A Study of 20th Century Women’s Undergarments
Thin or curvaceous? Wide hips or no hips? The ideal body image for women
is constantly changing. Even in the twentieth century, the ideal has
undergone dramatic revisions. Despite physical discomfort, women have
relied on underwear to mold their bodies to meet society’s most excessive
expectations. An analysis of those expectations reveals that women’s
undergarments have reflected the feminine ideal of the times in which they
lived. That feminine ideal, in turn, has reflected events and changes in
At the turn of the twentieth century, the country was emerging from the
Victorian era, an era that emphasized the “natural” differences between men
and women. The chosen undergarment of fashionable women, the corset,
reflected the notion that true women were men’s complementary opposites.
This aim toward femininity demanded a full bosom, wide hips, and a miniscule
waist. Struggling to create the illusion, women laced themselves into
heavily boned corsets. One of the most popular corsets of the time forced
the body into an “S” curve, which thrust the hips back and the breasts
forward. The fans of the “S” curve corset strove to have the wispy,
contorted bodies painted by Charles Dana Gibson, a popular American artist.
Although the look of the “Gibson Girl” was extremely popular, there was
also a movement towards a less damaging corset at the beginning of the
century. Aptly named a “Health Corset,” the garment was designed by Mme.
Gaches-Sarraute and featured a straight-fronted bust, which raised and
supported the abdominal muscles. (ii) However, the desire to have a
minuscule waist prevailed: the women wearing the corsets laced them so
tightly that all benefits were lost.
The next designer to challenge the binding corset was Parisian couturier
Paul Poiret, who wanted women’s fashions to become more relaxed. In the
hopes of establishing a straight, slim line, Poiret encouraged women to stop
wearing corsets. Though many women did not follow his advice, Poiret’s
ideas paved the way for the development of a more comfortable corset, which
held women’s torsos in an upright position. (iii)
Five years after Poiret revolutionized the corset industry, Mary Phelps
Jacob, later known as Caresse Crosby, reinvented the brassiere. (iv) With
the help of her French maid, Jacob fashioned two handkerchiefs and numerous
ribbons into a new, softer brassiere. Aside from being more comfortable and
softer than previous undergarments, Jacob’s brassiere also left the woman’s
midriff unrestricted, a daring feature.
A Boyish Figure
As the country moved away from Victorian ideals and toward a more
progressive twentieth century, gender roles were becoming less polarized.
Women were not only working and attending college at greater and greater
rates, they were actively involved in public reform movements.
Progressivism, a series of reform movements meant to combat the problems
caused by industrialization, entailed women taking their nurturing qualities
outside of their homes to take care of their communities. American society
still believed that women were different from men, but it allowed more and
more for similarities between the sexes. Women’s undergarments, while still
restrictive, again reflected the social ideals.
The aptly named “hobble skirt” swept through Western nations and
maintained popularity throughout the beginning of the second decade of the
twentieth century. (v) Naturally, the full, numerous petticoats of previous
decades were rendered useless. The result was the development of a slim
fitting, full-length petticoat, or “slip,” which maintains popularity today.
Though the elimination of bulky undergarments can be partially attributed
to the hobble skirt, the developments would not have been possible without
the invention of disposable sanitary pads. (vi)
This slim ideal carried into the 1920’s, when young, middle-class white
women struggled for thin, boyish figure with little or no curves. These
women, often referred to as flappers, wanted a body with straight lines.
Subsequently, corset manufacturers faced difficult times, and many began
manufacturing brassieres. However, a brassiere in the 1920’s was
drastically different from a brassiere in the rest of the twentieth century.
Instead of emphasizing the breasts, the brassiere flattened them against
the body, contributing to the straight-line illusion. (vii) In fact the
Dowager Corset company began manufacturing brassieres under the alluring
name “Flatter-U.” (viii)
A series of crises in the mid-twentieth century ended the period of gender
anarchy that culminated in the 1920s. As the country fell first into the
Great Depression, and then into World War II, gender roles again polarized.
Even with more women working, the dominant ideology of American society
emphasized the man as the family wage earner. Women were encouraged not to
work. The justification behind this sentiment was that if a woman worked,
she was taking a job away from a man who needed to support his family.
Clearly, the ideology did not account for the women whose wages kept their
As gender roles became a source of anxiety, the boyish figures that were so
popular in the 1920s fell into disfavor. Curves were back in fashion, but
with some important changes. Though corsets were once again popular, they
had changed a good deal from the corsets at the turn of the century. The
changes, resulting primarily from the use of elastic, made corsets much more
comfortable and flexible, though still restrictive. (ix)
Significantly, the brassiere was also revised in the 1930’s. Cup sizes were
introduced for the first time, finally allowing women of many sizes find a
comfortable fit. The bra became a controlling garment, rather than a
flattening garment. Another first in the brassiere industry was the first
strapless bra, though it did not find popularity until the 1950’s. (x)
The Second World War strengthened the movement toward curves. As more
middle-class women went to work in factories, the undergarment industry
increased its sales of panty girdles and corsets, which the government
promoted as a way to combat fatigue in the workplace. (xi)
After WWII, as a backlash against women working emerged in American
society, an even stronger emphasis on feminine curves emerged. In 1947,
designer Christian Dior introduced his “New Look,” which revived interest in
a very small waist and bolstered the popularity of the corset. (xii)
However, another result of the “New Look” was the resurrection of voluminous
petticoats, worn under the full skirts designed by Dior. Most of the newly
improved garments were now made with nylon, which was readily available
after the end of war rationing.
While the corset diminished the waist, and skirts widened the hips, new
brassieres lifted and expanded the bosom. Inspired by actresses such as
Jane Russell, the ideal breasts in the 1950’s were exaggerated and even
pointed. A new craze took Western nations by storm as “falsies” were
introduced. “Falsies” were used as extra padding in a bra by women whose
chests did not meet the “exaggerated and pointy” requirements.
While the 1950’s embraced the curvaceous woman, a drastic change was
waiting just around the corner. The 1960s were marked by social revolutions
that cast aside the older generations’ notions of what was masculine and
what was feminine. Men grew long hair, and women threw away corsets, and
sometimes brassieres, in order to free their bodies from ‘feminine’
restrictions. (xiii) However, these new-found freedoms competed with several
other ideals of womanhood, including dangerous thinness, as represented by
the model Twiggy, and a fierce clinging to pre-1960s curves.
Often the women who adopted the thin ideal were young. In conjunction
with a “less is more” attitude, the mini-skirt was introduced to the fashion
world in the 1960’s, signifying the death of petticoats and knickers.
Because the mini-skirt covered so little, stockings also met their demise.
Tights, or bare legs, replaced stockings, and only the tiniest of underwear
was appropriate under the small skirts.
Although many undergarments, including the corset, virtually
disappeared in the 1960’s, many new kinds of underwear developed that
recreated 1950s shapeliness. For instance, junior bras for teenagers were
introduced for the first time, bringing pressure on an even younger group of
females to conform to our culture’s standards. Then, in 1969, the push-up
bra was introduced. Still popular today, the push-up bra uses wires and
“steeply plunging cups” to elevate breasts and create an “inflated, pillowy
Technology and Beauty
Toward the end of the 1960s, many Americans began feeling anxious about
how far the social revolutions had gone. Though many agreed that
segregation should end, women should have equal rights with men, and the
U.S. should not be fighting in Vietnam, they were frightened by the
radicalism of protestors. 1968, the year both Robert Kennedy and Martin
Luther King, jr. were assassinated, proved to be a turning point for Middle
America. These white, middle-class citizens became nervous and looked for a
leader who could transform the chaos into order. The conservative backlash
had begun. Along with that backlash came a return to more constructed
There was no drastic difference in the ideal body shape of the 1970’s,
but a more natural shape was emphasized as petticoats and girdles became
completely outdated. The 1980’s and 1990’s were marked by similar body
ideals. While there was a brief return to the waif look of the 1960’s, the
primary goal seems to encompass small hips and a tiny waist, but large
In a struggle to achieve this figure, women have increasingly turned to
technology for help. In addition to seeking out a plastic surgeon, women
are using “high-tech” garments that push up and pull in all of the
appropriate places. While the Playtex Wonderbra remains at the top of the
industry, other bra manufacturers are attempting to cash in on bra
technology. In addition to the Wonderbra, there are bras such as the “Super
Uplift,” made by Gossard, which use heavy wiring and padding to create the
desired decolletage. The price of these creations is anywhere from
twenty-five to eighty dollars. (xv)
Bras are not the only garments being revamped by technology.
Shapewear, made of superior strength Lycra, now fills the role vacated by
corsets and girdles. The new body shaping garments include: control
panties, which give the rear and thighs a firmer look; waist cinchers, which
take inches off the waistline; and, of course, improved push-up bras. (xvi)
While the new body-shaping garments are lighter and prettier than
undergarments of the past, the ideology behind their creation has changed
very little. Throughout this century, women have endured the pain of
heavily boned corsets, the discomfort of breast flatteners, and the
uncomfortable bulk of petticoats and knickers. Though technological
advances may decrease the pain and discomfort, women still pad, distort, and
squeeze their bodies to meet cultural expectations.
Even in something as mundane as undergarments, the imprint of
historical and social context is indelible. The type of body women strive
for, and therefore the type of undergarments women buy, directly reflects
the culture surrounding them. That is not to say that women are simply
pawns to male society. Women are active participants and contributors to
the cultural forces that shape masculine and feminine ideals – ideals that
are as changeable, as significant, and as much a part of our everyday lives
as our choice in undergarments.
i. Elizabeth Ewing, Dress & Undress. (London: B.T. Basford
Ltd., 1978), 111.
ii. ibid., 110.
iii. ibid., 113.
iv. ibid., 115.
v. ibid., 117
vi. Hillel Schwartz. Never Satisfied, A Cultural History of Diets,
Fantasies, and Fats (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 161.
vii. Ewing, 127.
viii. Schwartz, 178.
ix. Ewing, 146.
x. Ewing, 149.
xi. Schwartz, 232.
xii. Ewing, 158.
xiii. Smith, “Women, Weight, and Body Image,” 103.
xiv. Levine, “Bra Wars” Forbes. (April 25, 1994), 120.
xvi. Chandler, “Remember when Bras were for Burning?” Business Week.
(January 16, 1995), 37.
1. Chandler, Susan. “Remember when Bras were for Burning?” Business
Week, January 16, 1995.
2. Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress & Undress London: B.T. Basford Ltd., 1978.
3. Levine, Joshua. “Bra Wars” Forbes, April 25, 1994.
4. Peacock, John 20th C Fashion London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
5. Schwartz, Hillel. Never Satisfied, A Cultural History of Diets,
Fantasies, and Fats New York: The Free Press, 1986.
6. Smith. “Women, Weight, and Body Image”
7. Usher, Jane M. The Psychology of the Female Body London: Routledge,
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