Who invented Lingerie?


The History of Women’s Lingerie – The Evolution of Intimate Apparel and the Feminine Ideal

Lingerie has evolved from practical or restrictive undergarments into symbols which define the feminine ideal of an era.

The world’s love affair with lingerie is an everlasting one whose origins go back to ancient times. It has long been assumed that, initially, intimate apparel was designed primarily to protect and obscure female sexuality. Nevertheless, the purpose of lingerie has evolved at the same time as its appearance, defining each century’s ideal of feminine beauty, as well as the ever changing perceptions of female identity.

The Beginnings of Lingerie

Ancient frescoes and terracotta figurines found in Egypt give us an idea about the forerunners of modern lingerie. These artifacts depict Egyptian women of higher social status wearing tunics supported by shoulder straps, which extended all the way to their ankles, while women of lower status are shown wearing loincloths or nothing at all. Besides defining the fashion style of the era, ancient Egyptian lingerie also testifies to the existence of a stratified society.

Although many of the works of classical Greek sculpture depict female nudes, earlier statues show Greek women wearing various types of undergarments, from crossed bands of cloth that covered their breasts to linens wrapped around their waist and lower torso for support. In ancient Greece, lingerie played more of a functional role, being designed primarily for support and protection, without special aesthetic considerations. However, some artifacts depict the Minoan women who inhabited the island of Crete wearing primitive bodices made of bone, which fully exposed their breasts, emphasizing women’s role as the creators of life.

Roman intimate apparel also seems to have been designed with functionality in mind. The frescoes of the Villa Romana del Casale, a notorious mosaic from 400 AD, shows Roman women wearing briefs similar to twentieth-century bikinis and breast-cloths (called strophium in Cicero’s writings) that allowed them to move freely, while covering their private parts. As evidenced by frescoes and statues, both Greek and Roman intimate apparel consisted mainly of bands of cloth wrapped tightly around the female body, which flattened the breasts, promoting a lean, athletic look.

Medieval Undergarments

It is no surprise that during the Middle Ages, the era of sexual repression, intimate apparel was designed to conceal and flatten female curves. In Medieval Europe, women wore a chemise underneath the outer garment. The chemise, which looked like a shapeless tunic, not only provided warmth in the winter, but also protected outer garments from bodily secretions. Since outer clothes were seldom washed and many people regarded regular bathing as a luxury, these tunics made it easier to keep outerwear cleaner for longer.

Despite the limited interest in fashion characteristic of the medieval era, the Middle Ages marked the beginning of a shift toward tailored clothing which focused more on enhancing the body’s appearance. In her book The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele credits the first mention of the corset to a twelfth-century manuscript, which depicts this controversial piece of lingerie as a tight bodice laced up in the front, whose shape closely followed that of the female body. By the 1500s, lingerie design began to reflect the revived interest in female curves.

A Renaissance of Curves

As the rigid morality of the medieval era started to fade, Renaissance painters like Botticelli and Titian created a new aesthetic which pioneered the accurate depiction of the human body. Under the influence of their art, a new feminine ideal was born, emphasizing voluptuous female curves. Lingerie design followed this trend, introducing undergarments that enhanced women’s sexual appeal.

In the late sixteenth century, the corset became the centerpiece of intimate apparel, which was going to reign for more than three centuries. Women wore tight corsets that shaped their bodies into an ideal hourglass figure. Made with whalebone, corsets were often restrictive and women required assistance to dress and undress. Many doctors proclaimed corsets health hazards, deeming them responsible for miscarriages and malformations and pleading for less restrictive designs. However, many Renaissance women continued to adhere to the maxim that suffering for beauty is part of a woman’s life.

Victorian Intimate Apparel

The nineteenth century marked the beginning of a revolution in lingerie design. Although the corset had been introduced centuries earlier, the new designs were embroidered and ornamented with lace and ribbons. Corsets also became smaller and less rigid once the elastic model, which allowed for easier breathing, was introduced in the early 1800s. The front closure system further revolutionized corsets, allowing women to put them on without assistance.

While corseted waists and exaggerated crinolines continued to define the feminine ideal, the Victorian era witnessed a host of innovations in intimate apparel. Stockings, held up by garters that attached to corsets, and shorter drawers became part of many women’s wardrobes. The introduction of colorful undergarments and silk lingerie added a hint of sensuality to feminine underwear.

The Twentieth Century – A Lingerie Revolution

In the twentieth century, women became more active, engaging in work activities, sports and night club dancing, which called for more practical undergarments. Lighter fabrics and elastic fibers were introduced, making intimate apparel more comfortable. In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacobs patented the softer, shorter brassiere (meaning “support” in French), which soon replaced the cumbersome corset.

Once the flapper fad of the Roaring Twenties – which emphasized the lean, androgynous look – waned, cleavage once again became a key factor in defining feminine beauty. The push-up bra (invented in the 1940s) was designed to enhance female curves, as were the new, minimalistic bikinis. Corsets made a comeback in the 1990s as purely decorative undergarments to be showcased in the bedroom.

Despite the feminist movement’s claims that lingerie represents a device of feminine repression, lingerie lines continue to grow in popularity as women are striving to match the new sensual, sexually liberated ideal of feminine beauty made popular by contemporary models.

Entering a lingerie store today is very much like visiting an art gallery. The silk, satin and lace creations designed to adorn the female body are true masterpieces of fashion design which engage our visual sense and stimulate our imagination.

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