Origins of Lingerie: A Brief Introduction
Nothing would explain more the meaning that lingerie has come to have in our lives than looking at what it was originally planned to symbolize and then tracing its evolution up to this date. Of course, that's easier said than done: the reasons for wearing lingerie are subtle, multifaceted, and incredibly complex, especially when we consider the multitude of changes and social disruptions that can occur within a single decade, technological or other. I will be getting into it little by little with different posts, but for the moment I feel a little introduction is needed.
Our favorite sexy word originated, as you probably already guessed, in France, though not at all in the sexy light that we imagine. It was derived from the word “linge” for linen and was used to denote undergarments for both men and women much like you would talk about house linen. It underwent many transformations after that- with fashion linking undergarments to status and turning it into every rich woman’s faithful assistant in shaping her body to suit the shifting ideals of beauty.
It took the Victorian era and its obsession with propriety (and equally as strong obsession with pornography) to give it the more fun, taboo, sexual - and definitely female - intonation we give it now. It didn’t become a thing until the 1850’s, when people probably finally realized how delicious lingerie made everyone look and fashion started to make a big fuss about it like it does with everything. Embroideries, laces and haberdashery flourished, aligning the cult of undergarments with the cult for fabrics, allowing soft fabrics to become a metaphor for skin itself and inciting the beginnings of underwear fetishisms.
Lingerie as possessing an aesthetic, fashion-worthy quality only developed from then on with a special thanks to a couple of pioneers, Lady Duff-Gordon, Titanic survivor extraordinaire, and Paul Poiret, who came back with the gift of less restrictive outerwear fashion for women, thus requiring a huge change in the underwear department.
Since then, we’ve seen lingerie go from being plain, practical undergarments to becoming the shiny new assistant in shaping women’s bodies to suit the current notions of a damn fine body.
And so the shrinking began. Smaller and tighter outer-wear fashion meant teenier and slinkier lingerie. Just to emphasize the difference (and to indulge my flair for the dramatic), the two pictures below very accurately depict what I mean:
Fabrics changed to become lighter and more breathable, the first bra came along and the 50’s saw lingerie adopt Hollywood’s glitz and glamour with the return of the fashionable hourglass figure eschewed by the androgynous flappers of the 20s. We see this back and forth between beauty ideals throughout the century, with social changes such as the advent of feminism and its eventual twists and turns, wars, sexual liberation and the deconstruction of traditional values - not to mention technological advancements in synthetic fabrics and a couple of life changing inventions such as pantyhose practically obliterating girdles, shaping the look and feel of lingerie by heightening or lowering the emphasis on the bust, hips and waist (woman vs. androgyny, adult curves vs. child-like straight lines).
We end with an identity of a woman fragmented into her multiple roles, with lingerie to suit: sex goddess, dutiful wife and mother, determined career woman, ageless model and athlete, only without the supportive undergarments of the past women now had to resort to internalized methods to help them adhere to the fashionable ideal such as diet, exercise and even plastic surgery.
As a backlash to the independent go-getting, new woman, lingerie took a romanticized turn, turning into something you do for yourself rather than for your man, and became a malleable decorative tool at the hands of designers bringing trends such as lingerie as outerwear from as early as the 80s with Madonna. After this, all bets are off: structured corsets and obsolete items came back under the new guise of vintage fashions or special occasion lingerie and body shaping undergarments made an incredible come back in the form of Spanx. Nowadays, there is really a style for everyone.
In its entire evolution, I would add that I definitely thank the Victorians for dipping lingerie in an air of scandal. What would lingerie be without its alluring and playful eroticism we all love to dabble in? Plain and practical. Thank god fashion made that uncool.
"Hidden Underneath: A History of Lingerie", Farid Chenoune, 2005