Exploring the History of Vintage Lingerie: From Corsets to Camisoles
Exploring the History of Vintage Lingerie: From Corsets to Camisoles
The hit period drama on Netflix, “Bridgerton,” brought on a resurgence of Regency-era fashion from the 1800s in pop culture. Corseted silhouettes and other such styles were brought back into the spotlight. In fact, this craze for 19th-century regalia even has a term among TikTok fashionistas: #Regencycore.
Putting together an accurate, elaborate 19th-century outfit starts with the basics, which is vintage lingerie. Corsets, crinolines, and camisoles gave form and structure to the extravagant Regency-era and Victorian gowns. They helped create a perfect, shapely silhouette that was the norm in those times.
Here we delve into the long history of vintage lingerie from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s to see how it has evolved over the years.
Evolution of Vintage Lingerie
Lingerie has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. However, its early versions were not as lightweight, comfortable, and sleek as they are today. Like most fashion pieces of the time, vintage lingerie was heavy, restrictive, and often uncomfortable for those who wore them.
The stylish bell silhouette that dominated the late 1800s came about due to the combination of tight corsets and loose petticoats.
The tournure or bustle, a cushioned undergarment that added fullness and supported the rear portion of women’s skirts, was another common feature of this time. It gave women an accentuated silhouette, which was desirable in the high fashion circles of the period.
In the 1900s, fashion designers started making innovations in lingerie and began to integrate more relaxed structures and fabrics into corsets. They introduced softer garments to provide more comfort to the wearer.
During this period, the brassiere or bra—along with bloomers—were introduced. They quickly became more popular than the restrictive corsets. In the 1920s, as hemlines rose, stockings also gained popularity. They covered exposed legs, while bloomers saw shorter lengths, too.
The 1930s to the 1940s saw the rise of girdles and garters. And from the 50s to the 60s, lingerie evolved into an individual, distinctive fashion piece. Innerwear became outerwear, which led to prints, colors, and more elaborate designs.
Within a few decades, lingerie turned from white garments hidden beneath dresses into a fashion statement in its own right.
Early History of Lingerie, Including Corsets and Crinolines
Let’s dive even deeper into the history of vintage lingerie, including its evolution throughout the Victorian era and the 20th century.
Changes in Lingerie Styles During the Victorian Era
In the Victorian era, corsets or stays were used to emphasize rounded busts and to shape women’s waists. Bustles supported the back of a skirt. Stylish women of the era also wore other undergarments, like corset covers, to hide their corset lines and petticoats for more warmth and to add volume to their skirts.
The lingerie styles and methods of production changed rapidly throughout the era due to technological innovations and new gender attitudes.
Designers typically fashioned corsets from long-lasting cotton and sewed them by hand. Busks—or flat pieces inserted into the front of a corset to keep it in place and create smooth lines—were crafted from metal or wood.
Certain cording techniques and boning, which was made from baleen or whalebone, provided much-needed support to vintage lingerie. Corsets were tightly laced at the back and had hidden straps near the shoulders to pair with sweeping necklines. Down-filled pads were another structural undergarment that provided support to the puffed sleeves of dresses.
In the 1850s, corsets with hip boning created an oversized, exaggerated silhouette, while in 1856, cage crinolines were introduced to further support and mold billowing skirts. They were made of steel hoops that increased in diameter further down the hem.
Crinolines were lightweight and flexible, yet sturdy enough to cushion skirts, eliminating the need for cumbersome petticoats. Their collapsible structure provided a better range of movement, and they were easy to fold down for storage. This innovation continued to shape women’s fashion for the next decade.
The 1880s saw white or neutral-colored corsets taking a backseat while colorful ones became more popular. Designers focused on making lingerie designs that were as intricate and eye-catching as the outerwear of the time.
In the 1890s, lacy and billowy bloomers came to the scene.
The 1900s witnessed the rise of structured longline corsets that extended beyond the hips. The structured boning and tight laces cinched women’s waists and accentuated their curves.
In the 1910s, corsets with knee-length knickers that tapered near the legs became all the rage.
Introduction of New Materials and Designs in the 20th Century
In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, new materials and designs debuted with the rise in technological innovations. Sewing machines led to mass production in fashion, including lingerie.
Manufacturers introduced new corset lines into the market. Many of them featured colorful and luxurious silks and lace that provided comfort along with structure.
Influence of Fashion Icons on Vintage Lingerie Trends
In the 1950s, fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly influenced changes in vintage lingerie designs and trends. Hepburn’s gamine figure and Kelly’s hourglass were considered the most attractive body shapes during this period. So, lingerie focused on achieving this look with padded hips and tiny waists.
The “big three” fashion models of the time—Dovima, Jean Patchett, and Suzy Parker— graced leading fashion magazines and showcased the latest skirt and dress lines. These included umbrella skirts, circle skirts, pencil skirts, and so on.
These styles led to the popularity of lingerie designs that created silhouettes to highlight the wearer’s curves. So, women typically wore lingerie that emphasized their busts and hips and cinched in their waists.
Role of Lingerie in Shaping Women’s Fashion
Next, we delve into the impact of vintage lingerie on women’s ideal body shapes and how it helped define femininity and sensuality over the years. We also break down the changes in societal attitudes toward lingerie and its depiction in mass media.
Impact of Lingerie on Women’s Body Shapes and Silhouettes
In the 19th and 20th centuries, women wore corsets with whalebone or other undergarments with rigid materials that contorted their bodies into a particular shape. This was primarily due to the pressure to conform to the norms of the times—the bust and hips needed to be rounded, while the waist had to be as narrow as possible.
But in the 1910s, corset designers began to focus less on narrowing the waist and more on creating smooth lines around the abdomen and hips. They did not drastically distort a woman’s figure and posture and instead created a more natural silhouette. This provided wearers more comfort and ease of movement and showed their bodies more kindness.
Lingerie as a Symbol of Femininity and Sensuality
Modern lingerie is no longer just pieces of fabric worn beneath clothing. It has become a powerful tool that symbolizes femininity and sensuality. It reflects and sparks different feelings and emotions in the wearer on various occasions.
Decades ago, many women only wore lingerie for practicality. But today, they can be used to express femininity, sexuality, and other fascinating aspects of the wearer.
Changes in Societal Attitudes Towards Lingerie and Its Portrayal in Media
Fashion silhouettes in the West have always been dynamic, with necklines and hemlines going up and down and in and out over hundreds of years.
The goal was not to highlight or flow with the body’s natural curves and lines as the ancient Greeks and Romans did. Instead, it was to contort and shape bodies, especially those of women, to create silhouettes that fit in with the societal norms of the times.
This was often challenging for women as they were expected to use devices to manipulate their bodies. The media, too, only showed women with “desirable” body shapes in their advertisements and cover pages and promoted such mindsets.
Fortunately, societal norms and mainstream media portrayals evolved. Function and comfort eventually became important elements in fashion. This led to softer materials and more free-flowing lingerie designs.
Interesting Facts About Vintage Lingerie
Unusual Designs and Features of Vintage Lingerie
The 1920s to the 1940s saw lingerie ingenuity at its best. Innovative designs like girdles and garters came to the fore because tiny waists and enhanced cleavages were highly desirable.
Marilyn Monroe was often featured in lingerie advertisements that emphasized looking and feeling great while flaunting one’s natural body shape. Her Sweater Girl look—in which she wore a bullet bra—resulted in a sudden boom in the trend.
In the 1930s, strapless wire bras were introduced.
The 1940s saw the advent of stick-on bras. They allowed women to get an even tan while sunbathing without fidgeting with the straps of their bathing suits.
Lingerie as a Form of Self-Expression and Empowerment for Women
Women’s relationship with lingerie has changed over the decades. As women became more empowered in society, shapewear that contorted their bodies faded into obscurity. Modern women choose to wear sexy lingerie or none at all as a form of individualism and self-expression.
Modern lingerie has allowed women to show off different elements of their identity, including their feelings about their body shape.
Historical Significance of Lingerie in Popular Culture
Like most women's fashion, the portrayal of lingerie in popular culture has evolved quite extensively. It has long been fodder for fashion shows and films that showed off new designs and trends.
Lingerie has especially influenced films, as it would appear in iconic scenes to make an impact and give viewers something to discuss and remember.
The movie The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe’s dress flies up due to the airflow exposing her white undergarments, is one of the best examples. It led to the rise of “lingerie culture,” where women would focus on what actresses wore on screen. They would then copy those styles by buying similar pieces for themselves.
Vintage lingerie is the base element that will help you recreate the classic styles of the Regency and Victorian eras from top to toe and inside out. It also provides a taste of authentic historic couture.
If you wish to get your hands on vintage fashion, check out our catalog. Our high-end collection of vintage clothing will transport you back in time and help you look and feel as stylish and beautiful as you can be.
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