Sunday, 19 May 2024

A Brief History Of Women’s Underwear

Women's Underwear

For nearly as long as humans have worn clothing, there has been underwear in one form or another. Women in particular have been instrumental in turning this necessity of modesty into a fashion statement that has stood the test of time! Women on the Greek isle of Crete in 2500 BC began wearing a kind of push-up bra that shoved their bare breasts up and out of their togas, a rather provocative style that sadly did not survive into the present day. Conversely, shy Roman women strove to minimize their busts by squeezing their breasts into a tightly fitting band, while Egyptian women simply painted their bare breasts, a custom still popular during university Spring Breaks.


What we would now consider to be the forerunners of modern women’s underwear came into being in Europe during the 1500s when Catherine de Medici brought the corset from her native Italy to France when she became queen. The French court embraced the corset, literally in this case, and this tight bodice worn under the outer layers of clothing became the first in a long line of highly uncomfortable and restrictive undergarments that flattered the female figure while making the female trapped within suffer miserably.


Corsets were a commonly worn garment among European women throughout the sixteenth century. To make things even more uncomfortable, the British (leave it to them!) added a “busk”, a long, flat piece of whalebone that was sewn into the corset’s casing to give it a stiff shape. The corset’s front featured a “stomacher”, a stiff, V-shaped structure worn over the abdomen to further accentuate the torturous effect. Corsets continued to enjoy popularity well into the early 20th century, mostly among men, who didn’t wear them of course, they just liked to watch. 

The “Breast Supporter”, the forerunner of today’s bra, was patented in 1893 by Marie Tucek, featuring shoulder straps with hooks and eyes supporting a separate pocket for each breast. In 1907 Vogue coined the word “brassiere”, based on the French word for “upper arm”. The first actual bra was patented by Mary Phelps Jacob in 1913, consisting of a ribbon holding together two pieces of cloth.

Corsets finally went out of style in the 1920s, in part because the steel frames that replaced the whalebone had all been used up to build World War I battleships. 


The word brassiere was shortened to bra in the 1930s, and the 1940s ushered in the use of added padding in the cups. The 1950s saw the advent of the sharply pointed bullet bra, but it was discontinued after too many men suffered injuries from being poked in the eye by them. It was also during this time that women’s panties grew in popularity, and together with the bra inspired the bikini swimsuit, which men still find inspiring to this day.

The bra almost went extinct during the 1960s when women’s lib urged followers to burn their bras as a symbolic protest against the male patriarchy. Once they realized that the men weren’t all that bothered by this act of liberation, they went back to wearing bras again. Now that women’s equality is the law in advanced nations, women’s underwear remains a symbol of freedom enjoyed by both sexes.


hassan javed

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