Fashioning Women's Underwear

Undergarments are an important element of fashion, changing in step with aesthetics and attitudes towards the body.

Bustle (1880s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Support and Surface

In Western fashion, the body has long been seen as something that can be shaped and manipulated, with corsets in the nineteenth century being a clear expression of this thinking. When corsets subsequently became mostly obsolete in the twentieth century, the female body was seen as having been liberated. Undergarments are an important element of fashion, changing in step with aesthetics and attitudes towards the body.

Corset, Pannier, Chemise (1760-1770 [Corset] c. 1775 [Pannier] c. 1780 [Chemise])The Kyoto Costume Institute

Body transformed

Throughout the eighteenth century, the silhouette of a woman's dress was formed with a corset or a pannier.

In order to push up the bust for a feminine outline, the corset was framed with pieces of whalebone. First appearing in the early eighteenth century, the pannier became a mandatory item for court dress up until the time of the French Revolution. As the skirt widened in the mid-eighteenth century, the pannier was modified and split into left and right halves. Such huge panniers frequently became the subject of caricatures.

Corset [Left] Child's Corset [Center] Corset [Right] (c. 1760 [Left] Mid-18th century [Center] Early 18th century [Right])The Kyoto Costume Institute

Of kind of corsets worn underneath clothing for the body, there are simple ones for undergarments, and ornamented ones worn inside the home for relaxation. The latter type of corset also occasionally had sleeves attached.

Corset (1820s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Soft type of corsets as shown revived at the beginning of 19th century. In the late 1820s, when the waistline of dresses was lowered and the waist became smaller again, corsets once again became essential for women until the beginning of 20th century.

Sleeve-pads (1830s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Sleeve pads were used to produce the puff sleeves that characterized in 1830's. They were made of thin cotton fabric and tailored three-dimensionally with abundant gathers. The feathers inside are light and expand the padding.

Crinoline (c. 1865)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Crinoline and Bustle

One of the most characteristic features of fashion during the middle of the 19th century was the crinoline style. The crinoline originally was a type of petticoat made of linen and interwoven with horsehair (crin in French). The petticoat's structure was frequently improved with the swell of skirt.

Towards the end of the 1850s, an innovative cage crinoline, made by connecting a series of hoops made out of steel and whalebone, was produced. Further progress led to the use of steel hoops.

Crinoline (the second half of 1860s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

With the appearance of the cage crinoline, which was easy to put on and take off, the skirt continued to expand, and reached its maximum size in the mid 1860s. The cage crinoline grew out of proportion, and it was troublesome just to walk or pass through a door. During this period, the crinoline phenomenon was often used as an element of satire in magazines.

Bustle (1870s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

The bustle style was in fashion from 1870 to the 1880s. The bustle (tournure in French) was designed to add volume to the rear of the dress below the waist

In the 1870s, skirt-style bustles like this example were particularly popular. Earlier, crinoline had used steel wire bones as a framework to give fullness to a skirt. Bustles like this one, that adopted the same principle but retained the framework only at the rear, were also known as crinolettes.

Bustle (1880s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

In the period from the 1870s to the 1880s, there were many variations on the now fully developed bustle. A variety of bustle constructions appeared, including cushions filled with horsehair, stiffly starched cloth, and frames of whalebone, bamboo and rattan.

Corset (1880s)The Kyoto Costume Institute


With the development of modern technology, people applied their creative originality and corsets by new devices were born. In particular, the invention of eyelet in 1828 allowed great improvements in the tightening of the waist on a corset.

The center-front busk and bones mold the curve from the waist to the abdomen, while neatly arranging the lower abdomen, as well. This corset is a vivid reminder of the painting, Nana, by Edouard Manet. Women used corsets in an effort to get closer to an ideal physical form of the time; until the beginning of the 20th century, their waists were tightened by the corset.

Corset (1880s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

The metal spoon busk at front center and the satin-based textile identify this corset as a type popular in the 1880s. Spoon shaped busks were used from the mid-1870s to the end of the 1880s in the belief that they would put less pressure on internal organs as a result of the broader curved section spreading the load over the abdomen.

Corset (c. 1900) by unknownThe Kyoto Costume Institute

The female body was squeezed most tightly into corsets in the early days of the twentieth century. The corset here is supported by a long steel busk at the front and the sold boning around the body. The body had to be forced to fit the artificial S-curve of the dress, which emphasized the bust and hips, while making the waistline as small as possible.

Corset cover (c. 1911) by unknownThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Bust bodice with the front boned in a lattice arrangement. The bust is pushed excessively forward, merging left and right into a single "monobosom" shape.

Brassiere (1920s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Birth of bras

Corsets, which had tightly constrained women's bodies and at the same time supported their bosoms, emphasizing the feminine curves of breasts, were discarded after World War I. That is why new underwear, the brassiere, was needed.

Chemise (1920s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

At the dawn of the 20th century, new fashions for the active woman that were straight and light were largely adopted. This also caused upheaval in the construction of women's underclothes. To wear under the new, light dresses, delicate, slim silk chemises appeared in the market, taking the place of chemises worn directly on the skin that were the standard for so long.

Swimsuit (1964) by Rudi GernreichThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Skin deep

This is the "monokini," a topless bathing suit that shocked the world. This showed the new realization that the skin itself could become a beautiful garment. Rudi Gernreich was a designer strongly conscious of bodies in developing his works since the 1960s. It was his unique think-outside-the-box approach.

Dress (Spring/Summer 1987) by Jean-Paul GaultierThe Kyoto Costume Institute

After his debut at Paris in 1976, Jean-Paul Gaultier quickly noticed the street fashion phenomenon of using underwear as outerwear. From the early 1980s he transformed various items of underwear including corsets and brassieres into active outerwear. The use of underwear as outerwear by Gaultier triggered a big boom from the 1990s, becoming a universal approach.

Dress, Brassiere (Spring/Summer 1998) by Tom FordThe Kyoto Costume Institute

The white knit material of this dress seems to cling to the body lines. The black leather brassiere underneath is expected to be visible through the dress. In the late 1990s, even luxury and edgy brands such as Gucci and Prada successively introduced camisoles and slips that were more refined, enabling them to be used as tops and dresses. The conventional understanding that underwear should be invisible was gradually changing.

Slip (1998) by Miuccia PradaThe Kyoto Costume Institute

A simple and modern slip reminiscent of lingerie in the 1930s, from the line of lingerie released by Prada in 1998. Underwear, which had been publicly invisible, became close to outerwear in the late 1990s, and the difference between the categories almost disappeared. This slip can be used as outerwear as well.

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