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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Janelle Collett

Distortion: 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 larger society.

The Corset

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. (i)

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 families alive. 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 effect.” (xiv)

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 female bodies.

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 breasts.

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.
xv. Ibid.
xvi. Chandler, “Remember when Bras were for Burning?” Business Week. (January 16, 1995), 37.

Works Cited
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, 1989.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected]