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Lingerie: the revolutionary 20th century

In the revolutionary twentieth century underwear was transformed and the concept of lingerie, as we understand it today, was consolidated.

The century brought, in fact, many innovations in the world, especially an intense urbanization and transformations in the production, distribution and consumption of goods. We also witnessed the growing emancipation of women and changes in human relationships. The world of fashion was also affected. And, consequently, the ways of wearing underwear.

Want to know how lingerie participated in this revolution? Keep reading this blog post!

Early 20th century and the decline of the corset

Before the 20th century, the most striking concept in the underwear universe was probably the corset. This piece reigned supreme until the end of the 19th century. It was not only the most prominent piece, but also the target of many controversies, as it was considered a symbol of oppression on women’s bodies.

However, from 1900 onwards, the corset began to lose its strength and more comfortable options began to emerge.

The main causes of the transformation of lingerie in this period were economic. The Industrial Revolution and the First World War arrived. Consequently, women went to the work fronts and, with that, they needed more freedom of movement.

On the other hand, the bourgeoisie no longer had a large number of maids, which meant that ladies needed underwear models that were easier to dress.

At the same time, the number of women in sporting practices also increased. The breasts, therefore, needed a support to replace the traditional corsets.

In this historical context, the French modeler Paul Poiret launches an innovative fashion concept that replaces the stylized figure of the corseted woman. Thus, in 1907, he created a kind of bra to accompany the dresses he created.

However, the invention of the bra is attributed to Mary Phelps Jacob. This is because Phelps, a libertarian woman, activist, editor and writer, was the first to patent the invention of the bra in 1914. Undoubtedly, the piece did not take long to become popular.

Bra inventor Mary Phelps
Mary Phelps invents the bra in 1914.

The Roaring Twenties

After the turbulent First World War, people wanted to rediscover the joie de vivre. This is mainly the tone that sets the 1920s.

In fact, they were years marked by the breaking of rules and intense freedom. Flappers appear, women who break with the image of good manners and dance provocatively. The ideal of beauty is the slim woman, without curves and with a flat silhouette.

It is also when the pioneer of fashion design, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel emerges. Mademoiselle, as she was known, revolutionized fashion by bringing the ideals of comfort and practicality, certainly with a lot of elegance.

Thus, dresses were lighter, straighter and shorter. The focus, then, was on the ankles. Consequently, this new lifestyle demanded a new vision of lingerie. Shorter panties and 7/8 stockings with garter belts were the ideal garments.

Indeed, it was in the 1920s that modern panties appeared, which today look more like the panties our grandmothers wore. But, at the time, they represented a great revolution in women’s lingerie.

Ladies underwear show in 1929.

The beauty of the 1940s

Many may only remember the 1940s for the advent of World War II. However, it was also the decade when we had Frank Sinatra, the movie Casablanca, the invention of the first computer and the creation of the UN.

In the fashion world we had, according to many experts, the most beautiful and sensual women’s fashion of the 20th century. In fact, fashion was expressed in Hollywood cinema through great icons such as Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner. Not to mention Marilyn Monroe, who had just appeared on movie screens.

As for lingerie, it was from 1940 onwards that bras gained in volume and pointed shape. Panties became smaller and nylon stockings appeared, which was a great revolution in the fashion market.

1940s lingerie ad
Bra advertisement in the 1940s

The 50’s: the golden years of sensual lingerie

In the 1950s, there was an atmosphere of romanticism and optimism in the post-war period. For this reason, they were known as “the golden years”. At the same time, the decade was marked by the arrival of television and the popularization of advertising.

On the other hand, these were the years that marked the sensuality associated with the use of lingerie. This occurred mainly because of the pin ups, as they were known voluptuous models and actresses who posed in an insinuating and libidinous way.

In fact, pin ups became fashionable in drawings and photos in which they showed extremely sexy and provocative underwear.

Flirt 1953
Flirt, 1953

La Revista Playboy

Also, in 1953 Playboy magazine appeared. For the first time women were available for male entertainment and for sale on newsstands.

Although the subject of women’s nudity for male delight is controversial, at the time it represented a milestone of freedom of expression and sexuality in American culture. The cover of the first issue of Playboy brought the star Marilyn Monroe, whose standard of beauty definitively marked the 1950s.

Playboy Magazine cover
Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the first issue of Playboy.

At the same time, another beauty style emerged in that decade: the carefree, independent and almost wild look of Brigitte Bardot.

Despite the appearance of all these novelties, the world scene remained conservative. These were the post-war years and especially the European countries most affected were experiencing a wave of social and sexual conservatism. Women, although increasingly independent, remained dedicated mothers and housewives.

In the midst of this cultural climate, the highlights in the world of lingerie are bras, which gain padding, underwiring and a lot of daring in their shapes. Tight sweaters over cone-shaped bras to highlight the woman’s bust line became fashionable.

Lingerie bullet bra
The bra separates the breasts and makes them tipped. The fashion is to highlight them with a tight-fitting sweater.

The 1960s and the sexual revolution

And along came the wild ’60s, which brought the Sexual Revolution to the world. Thanks to the invention of the birth control pill, women begin to have more control over their own bodies and pleasure. They also gain more freedom to devote themselves to their studies and careers, instead of focusing only on raising a family. 

Likewise, young people are looking for new role models. The counterculture, the hippie movement and the iconic phrase: “Make love, not war” emerge.

Consequently, eroticism acquired a new air. The same goes for lingerie. And the media also gained. In this sense, it was possible to see the female body in underwear as never before in history.

Underwear Ad
Lingerie wins the media. Advertisement of the Triumph brand in a magazine in 1962.

At the same time, in the fashion world, miniskirts, jeans, tube dresses and unisex styles have become more popular. On the other hand, futuristic garments, straight lines and long white boots have emerged.

On the other hand, subcultures such as punk emerged, which highlighted drag socks, high heels and alternative ways of dressing.

To keep up with all these style revolutions, lingerie advances in variety of options. Transparencies appear, but the big impacts are really the panties and stockings, more and more comfortable and elastic, to accompany all this freedom of expression. Indeed, the order of the day in lingerie is comfort and safety.

We must also remember the symbolic burning of bras in 1968. This event marked the history of feminism and became an emblem of the struggle for female empowerment.

Hang gliding in the 1980’s

The 80s are marked by expressiveness and exaggeration. To illustrate this idea, who doesn’t remember the puffed sleeves, shoulder pads and bright colors that marked the era?

Not only was fashion affected by the job market, but also by television programs, aerobics fever and discotheques. Thus, television began to dictate fashion, nightclubs brought latex and glitter, referring to the fetishist universe, and the fashion of aerobic exercise put the body on the scene.

Jane Fonda popularized the use of the bodysuit as aerobics clothing.

In the 80s, lingerie became not only underwear, but also a popular garment for various occasions. Surely the best example of boldness of this era is the singer Cher and her audacious bodysuit.

daring black bodysuit
Singer Cher in a very daring black bodysuit.

However, the highlight of the decade is the model of panties and swimsuits with high waist and high leg, which resembles a hang-glider. The model lengthens the legs and gives the impression of a slimmer silhouette. This look eventually evolved into the thong model, a daring underwear style!

panty, resembling a hang glider
High leg panty, resembling a hang glider.

The 1990’s and the wonderful boys

The 1990′ s brought the push-up bras and were years marked mainly by the very provocative campaign of the Wonderbra brand.

In the ad we see the photo of the beautiful Czech model Eva Herzigova looking at her breasts with the phrase “Hello Boys”.

Wonderbra brand ad: Hello Boys.

The brand was accused of objectifying the female public. However, years later, Herzigova herself defended the campaign. “The campaign was not degrading as they want to make it out to be. It helped empower women,” she confirmed to The Evening Standard in 2014.

The bra not only created controversy, but generated sales of $120 million in the first year.

The decade was also marked by the debut of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: a lingerie runway show featuring celebrity models.

Beverly Peele at the first Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
Model Beverly Peele at the first Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 1995.

In terms of lingerie, the 20th century was truly revolutionary. We went from the end of the corset to the freedom to choose between delicate, sensual, fetish or comfortable pieces, in a virtually infinite range of colors and styles.

What about you, how do you prefer your lingerie?

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