From Corsets To Consciousness

Bustles, bloomers, bones and bras have furnished a snapshot of 20th-century society. It’s been a rollicking road from pantaloons to the Wonderbra.

Lingerie, and the abundance of it, no matter how impractical or ridiculous looking, signified a woman’s virtue  –  or lack thereof  –  at the turn of the century. And for good reason: The multilayers of lacing, boning and fabric kept the most ardent of suitors at bay.

From inflexible whalebone corsets of the Gay Nineties to the comfort and stretch of Lycra spandex shapewear of the 1990s, the look and the function of lingerie has changed as radically as clothing.

It’s been argued among social historians that the impenetrable, tightly laced corsets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a last-ditch effort on the part of men to keep the fairer sex helpless and homebound  –  an update of sorts to chastity belts of the Dark Ages. By the mid-to-late 1800s, society says women  –  in constant fear of fainting  –  must endure the torture of hermetically sealed corsets to obtain the perfect figure of the moment.

Mirroring the dictates of a Victorian society, corsetry often reaches lunatic extremes. There are lightly boned corsets for the morning, stayless corsets to sleep in, nursing corsets with exaggerated drawbridge gussets, riding corsets with elastic at the hip, doeskin corsets for coolness in the summer, nuptial corsets and corsets for just about any occasion imaginable  –  from singing and dancing to seaside bathing. It is even considered fashionable for girls as young as four years old to be subjected to such rigors to insure straight posture.

Warner’s, a 124-year-old foundations label now owned by The Warnaco Group, provides several bestsellers at the turn of the century: the Hose Supporter Corset; Warner’s Rust-Proof Corsets, reinforced with rust-proof steel instead of whalebone or East Indian buffalo horn, and the straight-front corset, which creates the “Kangaroo Figure”  –  straight down the front and curved in back.

The boom period of corsets deflates in the Twenties, when flat chests are in. It is unthinkable for the stylish flapper to display a generous bosom. Bras are the chic new undergarment, but they are bust-flattening bandeaus.

At the same time, coordinated underclothes such as panties, petticoats, bras and slips become a trend. Part of that wardrobe is a new pliable girdle of rubber and cloth. Garters, of course, are key in holding up sheer silk stockings.

The attributes of the female figure are celebrated once again in the Thirties. One French magazine, Votre Beaute, dictates: “No More Flat Chests.”

In response to the demand for curves, Warner’s introduces the first falsies  –  aptly called “Gay Deceivers.” Unlike the exaggerated hourglass figure of the 1900s, a come-hither look in fluid silhouettes is now the look of the moment, accentuated by plunging necklines and low-cut back treatments that in some cases are so revealing it is impossible to wear a bra.

Spurred by film stars in the Thirties, lingerie reaches a new sophistication, especially in silk: luxurious, bias-cut sleep gowns, playful satin chemises and softly tailored pajamas. Warner’s introduces cup-sized bras  –  A, B, C and D  –  as well as revolutionary new fabric, Youthlastic, a two-way stretch elastic.

The Forties generally is a spartan decade for lingerie. The U.S. enters the war, and America’s industries are aimed at fueling its war effort. The first undergarments of DuPont nylon are introduced in 1940. Soon after, nylon is rationed for military products such as parachutes and tents.

But despite Draconian measures, Hollywood still manages to immortalize the bosom in a 1943 film, “The Outlaw.” Director Howard Hughes, also an airplane designer, creates an aerodynamic underwire bra with considerable shelf support for the 38-inch bustline of leading lady Jane Russell.

Pointed, prominent breasts come into vogue, bras are designed to make shapely, very pointed breasts. Maidenform is a key manufacturer of this style, which reaches the height of its conical glory in the Fifties.

Along with the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war come two cultural trends: customized fallout shelters and breasts shaped like atomic warheads. The bigger the better. In addition to Jane Russell, popular leading ladies are Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.

Black lingerie  –  long associated with women of questionable virtue  –  becomes a legitimate item at Frederick’s of Hollywood. The New Look by Christian Dior brings back the demand for frilly foundations. Corsets are in again. A key item: the Merry Widow by Warner’s. In 1955, Playtex advertises its Living Bra and Living Girdle on TV.

An axiom of the Sixties  –  “Burn, baby, burn,”  –  could well describe the discomfort bra makers experience as feminists torch their bras. Women go braless, and many bra vendors go out of business. The topless movement soon moves to swimwear, and Rudi Gernreich’s monokini is banned by the Vatican but embraced in St. Tropez.

In the Eighties, the era of innerwear-as-outerwear is ushered in, and wearing bodices, bustiers and opaque and lacy bras as accessories is hip. Victoria’s Secret, the most successful American marketer of intimate apparel, soon overshadows department stores in the category.

In the Nineties, Madonna fuels the renewed passion for corsetry by wearing Jean Paul Gaultier’s bullet bustier. Nancy Ganz, creator of the Hipslip, a control half-slip of nylon and Lycra, puts modern shapewear on the map. America’s love affair with the bosom blossoms again with Sara Lee’s Wonderbra, which gives new meaning to hype with deliveries to stores by armored car and helicopter.

All of this fanfare catches the eye of corporate America. The mergers and acquisitions in the intimate apparel field in the Nineties have created three power players ruling the American innerwear market: Sara Lee, The Warnaco Group and VF Corp. And they are drawing big names into the arena.

Calvin Klein Underwear by The Warnaco Group, the licensed Ralph Lauren Intimates at Sara Lee and the licensed Donna Karan Intimates at Wacoal America are all turning their barrels on the business. Two new licensees  –  DKNY by Wacoal America and Tommy Hilfiger by Cypress Apparel  –  are about to make the boudoir even more crowded.

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