Underwear: from corsets to bullet bras and back

Eleri Lynn, author of a new book about the V&A's huge underwear collection, leads on a brief history of shapewear from Victorian corsets to lycra bodysuits

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Video Transcript

Eleri Lynn, Fashion Curator, V&A

Stays, as they were called, previously in corsets were around for centuries beforehand, but the Victorians really took to it, partly because of the kind of scientific discoveries and the technological advancements they were making.  They were working with different ways of steel reinforcements and they invented this steel busk here, which allowed the women to take the corsets on and off themselves, and invented metal eyelets and a form of back lacing the corset which allowed women to tighten the corsets themselves. And you’d wear it in every age and every class. It would have been considered shocking if you did not wear a corset. 

Throughout the 19th Century the shape was changing, as much as through the 20th Century. It started off as a very tubular shape. Then in the 1850s, the shape was quite a pronounced hourglass. This corset is very late, but some of the earlier corsets would really kick out at the hip. There was a massive shift from Victorian to Edwardian. They introduced the straight busk; the busk is the front bit here. They introduced it extensively so as not to put pressure on the internal organs. Actually, what it ended up doing was pressing into the groin and causing such discomfort it made the pelvis arch backwards and the bust to be thrust forward, so you had this very pronounced S-shape. It was trying to be more comfortable. It’s probably much more uncomfortable and bad for posture and your back and your figure generally than any of the Victorian corsets.

In terms of body shape, throughout the 20th Century you get a few flashpoints. You get young people after the First World War really rebelling against the previous generation that had sent them all off to war. They wanted to look completely different from this matronly figure, so you have this very androgynous kind of flapper shape. That was created with a combination of girdles. If you were unfashionable enough to have a big chest you flatten that down with a bra called a bandeau which would basically flatten your boobs.

After the Second World War, you see the resurgence of femininity after the austerity. You get this style, which is much more feminine. It’s part of Dior’s new look, which was all about synched-in waists and big skirts. This has got power-net, so it’s actually doing quite a strong job of compressing the body, without whale-bones. The 1950’s saw the introduction of a lot of man-made fibres, so this is doing the job of that Victorian corset, just in a different and more comfortable way.

In the 1950s, particularly the mid-1950s, three out of every four women were wearing falsies, which are essentially foam cones at the front of the cup. Basically that’s to create that bullet bra shape, that really pointy conical shape that you sea in old films. These are very hard cones here, but you did get versions of them, which were inflatable falsies, or ones which you would even fill with water, but I think they were a bit of a commercial disaster.

In the 1960s you get a very different kind of aesthetic. For a start, the introduction of certain fabrics helps. Lycra has been introduced in 1959 commercially, and was incredibly successful. It’s highly tensile so it returns back to its former shape, it pulls you in, compresses the figure, and does it all without clasps and hooks.

Because teenagers were rebelling against corsetry as something that was old fashioned and perhaps chauvinistic, a lot of designers tried to create something new that might appeal to them. Instead of corsets, you start to see bodysuits being advertised. Here is a Mary Quant body. Mary Quant was a very fashionable name in the 1960s, so this would have been quite desirable. It’s got a lycra panel here to reinforce your tummy. Moreover, it can be worn under miniskirts, or under tight dresses; it can even be worn with jeans. Fashionable people are trying to have a really natural body shape.

Almost in terms of the way the story develops, the introduction of separate bra and knicker sets in the 1960s is the end of this kind of foundation-wear development. Foundation-wear is not really supposed to be seductive until you get to a very contemporary era where you have this kind of retro vintage aesthetic where you are wearing Agent Provocateur or Fairy Gothmother corsets, that whole burlesque aspect.

I suppose corsetry, and all these aesthetics like the girdle and all of these things that were such a normal part of womens dressing routine, they fell very much fell out of favour and for a few decades were not fashionable at all. Then in the 1980’s and 1990’s were reclaimed and seen by designers like Vivienne Westwood as something quite empowering. So instead of being hyper-feminine they were actually hyper-assertive.

It’s difficult to trace the fashionable body shape now through underwear, partly because underwear doesn’t really do that job any more. Now you’re pretty much expected to be that shape  - to just have that.

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As recently as 70 years ago, foundation garments, as corsets were called, were fundamental to the way that women dressed. This film features author Eleri Lynn shot in one of the V&A's most evocative storerooms as she leads us on a tour of a long hidden world. Eleri's brief history of shapewear starts with the hourglass and S-bend forms - and steel and whalebone engineering - of Victorian and Edwardian corsets carries on through the breast-flattening bandeau bras worn by 1920s flappers, the New Look underwear of Christian Dior, the conicle bullet bras of the 1950s and concludes with  the arrival of Lycra in the 1960s and the renaissance of corsetry through the new popularity of burlesque.

"It's now very difficult to trace the fashionable body shape through underwear as historians would have done previously. Of course we now have Spanx which is a form of corsetry using Lycra instead of whalebone but today you are supposed to be the shape through diet and exercise"

Eleri Lynn