A Brief History of Women’s Underwear

corsets, history, underwear -

A Brief History of Women’s Underwear


In 2500 BC, Greek woman on the isle of Crete started wearing a garment resembling a bra pushing their bare breasts up and out of their clothing. Then Roman woman squeezed their breasts into a breast band to minimize their busts and Egyptian women painted their breasts.

The corset had its origin in Italy, and was introduced by Catherine de Medici into France in the 1500s, where the women of the French court embraced it. This type of corset was a tight, elongated bodice that was worn underneath the clothing. The women of the French court saw this corset as “indispensable to the beauty of the female figure.”

By the middle of the sixteenth century, corsets were a commonly worn garment among European and British women. The garments gradually began to incorporate the use of a “busk,” a long, flat piece of whalebone or wood sewn into a casing on the corset in order to maintain its stiff shape. The front of the corset was typically covered by a “stomacher,” a stiff, V-shaped structure that was worn on the abdomen for decorative purposes.  corsets stuck around until in the early 20th century. 

In 1893 Marie Tucek patented the “Breast Supporter”. It had separate pockets for each breast, shoulder straps, and hooks and eyes.

In 1907 Vogue used the word brassiere from the French word upper arm.

In 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob came up with the idea of a bra-like garment to wear under a gown that was sheer. Taking two hankies, ribbon, and cord she devised a bra. And women started ordering these from her. In 1914 she patented her idea, and  sold it to Warners Brothers Corset Company for $1,500.

Shortly after the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This step liberated some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships. The corset, which had been made using steel stays since the 1860s, further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles which also used less steel in their construction. However, body shaping undergarments were often called corsets and continued to be worn well into the 1920s.

In the 1920’s Ida and William Rosenthal forming the Maidenform Company.

In 1925, Chanel introduced her iconic Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt.  Her designs borrowed elements of men’s wear,  and emphasized comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say goodbye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.

Howard Hughes used his aeronautical skills to design a bra for very well endowed  actress Jane Russell, making her an overnight sensation.

The 1930’s saw the shortening of the word brassiere to bra.

The 1940’s developed with added padding to the cups.

With the 1950’s came the design of the bullet bra.

In the late 1960’s, many women symbolically burned their bras in protest against patriarchy, in support of women’s equality.    It was considered an act of liberation.

Underwear has been historically used to shape the female body into the ‘appropriate’ silhouette of various eras, to encase or enhance parts of the female body to signify  gender distinction. Underwear’s intimate proximity to the body has made it a marker of social and cultural distinctions. 

Some of the first indications of underwear being linked to either class or gender distinctions goes back to the medieval times; however, since then, women’s underwear changed in design and function, in parallel to changes in outwear and fashion overall. These changes followed larger social changes in women’s lives, for example the use of the Victorian corset which was unnaturally tight in order to distinguish middle-class women from working-class women and denote lack of manual labour for the former (which is nowadays also worn as outwear), or women riding bicycles in the early twentieth century which necessitated much simpler underwear, or the emergence of mass produced underwear with new material like nylon that made underwear cheaper.