blaxploitation films, disco/soul/funk and Pam Grier all eroticizing black women. Sex, drugs, and sex reigned as Studio 54 dominated the free-for-all of the preAIDS, pre-addiction-scare dance floor.

The 1980's saw a backlash to disco-decadence by the emergence of the healthy female athlete as ideal, or maybe it was just that everyone had sobered up after the party. Fitness was in and women everywhere joined aerobics classes and followed the Jane Fonda routine. Neon was the color, lycra was the fabric, and accessorizing was the key. Greed was the sin of choice, so it follows that bigger was better: from breasts (think silicone), to hair (think big bangs à la dynasty), even shoulders (think linebacker sized shoulder pads). Victoria Secret began it's dictatorship of feminine-wear and the bra became outerwear, thanks to Madonna.

At the end of the century, the 1990's, women had the widest variety of options to date. Retro was back in full swing and women wore everything from full corsets to jogging bras, from thongs to vintage garter belts. Looking back though, it is hard to deny the uplifting effect of the Wonderbra or the trendiness of fetish and S&M-wear. Black vinyl and leopard-prints dominated the bedroom as women took even greater control of sexual fantasies.

Women's underwear has come a long way, baby--or has it? We can only wait with bated breath for the innovations and revolutions lie ahead in the 21st century.

20th Century Underwear Review LIVE!!!

Sunday, February 13 at 9pm

Berbati's Pan (SW 3rd & Ankeny)