These days, unmentionables are simply ‘NSFW’. Even Wikipedia immodestly spouts the defining characteristics of a whale-tail. Once upon a time, though, women (and some men!) teased and trained and shaped their bodies into the silhouette popular at the time with complicated contraptions and yards of fabric. And this all happened underneath their clothes; their true forms hidden from society. I can only imagine the gossip at the time…
“Oh my God, Beatrice, look at her bustle. It is so big.”
So I thought we’d take a look at some of the most important garments of the times and see just how those extreme silhouettes were achieved.
Shapes the torso into a desired shape. Corsets have gone through a lot of revisions, with the laces loosening through the Edwardian period and disappearing altogether in the 1920s. From the medieval days to the mid-1800s (with a brief absence in the 1700s), tight-lacing and corset-training was popular among the upper class. Some women even managed to achieve a 16″ waist with years of continuous corset-wearing and progressive tightening. In fact, it was Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II of France, who said in the 1550s that any woman with a waist size greater than 16 inches was vulgar. Harsh. At the peak of corsetry, boning made of steel (and dragons scales? yikes.) was used as a structural component. The recent revitalization of corset training can be seen all over YouTube and is exhibited by the likes of Dita Von Teese and model Stella Tennant.
A chemise, made of soft silk or cotton, was typically worn underneath of the corset to prevent skin irritation, rubbing, and sores. Sometimes doubled as a casual nightgown.
Another undergarment that has undergone multiple revisions. Petticoats and crinolines have poufed up our skirts for centuries. From the panniers with the side hoops in the 16th century to the bell shapes of Christian Dior’s New Look, petticoats have always been a fashionable mainstay throughout vintage history.
First made known to me by a certain Led Zepplin song, bustles expand a woman’s, er, behind so that the yards and yards of fabric in mid 19th century dresses were properly and elegantly displayed. As expensive as silk was back in those days, one didn’t want to drag it around on the ground!
Named after Amelia Bloomer in the 1850s, bloomers started out as long pants that ballooned out down past the skirt. They were ridiculed by many a fashionista and never made it mainstream until shortened and decorated in the 1920s. Now, the adorable blousy silk shorts often adorned by lace and bows are known as knickers.
Replacing the corset in the 1920s, the girdle gave the appearance of a streamlined silhouette that was necessary under boxy flapper gowns. A columnar shape was highly coveted and girdles kept the stomach and thighs in one tidy plane.
Garter belts, or suspenders, were popularized in the 1940s and 50s when a columnar shape was no longer in fashion and girdles were a thing of the past. Still needing something to hold stockings up on their hourglass figures, women took to decorative belts that were worn high on the hip, over the underwear, and under the skirt. Silk and nylon stockings stayed in place thanks to the attached elastic suspenders and clips.
As part of Dior’s “new look” and amidst the cold war, women took to shaping their breasts into missiles via parabolic bra cups. They fell out of fashion in the 70s and 80s, but are being revitalized thanks to the nouveau pin up style.
Designed to camouflage the brasserie under tight-fitting or sheer tops, camisoles were popularized in the 1920s and doubled as négligées. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they were worn as an outside garment, visible to the adoring public eye.
How do you feel about the resurgence of bullet bras and corset-training? I definitely embrace the torpedo chest, but the 16″ waist just frightens me.