Winters Past

20th Century Fashion from Deco to Disco

20th Century Lingerie: Tempest in a D Cup

The female form is fashion’s clay. In one decade, the styles demand a slim, athletic figure while another era prefers a voluptuous silhouette. Women’s bodies can’t  alter their proportions, so it’s up to the undergarments to massage, squeeze, flatten or otherwise define our flesh.

Here’s a little stroll through the decades as we take a look at what lies beneath those fancy frocks.


A youthful boyish silhouette was a new and sexy ideal. To achieve it, bras were designed to flatten rather than enhance the bust line. Young ladies wore bandeau style bras topped with camisoles or straight slips under equally straight dresses.

These were worn with loose knickers or “step ins”,which were a sort of short jumpsuit that combined the camisole with undies. These wear made of cotton, silk or a new fabric, rayon.

In the 20’s, most older women still wore metal boned corsets overtop their knickers while many younger ladies, daringly, did not.

1920's ladies underwear

1920’s underthings were designed to straighten out the curves


A waistline and hip curve came back into vogue as a more “natural” silhouette became the desirable standard. Bras with cups were introduced for the first time, which gently lifted but did not emphasize the bust, and the first underwires were sometimes added.

Many women wore corsets, topped with a bias cut silk or rayon slip. The dresses were designed  to drape over but not cling to the body, which made slips important.

1930's ladies underwear

In the 1930’s, fashion focused on a relatively natural waist with a gentle hip curve


The desirable feminine body type was more aggressively curved and shaped in the 40’s, with a focus on the waist.

This wartime decade  gave us bras that molded the bust line into twin torpedos and were designed to separate them, not to create cleavage.

Girdles made with elastic were introduced in order to carve a more dramatically slimmer waist. Ladies wore a bra and briefs (usually nylon) with a girdle or garter belt overtop to hold up their stockings.

1940's ladies underwear

An architecturally molded female form was the goal in the 40’s


The fifties aesthetic was based on abundance and the idea of  better living through technology; just picture an American car from that decade.

The dramatic womanly curves of an hourglass figure were thought of as the ideal body. Luckily (or not), this shape could be faked with the right undergarments.

Women created the illusion with layers of garments that reshaped their bodies. They wore a bullet or cone bra and high waist briefs topped with an engineered  corset or elasticized girdle and/or garter belt, often topped with a crinoline or two. Whew!

1950's ladies underwear

In the 50’s, science gave women the dubious gift of an artificially created figure


The 60’s were really two distinct fashion eras. The earlier part was more ladylike, trim and refined. Picture Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy in sheath dresses. Girdles and garter belts helped create that illusion.

In 1964, the push up bra and pantyhose were invented and  younger women were free to skip restrictive girdles.

Later in the decade, fashion made a sharp turn toward the funky and bohemian hippie styles, ushering in the the sheer “no bra” bra for younger ladies. Worn under a tee shirt, a sheer gauzy blouse or ribbed knit top, these bras artificially created the appearance of bralessness.

1960's ladies underwear


A young, slim, “natural” body with less visible artifice was desirable in the 70’s, though fashion sometimes required a padded bra to achieve this look. Undies got smaller and became hipsters or bikinis, to be worn under hiphuggers. Girdles were only worn by older women by this decade.

1970's ladies underwear

The molding of women bodies continues. Subsequent decades have brought us the practical sports bra and the cleavage creating  Wonder Bra. The new millennia graced us with the VPL-vanishing thong, and, in homage to girdles and corsets of yore,  Spanx.

Vintage lovers can revisit and enjoy lovely styles of vintage underpinnings (those bias cut 30’s silks-swoon!) without being obligated to wear all of it.

Author: Winters Past

I am a vintage clothing shop owner living and working in rural north Florida. I believe in adding a little vinegar and molasses to my greens, having my coffee outside whenever possible, and mixing something vintage into every room and every outfit.

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