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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Century Underwear Review LIVE!!!
February 13 at 9pm
Pan (SW 3rd & Ankeny)