the story of underwear


In our latest article, we made another journey in the history of underwear in Europe and the United States of America in the first half of the 20th century. And it was indeed a fascinating story since we saw the effects the industrialization of fashion had on the development of new designs and on the evolution of fabric technology. Let’s also not forget the fact that the first half of the 20th century saw the birth of all-time classics, such as boxers and briefs in the case of menswear, and the bra and stockings in the case of womenswear. Another interesting point is the fact that the moment women liberated themselves from the restrictions of prudence and heteropatriarchal morality and its clothing equivalent, the corset, the oversexualizing male gaze with its new made-in-Hollywood female beauty standards initiated a new kind of control over women’s bodies, this time not in the name of morality but by the way of advertising. As we saw, it wasn’t until the 1950s thanks to films and advertisements that women’s underwear became sexy ‘lingerie’. Α host of new meanings attached to underwear went hand in hand with an immense libidinal investment in the erotic value of lingerie. What was until then a piece of fabric serving a practical purpose, has now become a symbol of proper femininity perfectly aligned with the fantasies of the male consumers and producers, a mystifying tool of seduction and fascination.

But before we delve into the story of undergarments, a bit of historical contextualization is in order. After the end of the catastrophic Second World War in 1945, Europe was dichotomized into two separate spheres, the Western and the Eastern Bloc, under the influence of the capitalist USA and the communist Soviet Union respectively. This geopolitical rivalry exerted via diplomatic pressures and economic and military means determined to a great degree the international relations and fates of many states around the world, and it came to an end in 1991 with the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and its affiliated communist governments across Africa and Asia, developments already foreseen by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall two years ago. During this period of Cold War, the world saw the space race setting off 1957 with the launch of the Soviet Sputnik vessel, the wars by proxy, that is the Korean and Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as another iteration of the capitalist versus communist drama, and the booming of information and communications technologies with the 80s heralding the Information Age. Towards the end of the 20th century, two new developments paved the way to our historical present, globalization and the rise of neoliberalism that inaugurated the new phase of postmodernity.

Back to the story of underwear, when it comes to menswear, the 50s and 60s saw the rise of underwear as a stand-alone fashion item which meant a turn towards prints and colored yarns, while new textiles, such as nylon and spandex, with new textures and properties were introduced. It was also in the 60s that the first double-seat briefs came to prominence. Regarding briefs, these seem to remain more popular than boxers in the UK since the 80s and in the USA since the 50s.

In the 90s, the growing impact of pop culture on fashion industry resulted in the introduction of boxer briefs, which combine the shape of boxer shorts with the tightness of briefs. These were a must-have piece that complemented the ‘sagging’ style of hip hop stars which was all about exposing the waistband or a part of the underwear underneath loosely fitting pants. An iconic moment was Calvin Klein’s highly impactful ads in the late 90s in which a new ideal of masculinity and virility -bring in mind the famous ads starring Mark Wahlberg then known as Marky Mark- was born. This was a revolution in marketing as the male models wearing briefs or boxers bearing the brand's name were selling an image of self-confidence rather than a product. 
When it comes to womenswear, this era was all about emphasizing the breasts rather than the waist as it was the case for centuries. The bra had already been a thing since the early 20th century, but now bras were getting more and more colorful and playful, sexier and more decorative. The bullet bra with pointed cups was inspired by the New Look introduced by Christian Dior, but it wasn’t until the 90s that the bra became an It item with the promotion of push-up Wonderbra whose campaign caused hysteria at the time. Bring to mind the famous ad with Eva Herzigova wearing this bra and the catchphrase “Look into my eyes. I said in the eyes.” written underneath. This trend did not happen overnight, as is usually the case. In 1977, Victoria’s Secret was founded in the USA, along with its ‘angels’ and soon enough dominated the market of lingerie.

Regarding women’s panties, by the mid-1960s two styles were popular, the hip-hugger and the bikini (named after the Pacific Ocean Island of the same name). Around the same time, pantyhose or tights made their appearance, invented by G. R. Mills in North Carolina. The tank top with roots back to the 1920s became a favorite outerwear in the USA in the 1980s following the general trend of wearing undergarments on top of clothes (Madonna’s video clips of the time are indicative in this way). In the following decade, the G-string -already worn for decades by dancers- hit the South American market with great success and from there it made its way to the West making thongs everyday underwear.