The idea of the ‘perfect’ body shape has changed over the decades. Here’s a look at the different foundation garments that have helped women contort their torsos into the fashionable shape of the day; the garments that have been a source of fascination, contention and debate.
Corsets, spanx and bodysuits — for centuries, women were expected to wear a variety of peculiar, somewhat restrictive but utterly wonderful undergarments to achieve a desirable silhouette. Worn from childhood to adulthood in order to support their bodies and create the ideal accentuated silhouette, these special undergarments were an essential part of every woman's wardrobe and daily life for hundreds of years. They evolved from the laced bodices of the medieval period, through to the constrictive boned corsets of the late Victorian era and the elasticated girdle of the 1920s which we still wear today.
THE GIBSON GIRL, 1900-1910S
A creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the ‘Gibson girl’ was the woman all the ladies aspired to be, and the one men wanted to be with. She was tall with a heavy chest and wide hips but a narrow waist. In 1910, he told a reporter for the Sunday Times Magazine: “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores.”
After years of wearing open drawers under layers of petticoats, lacier versions of the ‘long johns’ (which were known as the camisole and drawers) were introduced into every woman’s wardrobes to symbolise women's increasing freedom thanks to the suffrage movement and World War One. And because women started participating more in the work fields, outdoor activities and dancing, they began trading in their corsets for a more comfortable option: the brassiere.
In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob, a young New York socialite, made the first brassiere by tying two handkerchiefs together with ribbon and cord. Originally, she did it just to prevent the support rods from poking out from underneath the fabric of her evening gown. This resulted in her creating a new undergarment that conformed to the wearer’s anatomy far more naturally than the traditional corsets. She soon began taking orders and requests from family, friends and even strangers. By 1914, Mary patented her design as the ‘Backless Brassiere’ and began selling the units under the name Caresse Crosby. However, after Mary sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, she never received accolades for her invention of the immensely popular undergarment that made life more comfortable and convenient for millions of women.
THE FRIVOLOUS FLAPPER, 1920s
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