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by Katie Peachesa April 08, 2020 8 min read

The History of Lingerie

By Ksenia Sobchak

The History of Sexy Lingerie – Staying Abreast of the Silhouette Ah, the female silhouette. It can really vary, can’t it? And it really has – over the ages. What’s been acceptable to society has changed from one extreme to the other – and back again. But the silhouette has been governed by what’s draped over it. And throughout history, it’s been adorned in many different ways, with different areas accentuated along the way. Women have worn everything from a heavy whalebone contraption with laces and pulleys, all the way to the light silky sexy lingerie of today. To try to make some sense of the transformation of the silhouette over the years, let’s look at the history of sexy lingerie – why it changed, and how it changed.

The first “lingerie”? When we think of sexy lingerie, we think of light, thin material, usually see-through, draped adoringly over the female body, covering just enough to titillate the impressionable male. But well before Christ, on the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea, women were very bold. Their idea of lingerie was a boned bodice corset, designed not for support, but to tease men, by pushing their breasts up and out, literally exposing them in their entire splendor. Although they achieved the “sexy” part, the “lingerie” part was nothing like what we think of as lingerie today.

Throughout time, as each vision of the silhouette emerged, clothing was created to fit and accentuate this shape. There were, of course, two main elements in a silhouette – the bust and the butt. Some societies wanted the bust to be prominent, while some felt that the butt should be the “point of interest”. One thing that’s never changed is that we’re at the mercy of the fashion gurus – whatever they say is in, that’s what we wear.

The silhouette goes from profound to padded Society in the Middle Ages felt that the silhouette should be restrained, especially the breasts, which they thought should be firm and small. In those days, women wore many styles of corsets over their dresses, all with the similar purpose of flattening their breasts. And in case some men didn’t notice this flattering flattening, some women actually attached small bells around their neckline – the jingling bringing attention to the jiggling v.

During the Renaissance, the Spanish fashion experts saw the silhouette as padded – in all the right places. They wanted to see women with cone-shaped breasts, flat stomachs and narrow waists. And women went to great lengths to achieve this look – more than reasonable lengths, as we see it today. They actually had to have other people dress them because the cinching up of their corsets was done up their backs and required a lot of strength. In fact, they were trussed and bound tighter than a Thanksgiving turkey.

This unnatural shaping of the silhouette was met with disapproval by proponents of good health. Doctors complained that these corsets compressed women’s bodies so tightly, their internal organs were being squeezed, and their ribs were being pushed out of shape. It was quite common for women to swoon and faint – usually attributed to the females’ delicate nature. Actually, it was because they just couldn’t breathe! There was one report of a woman who actually died when her ribs were cinched so tightly that they pierced her liver. Wow – the cost of looking sexy!

By the 18th century, life was becoming lighter, and clothing trends followed. Although the whalebone structure of the corset still kept women tightly silhouetted, there was a definite movement to incorporate the artistry that marked the era. Corsets were decorated with beautiful embroidery, ribbons and laces. And that wasn’t the only thing that drew male attention – they also pushed the breasts up, threatening to jump right out.

Later in the 18th century, people started rebelling against many things and corsets were no exception. Again, doctors spoke out about the dangers of these body presses. And this time they were heard – enough to actually have boned corsets outlawed.

The softer silhouette is highlighted By the early 1800s, the silhouette was still enhanced, calling for the support that the old corset had given. So the corset returned, but with more elaborate methods of construction. Boning was still used, but in smaller sections, allowing for more movement. And since the fashion of the day was for a more separated look for breasts, a corset-maker named Leroy came up with a model he called a “divorce”. (Perhaps it was named that because by the time the husband got it undone, he’d lost interest! And separation does precede divorce, doesn’t it?) But seriously folks, this problem of lacing and unlacing was met by corset designers – they developed systems that allowed women to undress themselves.

During the 1840s, with the much-exaggerated silhouette for women, whalebone came back into use, but this time with huge hoops and crinolines, covered with all kinds of fabric and trim. In those days, a man knew he’d found a fashionable woman if he could put his hands around her waist. And because women were still trying to attract men, they cinched themselves up even tighter.

The hoop-and-crinoline look was soon replaced by the soft-S silhouette, still using the corset, but adding the bustle to the back. Now they’d created an exaggerated bottom. This was fine, except women had to stand a lot because most of their butts were covered by the cumbersome bustle. Of course, the men liked this because it gave them more opportunities to view those sexy bustles.

As fashion design became more innovative, more varieties of corsets were created. Now you could get a lightly-boned corset for the morning, a boneless corset for the beach, an elastic corset for horseback riding, and a jersey corset for bicycle riding. With all the activities women participated in, think of how many corsets they would need!

The corset is extended – then expended By the end of the 19th century, the corset had become a supporter not only of breasts, but of the newly-created stockings. Stockings were held up by garters and suspenders attached to the corset – a very complex system of rigging.

By the beginning of the 20th century, corsets were being laced down as far as the knee. But many people didn’t like that style, and fashion designers were leaning towards an uncorseted, more free-flowing style. Sexy lingerie was about to take a whole new turn. With the advent of the industrial revolution, and the invention of the sewing machine, Germany and France opened the first corset factories.

In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob created a new type of bra. It was much softer and much shorter than a corset. And it allowed the breasts to be shaped in their natural state. When too many people started asking Mary for her design, she thought she’d better get it protected. So she applied for a patent. She eventually sold this patent to Warner Company.

After World War I, women began to enter the workforce and corsets were definitely not appropriate for wear in factories. They needed shorter skirts made of cooler and lighter fabric that was easy to care for. The other factor was that the war had taken its toll on their supply of men, which meant more competition in landing a man – they needed to look their sexiest!

Then came the Roaring Twenties, with it’s elaborate parties. Fashion changed dramatically – the boyish silhouette was in. The quest for flat chests and stomachs, and straight hips and buttocks, led the fashion industry to create the liberty bodice, the chemise, and bloomers – loose-fitting and light. And a long-overdue substitute for plain old white appeared – pastel colored lingerie. The first brassieres were designed to flatten the breasts, adding to the total boyish look. The corset was no longer needed – except the bottom part that held up the stockings. So the corset was shortened right down to a belt – the suspender belt.

The 30s brought back the full-figured silhouette The 30s brought with them a complete turnaround in the shape of the desired silhouette. The woman’s feminine side once again became the priority. Women were encouraged to look well-proportioned, full-figured, but still reasonably slim in the hips. Now women had a full set of lingerie to outfit themselves – a breast-enhancing brassiere, an elastic suspender belt, and the girdle, that kept all the curves in the right places.

One of the biggest advancements in the lingerie industry came in the 1930s, when Dunlop Rubber invented Lastex. Lastex was an elastic fiber that could be interwoven with the fabric used to make lingerie fashions. Now the industry could make lingerie in various sizes, to properly fit a woman’s shape.

But then came World War II, and with it, its shortages. Germany couldn’t import the fabrics they’d been using and their industry dried up. People started making home-knitted underwear out of anything they could find. Not very sexy, to say the least. But they were warm.

After the war, lingerie consisted of the basic bras and suspender belts. This was the norm for most women. But the teenage girl, emerging from the oppression of the war, and looking for excitement, became a target market. These teenagers were anxious to grow up, and wearing lingerie was a big step towards getting there. So the lingerie industry started to create lingerie sets that would attract the attention of these young girls. And the German lingerie industry exploded.

Over in America, the lingerie industry was making its own mark. Everyone was trying to create something new and different. The market was flooded with all kinds of innovations to help women look sexy. For example, Howard Hughes created a new bra – a special wire-reinforced design for Jane Russell. (Was that the one that got her the Oscar for “Best Support”?)

The silhouette suffers as bras are burned As the 60s brought a wave of women’s emancipation movements, feminists burned their bras. It’s ironic that they had lots of support for this movement, because now that they’d burned their bras, their support was gone. And, later in life, they’d find that their support sagged.

This movement gave the lingerie industry a heavy hit. Many manufacturers were forced out of business. But on the positive side, Lycra had just been invented, and women’s legs began to be adorned in tights or, even better for the men, the sexy little mini-skirt. And with the mini-skirt came a demand for bikini briefs.

By the 1980s, wire-reinforced bras had become the number-one seller. For those who need that added support, these are still very popular today. Probably the biggest seller now is the push-up bra.

Today’s silhouette varies in shape – but always looks good in sexy lingerie Think of how far lingerie has come – from the push-up corsets of ancient Greece, to the push-up bra of today. The history of sexy lingerie proves one fact – some things never change. Obviously, the purpose hasn’t changed – women still want to look sexy. The only thing that has changed is the method.

We now have a society that allows much more freedom than in the past. We have lighter, lacier, sexier fabric. We have more liberal ideas of how much can be bared. And of course, the men are all for it. So the goal of the lingerie industry remains the same – to create an image of a woman who’s desirable and sexy. And if you look at all the sexy lingerie websites, you’ll see that the industry is achieving its goal. Right guys?

Katie Peachesa
Katie Peachesa

Katie Peachesa is a sex and lingerie blogger based out of the urban chic Wapping in the heart of East London, United Kingdom. In her spare time, Katie enjoys photography, yoga and fitness, a bit of boxing, traveling, keeping up with the latest fashion trends and mudlarking and exploring pastoral settings. You are likely to find Katie in an artisan cafe in Brick Lane on a Saturday afternoon furiously typing her next article on her laptop whilst she is sipping on her flat white and drawing inspiration from the hustle and bustle in the heart of creative London. Katie runs the "Fashion Life Mag" and has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Allure, Grazia, Tatler, Evening Standard and other popular media outlets.


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