In the early 1850s, Amelia Bloomer scandalized New York society by sporting long trousers under her skirts. Now, nearly 170 years later, underwear has come out of the closet in a big way—on the catwalk, in popular culture and, most strikingly, at the cash register.
For most of modern history, unmentionables were, well, unmentionable. Until the bikini (named after Bikini Atoll, the site of early nuclear bomb testing) exploded onto the scene in the late 1950s and ‘60s, women talked of “foundation garments” like girdles and slips…if they discussed the subject at all. But the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s paved the way for trailblazers like Madonna to turn underwear into outerwear in the ‘80s, Victoria’s Secret to supplant Sears as catalog king in the ‘90s, and designer Calvin Klein to plaster American cities with suggestive billboards of iconic models from Kate Moss to Kendall Jenner sporting the briefest of fashion statements ever since.
In the U.S. alone, women’s lingerie was a $33.2 billion business in 2015. Worldwide, analysts expect the global online lingerie market to grow by more than 17 percent between 2016-2020, up from $110 billion, according to Euromonitor.
Not only have women’s undergarments become big business and pop culture fodder (can anyone forget Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction?”), cultural institutions are recognizing the social shifts that have occurred with each change from the simple Roman toga to Dita von Teese’s full-on corset, basque and thigh-high treatment.
"Only 25 years ago we didn't really talk about sex, people were quite prudish. Lingerie was more about your little secret,” said Agent Provocateur Creative Director Sarah Shotton who helped curate Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last year. “I think that is how it's changed. It's saying that this is something we should be celebrating."
According to marketing reports, bras currently represent 50 percent of sales with panties and briefs at 33 percent. “Corsetry” – industry terminology for sexier, less utile garments—accounts for about 10 percent of the overall sales.
Things were much simple in ancient societies when total nudity or a simple loincloth was acceptable for both men and women. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, we might be still running around in our birthday suits were it not for the rise of Christianity. Adam and Eve might have gotten along fine with a few fig leaves, but the New Testament—and the Koran 600 years later—mandated modesty. Underwear, particularly women’s garments, has been a must ever since St. Paul wrote to Timothy that “women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel.”
For some time, that meant basic sheaths underneath both men’s and women’s clothing. But in the modern era, men have gotten away with some form of breeches or hose—the equivalent of today’s boxers or briefs—while women spent several hundreds of years laced and braced into restrictive corsets that usually did not confom at all to the female physique.
During the Renaissance, women squeezed themselves into long cone-shaped garments that reached far below the waist. In the 1700s, the devices were paired with giant hoops. In the early 1800s, women wore corsets Scarlett O’Hara-style with heavy crinoline petticoats. And by the late 1800s, corsets and enormous bustles were the order of the day. In fact, the first product ever produced by BVD in 1876 was the “Spiral Bustle,” an uncomfortably heavy-knit garment with sweaty, long sleeves and long legs.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century and a developing national interest in women’s sports that underwear became more comfortable and less cumbersome. Although Amelia Bloomer’s infamous trousers never turned into more than a fashion oddity, a modified version was eventually adopted by female gymnasts, swimmers, and cyclists.
Finally able to move about without fuss in the daytime, women began rejecting elaborate get-ups in the evening. Still, it was not until World War I and the introduction of more form-fitting, functional clothing that the corset died a long overdue death and the natural feminine shape reappeared for the first time in centuries.
By the 1920s, women wore an early version of today’s two-piece bra and panties ensemble. Companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood began churning out the world’s first push-up bras and padded girdles by the 1940s, and, in the 1950s, the first bikinis hit American beaches and lingerie shops. During the sexual revolution of the ‘70s, bras disappeared altogether from some women’s wardrobes. And it wasn’t just bras that became optional by the turn of the millennium as “going commando” gained social and fashion currency.
In addition to growing ever more revealing, underwear during the past century has undergone a revolution in comfort. Before 1920 and the use of carbonized wool, which removed sticks and burrs from fabric, underpants were about as comfortable as sandpaper.