The History Of Lingerie And The Evolution Of “Sexy”

Question: What is “sexy”?

The prudish or naive implications of said question may seem juvenile, but the precise pinpoint of sex can actually be a complex concept. And most of the time, we don’t bother to question it.

What really is sexy?  Maybe it’s a matter of coverage, of what exactly we choose to show: shoulders, midriff, a little bit of leg?   Maybe it’s about exactly what we’re wearing, the fabrics or the colors. Or maybe it’s a matter of balance, matching the appropriateness of our attire to the type of situation. Sexy seems to be this hazy concoction of factors that even once combined still leaves our question unanswered.

Is there really a clean line between modesty and sex?

Fashion’s closest answer to the puzzle of sensuality is simple: lingerie. A myriad of shape, texture and color, lingerie manipulates our individual concepts of sexy and the clothes that represent those tastes. It suggest, it flirts, but it never reveals all. And that’s the core of it’s essence: mystery. Complete exposure could never suffice, as it signifies an e-vite of constant availability. No, lingerie has always been seen as a curious subject, carefully choosing what to hide and what to bare.

Throughout history lingerie has served as women’s answer to questions of individual sensuality and suggestion, and so from the many years of bustiers, bras and the babes that wore them, we’re exposing it all.

An Era Of Constraint

1800s collage

Getty Image Archives

Not to any surprise, the 1800s’ version of sexy was’t any version at all. Any suggestion of intimacy was of a covert matter, an almost shameful secret only divulged behind closed doors and only shared between man and wife. The suppression of sexuality then quite literally translated into sartorial matters: the corset. Nearly every aspect of this garment was engineered to pull, push and manipulate the female body, from the drawstrings that cinched the waist together to the whalebone that pushed the breasts forward. Such constraints had a definite affect, causing women to suffer from organ deformation, crushed ribs and even miscarriage. But the era of lingerie’s suppression would quickly come to an end as fashion’s newest invention found its limelight.

Bloomers and Bras

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Getty Images

With Mary Phelps Jacobs’ invention of the bra in 1910, women were finally getting the choice and freedom that lingerie was meant to offer. Society’s corset requirement began to fade with WWI shortages and lingerie companies were in need of new solutions for their customers, one of these being the bra. Because of the 20s’ sleek and skimpy silhouette, women were going to need underwear of the same cloth, thus also introducing the slip. Much contrasting from the suppressive nature of earlier centuries, the slip granted a newfound liberation and simplicity. Granted, this image was quite androgynous and promoted a sort of boyish figure not usually associated with an image of sex, but by using lingerie to celebrate the female body, “sexy” was exactly the term for it. As styles changed in the 30s and 40s, underwear followed suit and women bought their lingerie in separates: bras and bloomers. These options again were a step in a positive direction, but still had a certain veneer of secrecy. Something would need to break this wall in order for a more available version of “sexy” to be found.

The Curves of Rebellion

pin up collage

Gil Elvgren, Harry Eckman

But with the 1950s, lingerie finally developed its overt display and societal acceptance. The image of sex could finally become tangible, and this was in part due to the rise of pin-up girls. Pin-up girls were pictures of often scantily-clad models printed on posters for the walls of America. On these models were the lingerie trends of the decade, advertising everything from seamed stockings and girdles to bustiers and corselets. In total, these trends encapsulated the newest image of sex: curves. With the 60s and 70s continued an era of sexual liberation and lingerie styles again evolved, but almost in a digressional manner. The 60s version of underwear was no underwear, as seen in the decade’s infamous bra burning and invention of the No-Bra. The 70s had a return to lingerie, but in a sleeker sense with trim nightgowns and loose fabrics.

Cher And Body Suits: A Love Affair

PicMonkey Collage

Marie Claire

80s lingerie could not be explained without Cher, who was famous for debuting this little number in concert. Lingerie had officially gone back to the one-piece or teddies that had been forgotten for quite some time. Along with the body suit, popular styles were thongs, g-strings and any piece with a high-cut leg. Much opposed to the 80s’ version of sex, the 90s found its version in an androgynous display of very little clothing. The most commonly known example was in Calvin Klein’s controversial ads of the decade. Even though he was technically selling clothing, his models often wore no clothing at all, challenging ideas of nudity and the connotations of sex that go with them. In addition he created the unisex Calvin Klein waistband to prove that sexuality didn’t always have to be determined by gender. While his ideas and ads were widely known, they were also heavily censored and even faced a few child pornography charges. Still, his ideas of sex represented a new version that defied past standards and limitations.

The New Sexy

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Getty Images

Today lingerie is obviously more accessible than ever in a variety of forms, but more importantly it has contributed a modern version of sexy completely unique from past eras. This new version is not about what’s covered up or not, but about the woman underneath it all. A woman of confidence. A woman of strength. A woman who encapsulates whatever sort of sexy she wants.

After all of these years, we’re happy that this is the sort of woman that lingerie has become.

Brielle Saggese

Editorial Contributor, Indiana University Major: Journalism/Fashion and Cultural History Her heart belongs to: snail mail, vintage dresses, a solid cat eye and french press coffee Her guilty pleasures: crafting more than the average kindergartner, singing showtunes and bringing back the scrunchy

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