Lingerie Through the Ages
The holiday season puts everyone in a festive mood, which is likely why Victoria's Secret holds is annual fashion show right before Christmas.
Sure, it's a valuable marketing opportunity for the retailer ahead of a busy shopping season, but it's also a time to celebrate the history of women's lingerie. The models on stage certainly are young, but the garments they were wearing have a lineage that traces back thousands of years.
The earliest form of undergarments specific to woman comes from ancient Greece, where women would wear a band of cloth to support their breasts. Minoan art depicting women living in ancient Crete more than 4,000 years ago show women wearing such clothes.
Called an "apodesmos," the typically wool undergarment bore a basic resemblance to modern bra designs, in that these pieces were made of cloth that wrapped around the front of the chest and were secured with pins in the back.
In ancient Rome, custom dictated that women with larger breasts were considered unattractive, so women wore tight support garments, known as a "mamillare" or a "fascia," that would constrain and reduce the appearance of the size of their busts.
The primary purpose of the undergarments were functional, as opposed to aesthetic. As shown in this mosaic, from the Villa Romana del Casale and made in the 4th century, women would wear a mamillare for upper body support during athletic and dance events.
First developed during the Roman era and growing in popular during the Middle Ages, the chemise was a loose undergarment worn to protect outwear from sweat and body oils. Chemises were worn by both women and men alike.
While not the oldest form of lingerie, the Chinese du dou may be among the most enduring.
First fashionable among the upper classes during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the du dou is shaped almost like bib with straps that tie around the neck and back. Like the undergarments of ancient Rome, it was designed to minimize the appearance of the size of the bust.
These garments are still available today and often worn not underneath clothes but as outerwear.
Unlike during ancient Rome, larger busts weren't quite as unpopular in the late Middle Ages and onward, as evidenced by the popularity of corset, which aimed to give women the appearance of having large busts and narrow waistlines.
Emerging in its earliest form some 4,000 years ago, the corset, a term coined in the 14th century, is the first undergarment designed primarily for aesthetic rather than practical purposes. Rather than being a garment that fits the shape of the user, a corset instead is designed to create a shape out of the woman.
Over the centuries, corset designs would incorporate different materials, from wood to metal rods to animal bones, and different designs, incorporating hooks, clips, straps and even pulleys.
Corsets reached the height of their popularity during the Victorian era, worn by both men and women, only to be displaced in the 20th century by the mass production of a different kind of support garment and a world war.
Although the brassiere has its origins in the ancient world, it wasn't until 1914 that a design created and patented by Mary Phelps Jacob would gain widespread usage and acceptance. Lightweight and comfortable, Jacob's "Backless Brassiere" separated each breast rather than pushing them together as with a corset. In the 1920s, individual cup sizes would follow, allowing for a more comfortable garment.
World War I wasn't just fought on the battlefield everyday. It was also a struggle in the underwear drawers of women across America. The U.S. War Department asked women to stop buying corsets, in order to use those materials for the war effort. The campaign proved successful, saving enough steel to build two battleships.
Invented in 1947 by Frederick Mellinger, the push-up bra gave women what they had been missing since the decline of the corset: a little aesthetic edge. In the 1980s, Mellinger would make another form of lingerie, the thong, famous by mass-marketing the garments in his stores, Frederick's of Hollywood.
Although bras were originally designed as support garments to help women with physical activity, remarkably it wasn't until 1977 that the first sports bra, known as the Jogbra, was created by a female duo who created their original design using two jock straps.
That same year, the first Victoria's Secret opened its doors in San Francisco, Calif.
No longer are undergarments made from wool and whale bones. Now women can have the support of cloths, foams, gels, pads, straps, air pockets and more.
And with Victoria's Secret introducing a new fantasy bra every show, they can also have a multi-millionaire lingerie set covered in precious gemstones. At $15 million, the Red Hot Fantasy Bra worn by supermodel Gisele Bundchen in 2000 in the most expensive lingerie in the world.