#CSFashionhour, Costume Society  |  September 28, 2015

#CSFashionHour: Underwear

In the next #CSFashionHour we will be looking at what lies beneath. Tying in with the recent announcement of next year’s V&A exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, which will address the practicalities of underwear and its role in the fashionable wardrobe, our discussion aims to look at underwear as something ubiquitous rather than merely titillating.

Many mainstream media articles on the topic of underwear can focus on the garments as something ‘sexy’ or sexual, however, there are many other aspects of this type of clothing that are often neglected. Discussions regarding underwear can and should cover many different topics, including:

  • Design, fashionability and silhouette
  • Technological innovation, construction, fit and comfort
  • Issues surrounding identity and body confidence
  • How underwear is marketed and sold

Many would agree that some knowledge of undergarments, however limited, is vital to a thorough understanding of historical fashion. I began my review of the Museum at FIT’s 2014 exhibition Exposed: A History of Lingerie with the following observation: ‘As any well respected costumier will tell you, achieving the correct silhouette for a particular era is virtually impossible without the correct underpinnings.’ In The Story of Men’s Underwear (2010), Shaun Cole reminds us that the use of undergarments to shape the body is not something reserved solely for women’s fashion:

‘A pinched-in waist was a staple of the fashionable dandy image in the first part of the nineteenth century [...] Stays were, however, not just worn for vanity but also used for practical purposes such as in the army and many European accounts mention military men wearing stays, which helped them attain the correct posture.’

From crinolines, corsets and codpieces through to bras, thongs and Y-fronts, it would appear that underwear has been getting smaller over the last few hundred years. Now that bodies and outerwear are easier to wash, underwear only needs to cover all when we layer on the thermals for warmth. As Western society now expects bodies to conform to a fashionable silhouette through diet and exercise rather than via garments like padded stockings, stays or bustles, even control underwear can be surprisingly brief when compared to styles worn a century ago.

A closer look at historical undergarments can tell us more than just what was worn next to the skin. We can learn about hygiene habits, class systems, manufacturing techniques and technological innovations. A closer look at underwear advertising can tell us about levels of disposable income, laundry habits and the idealised body types of a particular era. It’s a fascinating aspect of fashion history that deserves thoughtful analysis rather than simply sharing the same old images and myths.

I have researched many aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century underwear - including underwear and identity, technological developments in the bra, underwear brand marketing techniques, and the transition from corsets to girdles - and will be hosting this month’s lunch time Twitter discussion on Friday 2nd October. You can follow me on @LHamiltonSmith.

The Costume Society #CSFashionHour is a monthly Twitter discussion that takes place on the first Friday of every month, covering different subjects from the world of costume, fashion and dress. The chat is open to all: just follow @costume_society on Twitter and use the hashtag #CSFashionHour to join in!

FURTHER READING: (1) Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, edited by Denis Bruna, Yale University Press 2015. (2) Underwear: Fashion in Detail, by Eleri Lynn, V&A Publishing 2014. (3) The Story of Men’s Underwear, by Shaun Cole, Parkstone Press International 2010. (4) An Intimate Affair: Women Lingerie and Sexuality, by Jill Fields, University of California Press 2007. (5) The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele, Yale University Press 2003. (6) Uplift: The Bra in America, by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau, University of Pennsylvania Press 2002.

Lorraine Smith, Costume Society Blog Editor

  • 1961 Maidenform bra advert (image via Flickr user rchappo2002)
  • 1950s Peter Pan 'Hidden Treasure' bra (London College of Fashion Archives, photo by Lorraine Smith)
  • 1940s Reis underwear advert (image via Flickr user Joe Wolf)
  • Liberty girdle, made by R. & W. H. Symington (London College of Fashion Archives, photo by Lorraine Smith)