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The Vintage Dressmaker (1)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

1920's Undergarments Part 1

Peeling back the layers...

What then, was underneath it all?

Did women of the 1920's wear corsets?

Let's begin by dismissing the biggest fashion myth of the 20th century, that women of the 1920’s did not wear corsets! It is certain there were some "liberated" young women of slight build that drank gin, smoked cigarettes and hung around in "speak-easy’s" that tossed away their cumbersome corsets, but I can find no historical evidence of that being the case for the average woman.

I am uncertain as to the source of this myth, other than the brassiere as we know it today had it’s origins at the turn of the century, giving rise to the belief that it replaced the corset. A Brassiere was, in fact, designed to be worn WITH a corset.

In 1917, after the US entered WWI, the US War Industries Board suggested women to refrain from purchasing new corsets in order to free up steel for war manufacturing. However that does not mean they gave up wearing the ones they already owned. It may be what inspired corset makers to explore new materials in corset making such as "feather" boning which was in fact originally quills from bird feathers stitched into rows and covered with a fabric casing and was more flexible than steel. Modern "feather" boning is made of plastic sewn together in a similar way.

The war pushed many women into the work force as well. Making stiff, inflexible corsets with long restricting busks of the Edwardian era impractical.  Any steel restriction would hane been temporary and ended when the war did, but women had tasted comfort and mobility that would be difficult to turn back from.

Therefore, it is true that more options in underwear and lingerie became readily available during the 1920’s, however, every magazine, catalog, and text book I have ever read includes some sort of corset, corselet, or girdle from 1919 on up until the end of the 1940’s. Even in the 1950’s most women wore a one or two piece girdle with garters for hose that was essentially a corset sans laces, to achieve that crazy "wasp" hour glass figure! It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the average girl gave up squeezing herself into some sort of shape altering underwear. Let’s face the reality of it, depending on your body size and type, some of us today still rely on some sort of artificial body support, "Spanx" you very much!

It was of common opinion, and there are many adds and articles that express a need for support of the body to achieve correct posture for health and beauty reasons in the 1920’s. A quick image search on the Internet will turn up countless examples.

Early 1920's Underbust Corset

1920's Medical Corset

Early 1920's Underbust Corset
Mid 1920's Underbust Corset

Late 1920's Corselet
Mid 1920's Corselet

The underbust corset was still the corset of most common use by middle class women through the middle of the decade, inspiring the need of a brassiere and encouraging its development.

The Entomology of the word brassier according to Wikipeadia is as follows; "The French word brassière refers to a baby's vest (undershirt) or lifebelt, underbodice or harness. The word brassière derives from bracière, an Old French word meaning "arm protector" and referring to military uniforms (bras in French means "arm"). This later became used for a military breast plate, and later for a type of woman's corset".

The term Brassiere, according to Mary Brooks Picken, developer of the "Picken Square", founder of The Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences and author of The Fashion Dictionary (my personal hero), the word is derived from a French word meaning to bind, to restrain. In her instructional paper Underwear and Lingerie 1925 page 55 under the subtitle Brassieres she says; "The general use of the brassiere has been brought about by the adoption of the low-bust corset, which requires the wearing of a confining band so that the upper part of the figure will appear trim especially when a one-piece dress is worn." A brassier was then, worn with a corset, over it in fact, as seen in the example below. Most of them had a strap and hook in the front to secure it to the corset in order to hold the breasts down firmly. It seems to be used primarily by full breasted women in need of added support.

Late 1800's Brassiere

The bra as we know it today had its beginning with Herminie Cadolle (1845 – 1926) who invented a two-piece undergarment called le bien-être (the wellbeing) in 1895. The lower part was a corset for the waist and the upper supported the breasts with shoulder straps. It was worn mostly by very well-to-do French women, not yet common place, however it is reasonable to believe it is what inspired and later evolved into the corselet, or Bandeau corset of the second half of the 1920’s.

In 1914 the first US Paten for a brassiere was issued to Mary Phelps Jacob who later sold it to The Warner Brothers Corset Company. This type of brassiere later became known as a Bandeau.

In reference to the bandeau brassiere, Mary Brooks Picken says "When the form is light, not requiring a confining band so much as a slight support, the brassiere shown (here) is appropriate." Underwear and Lingerie 1925 page 61.

1920's Bandeau Brassiere


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  6. Thank you for such a well written article. It’s full of insightful information and entertaining descriptions. Your point of view is the best among many.

  7. In the past as the women stayed in the house they didn’t realize the need of undergarments. Later when women started to work outside they felt that they need something to support their body structure. Later undergarments were invented and laterally change a lot.

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