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Horst P Horst Lingerie 1939

12/06/2021

Lingerie: from the early days to the Corset

7 min

The presence of lingerie in our lives is so natural that we don’t even stop to think about what it was like in the early days.

Nowadays, lingerie is mostly associated with the power of seduction. In fact, it is a favorite gift on special dates when we celebrate love and passion. After all, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries of dating or marriage get a caliente touch with a good lingerie, right?

But history shows us that it was not always like this. Have you ever stopped to think about how lingerie used to be? This blogpost invites you to go back in time and ask yourself: how did we start wearing lingerie?

Going back in time: the Greeks who started this story

Apparently, it was the Greeks who started the whole lingerie thing. To tell the truth, however, it was far from being what we understand today as lingerie. It was more like an underwear that consisted of a strip of cloth around the chest, which covered and supported the breasts. Underneath, women wore cotton cloths, which looked more like diapers. 

In any case, the ancient Greeks are credited with having been the first to think about the importance of support for women’s breasts. Known as “apodesme”, these primitive bras were made of natural fabrics such as wool or linen. However, these pieces were not about seduction. In principle, what was sought was internal protection and practicality in supporting the breasts, especially when practicing sports.

Lingerie in Ancient Greece
Mosaic showing underwear worn by women in Ancient Greece.

Why lingerie? Breasts proudly on display

It is worth remembering that, before the Greeks, the Minoan civilization, which developed on the island of Crete around 2,200 BC until around 1,450 BC, already highly valued the breasts. However, they were so highly valued that they were not covered.

According to the paintings found, women wore a kind of girdle that went around their backs. It was a kind of primitive corset, used to give support and lift the breasts, but leaving them exposed. Yes, these women proudly showed off their breasts! The look was complemented by wide, bell-shaped skirts with very elaborate decorative sashes.

Apparently, the breasts were considered sacred. It is likely that this sacred connotation was linked to the Snake Goddess, the famous goddess found at Knossos. This goddess also represented the ideal of beauty of the time. So imitating her was the fashionable thing to do at that time!

The system used to leave the breasts harmoniously exposed is reminiscent of modern “push-up” bras. For this reason some historians like to say that the Minoans were the forerunners of the invention of the bra.

Here, we have the case of a lingerie used mainly to promote beauty. However, its intention was to pay homage to the Goddess and not necessarily to seduce.

Minoan Snake Goddess
Snake Goddess of Knossos dictated fashion in Minoan civilization.

Lingerie: Simplicity in the Middle Ages

In the early Middle Ages, what was considered lingerie was actually “underwear”, that is, a loose robe or shirt that was worn underneath clothing. In principle this piece of clothing was worn to provide comfort and protect the skin from the heavy and uncomfortable clothes that were worn at this time. It is believed that this luxury was possible only for the wealthiest people, such as the nobles, for example. Peasants, on the other hand, probably did not have access to this convenience. In both cases – nobles and commoners – there were no panties! Thus, in case of monthly necessity, women wore scrap fabric or rags.

15th Century Tunic
Medieval tunic. Detail of illuminated manuscript from the book Decameron, 15th century.

In the Lower Middle Ages the standard of beauty begins to undergo many changes. From the 14th century on, it was fashionable to have small breasts and a round belly. Because of this, women wore strips of linen or soft leather as bandages to press the breasts and padding under the dress to increase the volume of the belly.

According to some interpretations, this “Pregnancy Look” emerged during the years of the Black Death. It is likely that women wanted to simulate being so healthy as to carry a baby. According to other versions, the pear shape, with a protruding belly, showed well-fed women who did not work in the fields. Therefore, in a time when food could be quite rudimentary, this was a sign of wealth.

Regardless of the veracity of these interpretations, it is important to note the emergence of the idea of underwear used in favor of the aesthetic standard in force.

Bridal Couple_15th Century
The fashion was to have a protruding belly. Bridal Couple. Artist unknown. 15th Century. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Renaissance: lingerie with a lot of tightness

With the European Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries) a standard of beauty and femininity began to emerge that featured large breasts, wide hips, and a thin waist. In its heyday, the fashion was a VERY thin waist indeed. “The ideal waist at that time was 16 to 18 inches in diameter,” as stated by Miti Shitara, professor of fashion history at Santa Marcelina University in São Paulo.

How to achieve such an accentuated body shape? Simple: corset! It is at this time that the corset became a fundamental piece in women’s fashion.

The corset was made of rigid material with adjustable ties and was created to shape women’s bodies. At the same time, it lifted the breasts, made the posture erect, and thinned the waist, leaving the body with the much desired hourglass shape.

The apex of corset usage was in the Victorian Era (1837-1901). At this time, in addition to the corset, women’s clothing was complemented with heavy, voluminous, and frilly garments. Not only that, but the skirts also had a frame, the so-called crinoline, which in some cases were very wide and heavy – they could reach 18 feet in circumference at their widest part.

Combining the use of corsets with the fitted skirts resulted in a woman who was, above all, stylized. On the other hand, with serious movement problems! Not to mention the dangers of fire. Yes, there are several true stories of women who died because their dresses caught fire.

Victorian Beauty Ideal
The hourglass figure was the Victorian ideal of beauty.

The Price of the Feminine

The figure of a highly stylized feminine certainly came with a price.

Although posture was kept upright, which made gestures and walking delicate, corsets were often tied too tightly. In fact, to give you an idea, some corset models did not even allow simple activities such as raising the arms or sitting.

Other consequences of wearing corsets were pallor and easy fainting. But, incredible as it may seem, these side effects were considered desired feminine attributes. After all female frailty allowed men to show their physical and moral superiority.

 “Fainting, which could be caused by the tight corset, was a behavior considered appropriate for women of the bourgeoisie,” notes historian Anna Cláudia Fernandes. 

In the name of beauty, the corset still forced changes in the female body that were harmful to health. In fact, due to the compression of the internal organs, women could develop serious discomfort and pain.

Because it caused so many limitations, obviously the corset was a “privilege” reserved for the wealthiest women in society. It was, therefore, a symbol of social prestige. Moreover, this piece carried within itself the fundamental values of its time, that is, it associated the concept of femininity with the idea of extreme delicacy.

Body deformation due to corsetry
The use of the corset caused compression of the organs.

Social and political meanings of lingerie

The corset in this period allows us to see how a piece of lingerie can carry, in itself, social concepts about femininity and the role of women!

Because of the female fragility brought about by the use of the corset, even the medical profession began to consider women naturally weaker. Female weakness was considered inevitable and acceptable. 

On one side is the quest to enhance female beauty and sexuality, going so far as to create a stereotype of fragile and delicate femininity. On the other hand, there is the issue of oppression exerted by control over women’s bodies. What to think of this? Unnecessary torture or the price of beauty? In any case, this question was only rethought at the beginning of the 20th century, 400 years after the adoption of the corset!

Ressignifying the corset

In the 20th century the symbolic connotation of the corset takes on very different airs. Let’s think, for example, of the empowering use of the corset made by Madonna in the 1990s. The singer appropriates the concept of corset and re-signifies it, putting it at the service of her sexuality and eroticism. The model, created by Jean Paul Gaultier, is futuristic, with the breasts in a cone shape, giving a sexy and aggressive look, of who is in control of her sexuality and knows what she wants. Undeniably, the lingerie has become iconic for the singer Madona. Mainly because it carries her message of a new femininity, of a woman exercising her sexual freedom, owner of her desires and completely empowered. 

Madonna 1990
Madonna dressed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Blond Ambition Tour, 1990.

Current corset trends

Without a doubt Madonna and Gaultier were instrumental in bringing the corset out of its confinement as underwear and paved the way for its popularization in the contemporary world. From the music world to fashion, from romantic to gothic styles, from Beyoncé to Dior, the corset left behind its history of oppression to the body and became a symbol of style and daring! Even for men!

Burberry dress
Beyoncé wears a Burberry dress with a corset
Fashion show-Dior
Dior Fashion Show – Cruise 2021
Male corset
Male corset model by Innova Corsetry

 What do you think about it? Have you surrendered to the charm of the corset?

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