the story of underwear

The first half of the 20th century

In our latest article, part of our blog series on the history of underwear, we took a good look at various undergarments from Renaissance to Industrial Revolution, that is roughly from the 15th century all the way to the 19th century. The protagonists of this story were braccae and hoses, chausses and drawers, crinolines and pantaloons. However, it was the corset with its various transformations throughout the years that marked these two periods, since its development inevitably mirrors the story of gender itself, especially the story of women. In other words, one could say that the story of the corset is a paradigmatic her-story. As we saw, the corset was more than a piece of fabric, an underwear serving practical purposes. Rather, the corset was a symbol of patriarchal power that was nonetheless exerted directly on the bodies of women to the point of transforming their silhouette and anatomy. Here the beauty standards of each period prove themselves to be more than just an innocent fashion trend. In truth, corsets were a mobile prison, a procrustean device that literally imposed a certain posture and bodily schema that denoted the ‘proper’ place of women in these societies who were obliged to craft their image by the way of fashion in order to conform to strict ideals of femininity.

In what follows, we will track the story of underwear during the first half of the 20th century, the one closest to our historical present, when the fashion industry was formed into something that resembles its current form, the century of astronomic historical changes and rapid changes in aesthetic ideals, beauty standards, and fashion trends. During this period, even though underwear came in many designs and fabrics, the strict gender binary consolidated itself into the well-known marketing categories of menswear and womenswear. Undergarments were a means of expressing and performing a gendered self and at the same time, they became highly eroticized, an indispensable part of a growing sexual imagery in films and photography, television and magazines. The fact that underwear was mass-produced and diversified went hand in hand with the birth of modern-day marketing, a dream factory that helped created a shared visual culture where undergarments via advertising were drawn from the obscurity of privacy to the realm of the public sphere.

More specifically, the first half of the 20th century saw a series of cataclysmic events. It was the age of the two World Worlds that gave birth to the holocaust, the nuclear catastrophe, the end of the age of the empires with its concomitant decolonization, and the polarized Cold War. It also saw the first modern pandemic, that is the Spanish flu of 1918 which caused the death of millions of people worldwide, and the first modern financial crisis in terms of the collapse of a global economic system, namely the Great Depression of 1929. But it was also the century of great revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917, but also the revolution in sciences and technology. When it comes to fashion, the beginning of the century marks the end of the strict dress code and the beginning of the individualized style we know today thanks to greater freedom regarding stylistic choices and image-making. But the 20th century also saw the rise of powerful fashion houses and famous designers, the explosion of global brands, and the establishment of the celebrity-star system. Another important development was the introduction of man-made fibers:  in the 1930s, it was latex and rubber yarn that paved the way for the development of more flexible undergarments, and in the 40s and 50s, the fabric technology was once again radicalized with the nylon and the polyester.

When it comes to menswear, the two protagonists of this period were the boxers and the briefs! Boxers were invented in 1925 by Jacob Golomb who found the boxing equipment company known as Everlast and who was responsible for the shape and length of modern-day boxers. He realized that the drawers-like long-legged underwear staples worn by the athletes were uncomfortable for them in the ring. A baggier underwear that would allow flexibility was a better match for the speed and agility that was required of boxers. For the same reason, he substituted the old leather-belted trunks with elastic ones and shortened the length. This was the birth of ‘boxer shorts’! However, it wasn’t until after WWII that boxers became extremely popular.

A few years later, in 1934, another company named Cluett, Peabody and Co. Inc. introduced the Y-front yoke, and in 1935, the jockey briefs thanks to a technique that they developed called Sanforization, which preshrinks fabric in order for the underwear to remain the same size when washed. The inspiration for the first legless tightey-whitey came from a postcard an executive of the company received from France depicting a man in a tight onesie at the beach. These had an elastic band around the waist and both legs near the groin. Fun fact: more than 30,000 pairs of briefs were sold across America in the first 3 months of their launch!

When it comes to womenswear, it was the bra that put the corset out of the picture by freeing women’s bodies and enabling them to practice sports. This also marked a significant change in the ideals of femininity since the silhouette composed of big hips, large and pushed-up breasts, and a ‘wasp waist’ was replaced by a straighter shape composed of a thin figure, closer fitting underwear, and a curveless ‘empire waist’, while the bust was not as accentuated as before. In this context, the French designer Paul Poiret introduced in 1907 an undergarment similar to nowadays bras in order to accompany his dresses. However, it wasn't until 1914 that the bra was officially invented and patented by a libertarian activist and writer named Mary Phelps Jacob.

The roaring twenties saw greater freedom as flappers appear following the general trend set by Coco Chanel that married comfort and practicality with elegance and style. These modern panties were comfortable and breathable and the extreme opposite of the corset. In the 1940s, bras underwent a transformation as they became more voluminous and pointier, panties got smaller, and nylon stockings appeared for the first time! But it wasn’t until the 1950s thanks to films and advertisements that women’s underwear became sexy ‘lingerie’. Just bring to mind the pin-up girls of this era, a representation of the new sensual and insinuating woman who is not afraid of her sexuality but nonetheless remains trapped in a male visual economy. Fun fact: according to some historical sources, it was Caresse Crosby, an American activist and writer, who invented the bra at the age of 19 in 1910. As the story goes, it was an invention out of pure necessity since the young Caress came up with the idea of combining two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon in order to avoid wearing a corset at a ball.