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The Heritage of Lingerie: Innovations, Choice and Freedom


The Heritage of Lingerie
More commonly associated with feminine sexual allure and appealing to the sexual fantasies of men, lingerie’s historical roots actually lie in women’s liberation. But, as we shall see, it's not been an easy ride.

The Birth of Modern Lingerie

The birth of modern lingerie is typically charted from the first world war when women were moving from the home into the workplace to help with the war effort. This transformative change in the daily routine of thousands of women demanded more practical and comfortable clothing and undergarments. This vision of history is in keeping with the development of the modern brasserie by the American inventor Mary Phelps Jacobs in 1910. At the age of 19 when dressing for her debutante ball, she cast aside her ill-fitting corset and quickly sewed a ribbon and handkerchiefs together to create a new garment. Her invention, arguably the first bra, came to supplant the stiff and restrictive corsets that had dominated women’s fashions.

However, there is an earlier development in women’s underwear design that foreshadowed the growing demand for physical comfort and freedom. A firing shot in the sartorial history that we find ourselves navigating. The cage crinoline, invented in 1856, was usually constructed from a series of spring steel hoops suspended from lengths of lightweight cotton. Depending on the size and configuration of the hoops the crinoline could support a modest bell-like shape dress or could project outward to increasingly dramatic extremes. The main benefit for women who embraced the cage crinoline was the absence of the excessive fabric previously required to create volume. With the multitude of petticoats gone, a women’s legs, although still covered, were much freed.

The Moral Panic

The rejection of the stiff and heavy horsehair crinolines in favor of the newer lightweight cage crinoline permitted greater female liberation but also triggered a powerful backlash. At first, the reactions centered around safety, highlighting incidents where extreme over-size cage crinolines had caught fire injuring or even killing the wearer. But, when this approach failed to slow the fashion, newspapers in Victorian England and the United States sought to associate women who adopted the cage crinoline as somehow suspicious and untrustworthy. After all, such a vast open space under the dress could hide any manner of objects. The illustrated news of the day was fond of images that suggested women might hide stolen goods, alcohol or even secret lovers under their dresses. The moral panic of the press even suggested that the cage crinoline could be used to disguise a pregnancy and was, therefore, a threat to the chastity and purity of young women.

Not for the first time, men would seek to use morality and fashion to police women’s bodies. Ultimately, the ease of movement and increasing space women now took up was a direct and unmistakable threat to male dominance. More liberal illustrated news of the day joked how the largest cage crinolines actually saw men pushed to the periphery, literally and metaphorically.

While the cage crinoline style eventually faded the desire for physical comfort and freedom remained central to the underwear fashions that came after. When later styles and designs focused on comfort and freedom, they were well received, which brings us back to 1910 and Mary Phelps Jacobs’s prototype bra. Strangely the American press didn’t seek to discredit or ridicule the design contrary to the attacks levied on every earlier female sartorial innovations. This wasn’t because the male writers and editors suddenly wanted to encourage the adoption of less restrictive fashion but because the military machine needed the metal. Encouraging women to reject corsets and wired underwear afforded more metal for the ammunition and military needs of the nation as it entered the first world war. Finally, through invention and bizarre necessity, the journey towards ending the intensive policing of women’s bodies was underway.

The Freedom of Choice

A combination of circumstances brought about by the first world war led to an explosion of innovation and choice, freeing women to play sports, dance and live free of injury and discomfort (you know, ideally). These innovations continued into the following decades. In the 1930s William and Ida Rosenthal of Maidenform (or perhaps the company S.H. Camp and Co., as there is some lingering dispute) developed the modern cup and bra sizing system. At the same time, metal was reintroduced in the underwire and bra designs began to exist in two distinct realms. Some lingerie was designed for comfort while other pieces sought to augment the body just as earlier corsetry had. The difference now, was that the women who wore the lingerie had a choice.

By the 1960s a new type of woman was emerging, a youthful vibrant young woman who saw herself as distinctly different from her mother. New silhouettes, new textiles and designs led to the adoption of the Baby Doll, hip-hugging briefs and pantyhose, the last of which ushered in the decline of the garter belts. The feminist and women’s liberation movements were in full force yet women could flick through a single magazine and see articles promoting women’s equality right alongside adverts that sexualized their bodies. While the excessive sexualization of advertising would come to be problematic in the 90s and early 21st century, in the 1960s it coincided with sexual liberation and the invention of the Pill. In this era, expressing sexuality and embracing sexier lingerie could mean casting off repression and shame to help forge more confident and independent women. The power to be your authentic self now included sexuality; in the 60s being sexy and embracing sexuality was something a woman could choose.

The Modern Brands

Increasing choice meant more lingerie brands offering nuance and variation to help women explore and express their identity. New brands catered to specific needs, desires and philosophies. For the woman who valued exquisite craftsmanship, there is the lingerie brand Cosabella. Founded by husband-and-wife team Valeria and Ugo Capello in 1983, the brand excels in creating lace lingerie that is crafted in traditional Italian workshops. Fusing fashion-forward innovations with Italian artisanship leads to lingerie that feels truly indulgent and luxurious.

By contrast, Columbian company Salua Lingerie was founded in 1993 and focuses primarily on cotton lingerie and sleepwear. For the woman, who prizes simplicity, their minimalist designs are about quiet confidence and easy sensuality.

Perhaps wishing to refocus attention purely on the wearer, Eberjey, founded in 1996, rejected designs that focused on capturing the male gaze. Instead, the company designed bras, bralettes and panties for the comfort and confidence of women first and foremost. While comfort is primary the designs, sizes and color choices are about lending support to a woman's whole ensemble.

In an era of responsible consumerism, Else Lingerie founded in 2008, is committed to minimizing its production impact. The company has a recycling program for the responsible disposal of its atelier waste, and use sustainable lace created from regenerated yarn using solar energy. Their designs are contemporary, fresh and youthful with an emphasis on body confidence and social responsibility.

With so much modern diversity in design, appeal and comfort new generations of lingerie designers are demonstrating that the era of policing women’s bodies is changing. Choice, empowerment and responsibility mean that the women of the 21st century are in charge of what they wear against their skin. They can choose the underwear that fires up their sexuality, reshapes their silhouette, or they can reach for a design that grants comfort while they engage in activities such as sports or chasing kiddos between zoom calls. They can choose a brand that stands for heritage and craftsmanship or shop with someone that proactively mirrors their sustainability efforts.

The Empowered Woman

From the first taste of physical freedom in 1856, through the heavy-handed critique of fearful men to the bold innovations by women like Mary Phelps Jacobs, the goal has never been to discard sensuality. The mission was only to achieve the greatest level of physical autonomy, inclusivity, and choice. Finally, looking at the lingerie landscape of today it’s possible to say that every woman can feel empowered to express herself, however she feels wearing whatever she desires.

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