What makes lingerie “sexy” isn’t always easy to pin down. What does it cover? What does it expose? Is it nostalgic and old-school or more edgy and fashion-forward? All those elements (and more) come into play when trying to understand the intention behind a woman’s sexy underwear which research shows has been a “thing” in the western world for centuries, albeit in very different forms.Here, to illuminate how sexy lingerie has changed over time, we take a tour of the whalebone corsets of the 1700s We see 60 “sexy”ears of women’s foundation wear in this brief visual history of lingerie 1900 to 1970 through the whale-tail thongs and slip dresses of the 2000s.
Here’s a revealing video history of women’s underwear. It’s about an hour long.
It takes the stage in this talk by H. Kristina Haugland, associate curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The history of feminine undergarments—corsets and drawers, bustles and brassieres, stockings and shoulder pads—reflects changing ideals of women’s figures and societal roles, and reveals that ideas of beauty, hygiene, modesty and respectability are both remarkably transitory and enlightening. Drawing from works of art, advertisements, cartoons, literary sources and surviving garments, this generously illustrated lecture enhances the understanding of past and present attitudes and aesthetics. Supported in part by the Art Institute of Indianapolis.
Then we take a closer look at specific garments in each era.
Stays – otherwise known as whalebone corsets – were everyday wardrobe staples for proper woman of the 18th century. Yes, these garments don’t look like the sexy bustier-corsets of today but they were essential in molding the ideal body form: a tiny waist and pushed-up breasts
Late 1800s Corset
The S-curve corset, made popular in the early 20th century, pushed the breasts forward and arched the chest back to accentuate the hips. These Victorian corsets were extremely restrictive, but constructed in beautiful, intricate designs — women with the financial means were encouraged to shop for these undergarments with as much care and thought as they did with their outerwear.
1900s Sheer Nightgown
Bridal Trousseaux always involved sheer nightgowns, sometimes with low backs that more than hinted at the bare body underneath. Trousseaux weren’t just for the pleasure of the wedding night though – the more elaborate and extensive they were, the wealthier the bride’s family was supposed to be.
Originating from England, this s-curve corset made with floral brocaded silk, silk ribbon, and elastic. The Edwardian corset rested low over the bosom and extended down over the hips. The straight-front, when laced up provided the infamous s-curve which pushed breasts out, stomach in and back arched. Although pioneered by female corsetieres, this style was very restricting and though visually appealing as a silhouette, was not so good for a woman’s health. Pass the smelling salts !
1910 Closed-Crotch Drawers
In the 1937 black-and-white comedy, Topper, Mrs Topper (played by Billie Burke) is boring, sober, and predictable which endangers her marriage. Her husband, Cosmo (played by Roland Young) presents her with a pair of lacy, closed-crotch underpants, the height in fashion in lingerie at the time. (To put this into context, pre-Victorian era women wore open-crotch drawers, not because they represented sexual availability, but because only men wore closed-crotch underwear at the time). Thus the introduction of closed-crotch underwear into the Victorian women’s boudoir symbolized sexual availability to her husband because it broke from tradition and was clearly meant to be seen.
Here’s a preview of what is to come in these later eras.
While fashion designers like Paul Poiret and Madeline Vionnet were changing the ideal shape of the women’s body from hourglass to boyish and straight, the lingerie worn underneath had to change too. Just imagine the popular flapper dress. There was no longer a need for tight corsets, and undergarments had to be constructed to be as invisible as possible. Slinky slips, long and short, were worn underneath these tubular dresses
1923 Silk Pants and Bra
From circa 1923 – a stunning embroidered set of silk tap pants and bra,this came as part of a lingerie set, with slip and nightgown
By the 1920s, lingerie had evolved considerably, ushering in loose comfortable and soft fabrics. Gone were the restricting boned foundations of the Edwardians. From the Titanic era, through the First World War and onward, the new lean silhouette encouraged slimmer lingerie. Camiknickers were made from light delicate fabrics, with a sleek silhouette that could be worn under the new gamine, knee-length frocks of the mid 1920s.
1930s Open-Crotch Drawers
Yes, open-crotch underpants were actually worn by middle-class women as early as the 19th century, but that’s only because this feature distinguished their knickers from the men. By the 1930s, however, open-crotch drawers (in this look, there would be a slit you-know-where) were en vogue more of a way to signify sexual availability and erotic desire.
1935 Corset and Slip
The 1930s returned to more close fitting and tubular designs, with skirts and dresses extending to the ankle. Foundation wear, like this corset with suspenders was designed to mold and smooth the contours to fit this silhouette.
With the scarcity of material in England during the Second World War, rationing encouraged manufacturers to produce garments to fit restrictions, like this charming corselette by Twilfit
1942 Bra and Girdle Set
From America 1942, this Nina Fey bra and girdle set, using plastic for closures and stays instead of metal due to war restrictions.
1943 Short Slip
To the left, we have a short rayon chiffon slip with black and white Schiffi lace. Worn with matching panties, this was worn under your typical short 1940s frock or utility dress.
The 1950s New Look
Christian Dior’s trendy “New Look” collection centered on dresses, skirts, and coats that had super-full skirts and created an hourglass silhouette. Beyond full petticoat half-slips, the bust was also a prominent part of the look, which meant bras became wired and structured to push up and form decolletage set against plunging necklines.
The 1950s Pin Up Advertisements
The pinup girl was a common motif in intimate apparel advertisements in the mid-twentieths century. The model on the poster would always have a suggestive pose, with hips and chest jutting out, submitting to the viewer’s gaze, and communicating loud and clear: you bought these corselets and bustiers to have them seen, not to hide them.
The 1954 Corselet
helped nip the waist to create a rounded feminine contour. The strapless design was for wearing under evening gowns with underwire cups lifting and emphasizing the breasts.On the right; Warners 1957 “Merry Widow” corselet helped reduce the measurement of the waist.
1954 La Perla
Corset maker, Ida Masotti, founded La Perla in 1954 focusing on bright silks embellished with lace trim. Masotti would package the luxury items in velvet boxes, like pieces of jewelry – an apt choice given that perla means “pearl” in Italian. To this day, Perla is still a prime example of how sophistication and sexiness are not mutually exclusive.
Part of a Wedding ensemble from 1957, this Berlei pink corset of nylon and lace represents all the glamour of the 1950s era.
The 1960s No-Underwear Underwear
In 1965, fashion designer Rudi Gernrich introduced a no-bra manufactured by Lily of France, that was not only transparent but also promoted the braless look of the sexually liberated 1960s. This minimalistic bra had no metal or wiring, and was only available in A or B cups as it didn’t provide much support.
1965 Bra and Half Slip
By the mid 1960s, lingerie had returned to the simplicity of the 1920s, with this wireless bra by Rudi Gernreich. It adapted to the natural shape of the breasts and came in sheer nylon. The half-slip here, also by Gernreich was perfect for wearing under a miniskirt.
1977 Victoria’s Secret
Victoria’s Secret was founded by Roy and Gaye Raymond of San Francisco in 1977. Roy told Newsweek that prior to founding the store, “When I tried to buy lingerie for my wife, I was faced with racks of terry cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns, and I always had the feeling the department store saleswomen thought I was an unwelcome intruder. In the 70s and 80s, women typically bought two kinds of underwear: plain and dowdy foundation garments in department stores, and more expensive pieces for special occasions, like honeymoons. When Victoria’s Secrets entered the market, it brought affordable lace thongs and padded satin bras to middle-class consumers in the familiarity of their own malls, and made sexy lingerie more of an everyday thing.
The one-piece teddy was recommended for sleepwear in the 1980s. Additionally, classic lingerie styles became popular again after going out of style in the mod 1960s. Career women who wore menswear-inspired power suits with giant should pads to work often wore sexy, lacy underwear as a reminder of their femininity.
1983 Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
In her role as Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher wore an iconic metal string bikini made of a patterned copper bra and a bottom made of copper plating in the front, and a red silk loincloth in the back. Fisher had complained that the loose-fitting robes were hiding her physique — little did she know that the bikini costume would become a sex icon by itself. Phillip Chen at Wired wrote:”No doubt that the sight of Carrie Fisher in the gold sci-fi swimsuit was burned into the sweaty subconscious of a generation of fanboys hitting puberty in the spring of 1983.” But this costume wasn’t just a nerdy pinup: Princess Leia was powerful and strong-willed and a hero to many girls.
1990 Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier Cone Brassiere
During her Blond Ambition tour, Madonna unveiled many iconic ensembles including her Jean Paul Gaultier Cone Brassiere which sold for $52,000 in 2012. Her satin top with her conical breasts made a sharp statement against the ideal of feminine softness – of course Madonna was sexy in her light pink brassiere but her sexual identity was rooted in her own agency and no one else’s.
1994 Agent Provocateur
In 1994 Agent Provocateur opened its first shop in London – a combination of sexy, retro-inspired lingerie with designer price points and aspirations. Co-founder Joseph Corre, the son of rock ‘n’ roll fashion fetish pioneer Vivienne Westwood, was clearly motivated to make Agent Provocateur as much about sex as much as it was about foundation garments selling whips alongside bikini bottoms – but the high price point of the brand kept it aspiriational.
2000s Lingerie Tops
It was not a special occasion without the addition of impromptu lingerie masquerading as the greatest outfit the world had ever known. And the reason was this: not only could you claim you weren’t too dressed up if pairing said corset/lingerie shirt with jeans, you could dress up the aforementioned top with black trousers and heels for dinner events and then accessorize with oversize pearls because you were sure that’s what they’d do on “Sex and the City.” (Or: other conversations I had while getting ready with my friends.) And listen, we were all half right: slip dresses are back in all their glory for 2016. Even though none of us would’ve thought about them for a second if presented with the chance.
2005 Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Angelina Jolie wore a costume latex dress making her the ultimate femme fatale, as if that wasn’t already established before. The dominatrix-inspired ensemble, complete with fishnet tights, was whimsically softened by pastel pink bows.Jolie fell in love with Brad Pitt on the set – and yes, that’s one of the greatest romances of all times. We’d like to think that this outfit had something to do with it.
2010 “Easy A”
Emma Stone, in her role as virginal Olive Penderghast, decides to embrace her rumor-induced reputation as the school tramp by wearing a black-laced bustier with a scarlet “A” on the chest in homage to the Scarlet Letter. One wonders what was more scandalous, wearing underwear as outerwear in high school, or wearing a scarlet letter. Either way, the bustier top symbolized Penderghast’s refusal to become a wallflower – if people wanted to talk about her sex life, she was going to dress the part too.
2011 Sucker Punch
You’d think this film was just about women in lingerie holding weapons, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, but it’s actually a fantasy action film about fantasies of young women, abused by their stepfather, befores she commits to a mental institution. In one of her fantasies, Babydoll imagines she is in a brothel and befriends four of the other dancers. They wear fishnet stockings and vintage-inspired lingerie.
2016 Slip Dress
In 2016, some of the biggest fashion houses took underwear as outerwear up a notch by focusing on the slip dress. If you still need convincing that wearing just a slinky, spaghetti-strap dress is both sartorially and socially acceptable, follow the lead of celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Rihanna, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, all of whom are key supporters of the trend. These dresses look and feel sophisticated and sexy, and they can be worn in countless ways. They are the ultimate femininity in women’s clothing.