The various trends in women’s underwear have evolved in numerous ways and undergone a series of significant changes throughout history.  These changes can help us understand the constantly shifting attitudes towards the ideas of status and the perfection of the feminine ideal across the centuries.

In this 19th century illustration depicting a scene from Ancient Greece, a servant woman presents the belt-like breast band known by the Greek word as a mastodeton.

The Underwear of Ancient Greece

Incredibly, the undergarments of Ancient Greece may have been more in tune with what we wear today than the more eccentric fashions of later periods.  Statues of female figures from the time indicate that women would wear bands of linen over the breast and waist not entirely dissimilar to the bikinis and briefs that women wear today.  Perhaps the only major difference was that the breast band was meant to depress and flatten the bust rather than accentuate it, as is more often the case today.

This metal construction from the 16th century is thought to be an exceptional example probably used for medical purposes. The use of softer materials such as stiffened linen to make corsets was far more common. Nevertheless the general shape of this bodice is considered to be fairly representative of the time.

Medieval Europe

During the Middle Ages and Medieval period, noble women tended to wear linen smocks or the chemise to provide an additional layer between the body and the delicate outer garment which was usually very expensive.  Also, this period saw the emergence of the first rudimentary corsets which were more like tight-fitting bodices designed to alter the shape of both men’s and women’s bodies.  Like their ancient counterparts, in the case of the women, the aim was again to flatten the bust.

Example of effect created by the hoops of the farthingale in the Elizabethan period

Elizabethan Age

The Elizabethan age marked the first time that the farthingale was used to expand the outer skirts and dresses of the period.  The farthingale was essentially composed of an inner structure of hoops made out of cane or whalebone, achieving the effect of making the dresses extremely large and elongated – either in the front or back, or both!  This fashion in its many forms persisted well into the Victorian era and as the technology improved and became mass-produced, all classes began to wear the farthingale under their clothing.

Victorian Corset


Victorian Fashion

After the brief neo-classical craze of the late 1700s, by the early 19th century, women began to again return to the restrictive mainstays of polite society – the farthingale and the corset.  Although the corset is considered to be one of the most controversial of all female undergarments, in the Victorian era it was thought to be essential in order to achieve ideal of the hourglass figure – accentuating the bust and hips, while making the waist appear as slim as possible.

1906 illustration of bra from catalog for women

Beginning of the 20th Century

The early 20th century finally saw the gradual phasing out of the corset, and the shift towards the brasserie or bra for short – more reminiscent of Ancient Rome than Victorian Europe.  The bra, even in its early form, obviously offered all kinds of never-before-felt comfort and softness that the rigid corsets of earlier times so severely lacked.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – two glamorous and iconic stars of the age

The Golden Age of the 1950s

The glamour of the 1950s once again idealized the hourglass figure, mainly through the new influence of the burgeoning Hollywood film industry and its many stars.  Designers also began to experiment with new shapes and technologies such as the cone-shaped brasserie of Lana Turner or Jane Russell’s special bra engineered by the famous aviator, Howard Hughes, for them it was also important to know how to lift breasts naturally.

1960s and 70s

However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the political atmosphere of the time began to influence the mood against established clothing styles.  The bra in particular was singled out for special criticism – viewed as overly restrictive and therefore a symbol of oppression.  The infamous bra burning incidents during the 1960s and into the 1970s illustrated all too well the revolutionary fervor of the feminist movement against all preconceived notions of women’s clothing.

1980s to Present Day

As technology continues to evolve and become more advanced, for women too, the options for lingerie and underwear have also expanded as materials become more comfortable and versatile.  Rather than the popular androgynous look of the 1960s, cleavage and the voluptuous form has come back with a vengeance, and for the time being at least; seems to be here to stay.  But as we see from history, when it comes to women’s underwear, the only thing that’s certain is change.

Our guest blogger today is Alex Levin who joins us from RAG New York.