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fashion: feature

Under cover Under cover

Triumph Hearty Temptation
Sylvia Giles examines the story of lingerie, and its link to recent history

Expanded from issue 22 of Lucire


THERES UNDERWEAR, and there’s lingerie. Men are left only to ponder, ‘Boxers or briefs?’ while the female body is sculpted and adorned in a way of its own. A friend of mine differentiates her ‘practicals’, from her ‘number ones’, the far superior, frequently lacy variety of undergarment (of which she has numerous pairs.)

What determines the female ideal is influenced by a number of elements, not to mention a different approach from men and women. A collective female cry can be heard on Friday or Saturday night from women the world over swearing they look hot only to be shot down by tactless boyfriends. This “ideal”, tucked away in our society’s subconscious, means that when we come to buy lingerie, we are considering factors that are decorative, utilitarian, political and social, all the time wanting something we like and still holding out to knock someone flat. As a result, lingerie can be used as a barometer to our ideas surrounding the female ideal, a snapshot in time of what it means to be a woman. It is then no surprise that as women’s roles have undergone revolution in the last century, so has our underwear drawer.

A century ago, after hundreds of years of dominance, the corset was still the standard undergarment, casting a patriarchal shadow over women’s silhouettes. Culturally, it has become a symbol for ill health, male dominance, and the immobilization of women into pretty objects to be seen and not heard. In the early 1900s, the Edwardian era saw the corset reach such extremes so that it was being extended all the way down to the knee. However, it was to entirely disappear within one short decade, never to be seen again, as women shifted away from their traditional roles and their undergarments changed as a result.

The catalyst for such a dramatic shift in undergarments can be traced first to the appearance of women in the workforce during World War I. This created a much more utilitarian approach to underwear, reflecting women’s increasingly active roles. Following the long and brutal war, 1920s Europe entered a new phase of frivolity. Women’s realization that they could play more active roles in society was combined with sexual revolution that continued to the evolution of underwear, warding away any possible return of the corset. It is at this point we see the first signs of modern lingerie. In an ironic prelude to the bra-burning sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, the introduction of this iconic undergarment was hailed as a move towards women’s liberation, flattening the bust and endowing young women with a playful boyishness.

However, this progress was unable to be sustained with the intervention of the Depression in the 1930s. Hard times foster conservatism, and so women in the 1930s returned to the curvy silhouette of eras past, with lingerie returning the emphasis to hips and bust. The ’40s once again forced a utilitarian approach to underwear as men, once again, went off to war, and women returned to the workforce. A woman’s choice of underwear was again determined by necessity, rather than the luxury of æsthetic.

By the 1950s, a traumatized generation of men had seen two World Wars in less than 30 years. While their reaction to World War I may have been to celebrate with a decade-long party, the 1950s set out to create the illusion of sublime domesticity, the affirmation of family with a mother, father and children. It is no surprise that in this climate, once again our “ideal female” returns to a voluptuous from. At this stage, technology also impacts on the face of lingerie. Our grandmothers would have been thrilled with the invention of elastine, which easily transformed the female body without the use of materials such as bone wood and metal. It is arguable here that, without it, the corset could have very well resurfaced.

However, despite the supremacy of domesticity, women were not to forget their independence gained from the war. Bra manufacturer Maidenform ran a series of ads for years with women realizing their dreams in their undergarments, for example: ‘I won the election in my Maidenform bra.’ Though the empowerment of women through lingerie had no immediate effect on the “housewife ideal” promoted by contemporaneous society, it was an undercurrent that swept into the youth movement of the ’60s. Nineteen sixty-one saw the introduction of the pill, the first reliable contraceptive available to women, forever equalizing the gender equation in sexual affairs. Parallels between these changes and the sexual revolution earlier in the 1920s can be drawn namely the reoccurrence of the androgynous silhouette and a sexually liberated youth movement.

And perhaps it was the invention of the pill, heralded as the most socially significant advance of the century, which allowed the sexual revolution of the ’60s to flourish where that of the ’20s had floundered. In the 1970s, not all women burned their bra, and the mood of this was reflected in freer, more natural underwear. In the ’80s, when a woman’s right to be in the workplace was cemented, power suits created an illusion of masculinity in a world where women were now securing careers, not just employment. Interestingly, lingerie trends polarized from this, becoming increasingly girly and frilly, a reactionary statement to having to conform to a masculine ideal in order to achieve success.

And away from the workplace, the trend was even more extreme. Who could forget Madonna’s ‘lingerie as outerwear’ æsthetic? Perhaps in light of the culture of excess the 1980s is renowned for, women’s newfound careers and the resulting disposable income played a part. Thus, it could be argued that the 1980s saw a portrayal of women’s idea of the feminine ideal, as opposed to what males might like to see.

The ’80s trend of sculpting the body to within an inch of its life in order to achieve an idealized perfection was an indication of what was to come. Scientific progress allowed women to make choices about how we embellish their bodies, and plastic surgery offered us the ability to tamper with it from under the skin as well. Note the curious inclusion of erect nipples in shop mannequins recently: it’s interesting to wonder where it is has any relation to the current climate of hyper-sexual identity in our society, or whether we have reacted in sexual identity to the ability to achieve physical perfection. Underwear has indeed responded: the Wonderbra had actually been around for 30 years but when it was relaunched in 1994, it struggled to keep up with demand.


SO AFTER THE PLEASURE of perusing through a century of lingerie and considering its role in portraying women’s sexuality, I couldn’t help but relate it back to my recent experience. As a male friend pointed out recently, with my first pay cheque after four years of student hardship, it was hardly sensible of me to go out and buy beautiful expensive designer lingerie before prioritizing such practical necessities as my groceries for that week, a diary for the coming year, and the need to replace my slowly dying cellphone. As it were, with no significant other in the picture, there was going to be no second party admiring this extravagance. It was pure self-indulgence.

Lingerie, for me, represented the reclaiming of my feminine identity for myself as opposed to packaged up for someone else. And perhaps keeping that identity close to my chest, so to speak. In this one scenario I had encountered all the elements that influence us as women when buying lingerie. How I see myself in relation to the female ideal, how men are to view me, all with a little regard to such practical matters and fit and practicality thrown in for good measure.

Granted, women can often be guilty for attaching significance to all the wrong things. It was a lot of thought put into buying what is fundamentally some material, elastic, under wire and some (albeit divine) lace. But we are women, and we like these things. For men, take note, it is similar to good sound production values on your favourite films. You may not be aware this kind of maintenance is taking place in the background, but you will notice if it’s done badly.

This season’s offerings follow outerwear’s fashion trends. With so much fear in the world, the response has been to head back along the continuum towards the more conservative. The colour palette is muted and traditional with pastels, in a dusty pink or mint green, with perhaps a chocolate brown as an accent. Detailing has been kept quiet, but exquisite. There has been a return to frilly knickers, and the G-string has returned to being subdued after an obnoxious outburst, out from under the waistbands of young women everywhere. When considering the cut of your lingerie, it is coming down to choosing the most flattering that will deliver on fit while being occasion appropriate.

Choosing lingerie is a serious business and for those that might be a little intimidated by the choice, The Lingerie Handbook, by Rebecca Apsan will be your godsend. It is written with the greatest enthusiasm—she describes G-strings as ‘artfully placed nothing’. Apsan has a solution for everything. Have you heard of Nippets? Nipple covers that protect your extremities from the elements in a sheer or tight fitting top. She leaves no stone unturned, from the adolescent female in her first training bra, to maternity underwear, from breasts that are either too small or too large to fit within most sizing systems to silhouette repressing elastomeric wear. For any top, dress, situation, problem, there is an answer here in this book. It is an “everything you ever wanted to know about lingerie but were too afraid to ask–couldn’t find a shop assistant–felt lost with the amount of choice” kind of a book.

So the “panties’ pendulum” is clear, with its cyclical swing from conservatism to liberalization and back (and forth) again, with its resulting formation over our bodies. Lingerie is pertinent portrayal of not only fashion trends, but of elements of gender and the sociopolitical. Lingerie isn’t only an indicator of the perception of the female ideal, but actually maps for us how gender itself undergoes fluctuation, revision and sometimes even revolution. •


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La Perla
Left: Triumph Hearty Temptation chemise, available at Figleaves. Above: La Perla Collezione Smart Set, available online in some countries, and at IM Boutique in Australia and New Zealand.

Above: The Eden set from Barbara of France (yes, we know this makes it Barbara Eden).

Above: Two tones remain fashionable at Elle Macpherson Intimates. The Belle collection launched in June 2007 Down Under featuring tiny bow ties.

Above: Victoria’s Secret’s brand has put the company into the consideration sets of many people. Here, the Secret Embrace push-up bra.

The Lingerie Handbook
The Lingerie Handbook
The Lingerie Handbook
Above: Rebecca Apsan’s The Lingerie Handbook puts lingerie in its context, including tracing its changes through history. Below: Wonderbra’s 1990s campaigns celebrated the voluptuous figure once again, beginning with a 1994 relaunch.


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Elle Macpherson Intimates at Figleaves