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Evolution of fashion and undergarments
Women's fashion and undergarments have undergone a massive evolution over the last 100 years, reflecting women's changing tastes influenced by popular culture, technological advances, and social norms.
Early 1900s - Edwardian Era
In the early 1900s, women wore restrictive S-curve corsets designed to minimize the waist, while pushing the bust forward and bum pushed back. This look was popularized by the Gibson Girls, the feminine ideal drawn by artist Charles Dana Gibson.
The S-curve corset was designed to promote an upright, proud posture, but it forced an unnatural position in which frequent wearers were prone to developing lumbar lordosis (swayback).
1910s - First modern bra was made of handkerchiefs
Socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs found corsets so uncomfortable, she designed and patented the first bra, made of two handkerchiefs sewn together with a ribbon tie. As the story goes, the 19-year old socialite wanted to wear a sheer gown for a debutante ball. Women at the time were expected to wear a corset, stiffened with whalebone.
Mary designed what she coined a brassiere, which gave her freedom of movement. The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted her patent in 1914.
Illustration from the original patent application
1920s - Women's growing independence influences fashion
The 1920s ushered in a new era where women celebrated their new found freedoms by pursuing a more androgynous look. The 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, gave women the right to vote. The ideal silhouette went from curvy buxom to boyish silhouettes. Women tossed their corsets in favor of brassieres and comfortable panties.
The quintessential flapper wore loose dresses with a dropped waist. The ideal look was for women to have flat chests to create a streamlined look from bust to hips.
For curvy women hoping to achieve the desired flat fit, they wore girdles and tight corsets and bras, like the Symington Side Lacer Bras.
1928 Guide to Good Posture with Julia Faye
Silent film actress Colleen Moore described flappers as being "smart and sophisticated, with an air of independence about them, and so casual about their looks and clothes and manners as to be almost slapdash."
1930s - Art Deco & Fashion Escapism
During the Great Depression, silver screen stars like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlowe, and Dolores Del Rio sauntered in wearing bias cut gowns. The art deco aesthetic influenced buildings, trains, ocean liners, furniture, jewelry, and fashion.
The 1920s androgyny gave way to more feminine shapes and subsequently, girdles became shorter, bras were less restrictive, and bras like the "full fashion double support bra" supported fuller busts with a wide extended band.
Photographer unknown. Joan Crawford, 1932. Laura Loveday. Source: Flickr
1940s - WWII and Bra-volution
With wartime efforts underway, fabric rationing was enforced and this had an impact on women's fashion. The introduction of the two-piece bikini is said to have resulted from fabric rationing efforts.
Women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force had special corsets designed with pockets, so they had a place to carry money and loose change. By the mid-1940s, bra cup and band size measurements became an industry standard.
And following the end of WWII when metal shortages were no longer an issue, underwire bras started to gain popularity for their structure and support.
Strapless bras were introduced in the 1940s giving women more options to wear outfits with revealing necklines. Other innovation in undergarments included front-hook bras and adhesive bras.
1950s - Bullet Bras & Structured Glamour
With the end of the war, women's fashion moved from an utilitarian aesthetic to a more glamorous look.
Quirky innovations like the "bra bag" created a push-up effect with blow-up inflatable cup inserts. Lingerie was sexy during the pin-up heydays.
Women's fashion had a more put-together look in the 1950's with a cinched in waist, structured tops, and voluminous skirts.
Ladies of Vinyl, ca. 1950s. Source: Pinterest
1960s - Rebellion and Flower Power
Women rebelled against the structured silhouettes of the 1950s. Clothes and lingerie were more playful, girlish, and carefree in style. Hemlines were much shorter and iconic designer Mary Quant fueled the popularity of mini skirts and colorful shift dresses.
The Supremes, publicity shot 1967, Pinterest
1970s - Sleeker Lingerie and the Sports Bra
When it came to bras and lingerie, innovation came in the form of sleek styles with silk and lace trims. Popular fashion trends included wide leg jeans and palazzo pants, halter tops, and platform shoes. Studio 54 was at its brightest moment, pop art had become mainstream, and Victoria's Secret got its start in 1977.
Designed for exercise, the first modern sports bra ("jockbra") was invented that same year by Lisa Lindahl and theater costume designer Polly Smith.
Grace Jones and Andy Warhol at Studio 54, Getty Images
1980s - Power Suits and Leggings
The 80s was an iconic decade for entertainment and fashion. As women climbed up the corporate ladder, the power suit emerged. In the hit film Working Girl, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver's characters wore power suits, blazers with heavily padded shoulders. The 80s power suit presented strong women who exuded authority and respect. During the 80s, aerobics became hugely popular and so were spandex leggings.
Photo by Victoria Borodinova, Pexels
1990s - Grunge and Minimalist Chic
The big hair and 80s excess turned to grunge and minimalism in the 90s. While flannels and baggy jeans became popular, minimalist fashion dominated the runways with slip dresses and monochrome colors. Who could forget Madonna's cone bra by Jean Paul Gaultier.
The Wonderbra and push-up bras in general gained in popularity.
Madonna wearing the iconic cone bra. Source: Marie Claire / Pinterest
2000s - Low-rise jeans and tracksuits
Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2001 during the decade where terry and velour tracksuits were the trendy thing to wear. Graphic tees and low-rise jeans were on trend.
Jennifer Lopez in a tracksuit, Getty Images, Pinterest
2010s - Athleisure, Sports Bras & Bralettes
Athleisurewear was everywhere. Women dressed casually and comfortably in leggings, yoga pants, sneakers, tees, and hoodies.
Sports bras and bralettes shot up in popularity as women looked for greater comfort and support.
SNL paid homage to our practical love of leggings in their 2018 Nike skit.
Photo by Retha Ferguson, Pexels
Fashion trends and what goes into our top drawer have changed over the decades. Now more than ever, versatility, support and comfort are paramount in the foundational clothes we wear.
Source material included Elle, FIT NYC, Perspex, Marie Claire, Who What Wear, Wikipedia, and Pinterest.