Now & Then: The History of Shapewear

While some suggest they’re a symbol of female oppression, our current fondness for Spanx illustrates women continue to seek to contour and enhance their figures with shapewear.

Until the discovery last week of a 600-year-old bra unearthed in an Austrian castle, costume historians had thought the modern day bra had evolved from centuries of restrictive corsets. The four linen bras found were decorated with lace suggesting that like now, women in the middle ages appreciated bras, both for support and their ability to attract attention by enhancing the shape of their breasts. Women’s undergarments have long been underneath the ever-changing fashion silhouette. In this week’s Now & Then, we look at the evolving contours of the female body and the shapewear responsible for creating it.

A 600-year-old bra unearthed in an Austrian castle last week.

Bras as we know them today begin in the 1920’s. The “boyish” silhouette of the flapper era were achieved by  stiff bandeaus that held the bust in and down by means of a clip attached to a light corset. Larger breasted women tried products like the popular Symington Side Lacer, which when laced at both sides pulled and helped to flatten women’s chests.

Actress Gloria Grahame in a typical sweater girl pose of the 1950’s.

By the 1950’s, women looking to emulate the uplifted look of film stars like Lana Turner and Jane Russell bought longline stitched cone bras that gave the pointed, conical shape favored by the sweater girls of the 50s. The introduction of nylon around this time revolutionized the bra by making them lighter, prettier and easier to wash.

Manufacturers in the 70s starting offering underwear in a range of colors and prints.

As clothing styles loosened up in the casual ages of 60s and 70s fashion, seamless underwear was essential to wear under knits for the popular no-bra natural look. Manufacturers began introducing prints and patterns to underwear fabric and bras could also be purchased in flesh tones. By the end of the decade, sequins and Day-Glo colors could be found, and simple stretchy “Boob Tubes” that supported disco era fashions became popular.

Underwear in the 80s embraced the erotic in lacy teddies and satin french knickers.

Breast support took a back seat in the 80’s, with underwear enjoying one of it’s most sexually-charged periods. The influence of high glamour soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, combined with a new body consciousness as a result of the keep-fit craze and the increasing popularity of separates ushered in a decade of erotic and highly feminine silk, satin and lace trimmed lingerie styles. All-in-one bodysuits and teddies were worn with matching high cut French knickers. When women began revealing the edge of a lace trimmed camisole beneath the popular power suits, the underwear as outerwear trend was born.

The wonder bra and its notorious advertising campaign in the 1990’s.

The 90s was the decade of the wonder bra. Technological advances in lingerie construction, and the influence of amazonian supermodels created a trend for cleavage enhanced fashions. Women lined up for the bestselling wonder bra, a plunge bra with detachable inserts that truly delivered on its name.

In 2000, Spanx was officially launched by Sara Blakely, an entrepreneur in search of a smaller butt, flatter abs and shapelier thighs. Tapping into a huge market of women looking for the same thing – $250 million a year is spent on Spanx products alone – and everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow, Tina Fey and Oprah embrace Blakely’s 21st century girdle alternative. Modern women clearly have no intention of abandoning their shapewear.

Beyonce showing off one of her Spanx seamless bodysuits.

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: the History of the Sneaker.

Now & Then: The History of the Statement Outfit.

Now & Then: The History of Flared Pants

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Platform Shoe

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.