(Deep Dive)

The Defining Role Of Lingerie In American Women’s Lives

It’s a cultural bellwether.

Written by Maura Brannigan
Lais Borges/TZR; Getty Images; Maidenform; Sears

In 1949, a woman named Florence Trenner struck gold around her kitchen table. As the story goes, she and her husband, Harry, an advertising executive at a New York City agency, were sitting around after dinner and discussing one of Harry’s accounts: women’s underwear brand Maidenform. The label was seeking a sparkling new creative direction to bring the company into the midcentury, and the Trenners had just the idea.

The thesis was this: What if the brand showed a partially undressed woman engaged in a fantasy of her choosing, exposing her Maidenform bra? The first ad — replete with the tagline “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra!” — paved the way for increasingly provocative scenarios touching everything from blind seduction (“I dreamed I drove them wild…”) to professional aspiration (“I dreamed I won the election…”).

Maidenform understood that in the patriarchal order of the 1950s and 1960s, a woman’s path to success (and, ultimately, to power) was reliant on her sexuality. So why not provide women with the illusion that some of that control was in her own hands, to do with as they pleased? The concept was a hit: Between 1949 and 1963, the company’s sales climbed from $14 million to more than $43 million. But by the late 1960s, against the force of the women’s liberation movement, dreaming alone wasn’t cutting it. Women wanted more, and on their own terms. So in 1969, Maidenform ran the last of the iconic ads and looked to innovate its identity for a new generation once again.

“I dreamed that....in my Maidenform bra” campaign, circa 1963.Maidenform

This story is bigger than Maidenform. After all, the way women wear undergarments has long been a direct reflection of their place in American life. Lingerie has helped not just to define women’s roles but to demonstrate what’s possible beyond their current limitations. After all, women idealized Maidenform’s titillating utopia until that utopia wasn’t good enough.

“Our undergarments are our most intimate layer and therefore, also our most vulnerable,” shares Rose Colcord, founder of intimates brand Cou Cou. “In many ways, it’s the choice we have to either make for ourselves or for the perception of others. Something as ‘simple’ as our choice of undergarments are an indication of how we perceive ourselves and our values.”

This is as true for consumers as it is for the sector at large. Larissa King, a bodywear designer and assistant professor of fashion design and intimate apparel at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), explains that developments within fashion very often begin with the body. Both literally and figuratively, lingerie becomes the foundation on which these fashionable silhouettes are being built. And just as the “ideal” body has changed, responding to cultural indicators throughout history, so too have the undergarments been used to both distract from or accentuate it.

The Democratization Of The Corset

Here in the United States, the big business of lingerie — valued at around $80 billion, as of 2021 — has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. Historically defined as running from 1760 to 1840, this was the era when technological innovations allowed women of all social classes to achieve a fashionable silhouette for the very first time. It was the age of the corset, a rigid undergarment often made of layered fabrics like cotton, linen, and silk; stiffened with starch; and reinforced with narrow slats to produce a curvy, hourglass shape. Long considered a symbol of patriarchal control, the style was regularly worn in the conservative upper-crust society, but come the mid-1800s, it was becoming easier to wear: Newly invented “busk” closures sat on the front of the garment, not the back, and allowed women to dress themselves.

Intimate view of woman undressing in the bath during the Victorian era.Getty Images

Corsets have a complicated history, to be sure, binding women to passive pursuits, oftentimes in the home. But amid the dawn of mass production, a new wave of working-class women were eager — and, critically, now able — to participate in the same aesthetic as that of the social elite. King believes that women of this period had more sartorial agency than history might demonstrate.

“There’s this idea that women in the past were submissive victims of the fashion system,” says King. “And they weren’t. Women wore corsets for centuries, and corsets were clearly doing something for them: shaping their bodies, supporting their bust, just making them look the way they wanted to look.”

Shedding Layers For A New Silhouette

Upon the eve of World War I, steel shortages ruled corsets out of fashion, and soon, it became an act of patriotism to forgo the constrictive undergarment altogether. By the late 1910s, with hundreds of thousands dead and the 1918 flu pandemic ravaging across the United States, the general consensus was clear: It was time for a new bodily ideal, and with it, new underwear to match.

“This was a very young population who had just come out of a lot of trauma and didn’t want anything to do with what their parents were,” explains King. “The ideal body, at that point, became very youthful in that it was essentially just a tube of waist, bust, and hips.”

With lightweight intimates crafted from delicate silks and indulgent laces, the lingerie of the era was soft and without a lick of the control corsets once provided. With changes in undergarments came changes in posture: The so-called “debutante slouch,” a limp, boyish pose often fueled by debaucherous indulgences of the Jazz Age, simply wasn’t possible on a corseted torso.

Women in lingerie with 2 attendants in Austria, circa 1925.Imagno/Getty Images

With slick, body-hugging garments came equally streamlined lingerie, made possible by the technological developments that helped democratize corsetry a generation prior. Enter Lastex, an elastic fiber that could sit invisibly under even the most unforgiving of bias-cut gowns.

A Post-War Pushback

In the aftermath of World War II, Christian Dior’s iconic "New Look” collection — a 1947 range that served as a controversial, nostalgia-laden rejection of the freer styles of the 1920s and 1930s — ushered in a return to the hyper-feminine silhouettes that corsets once provided. Through the early 1960s, lingerie-like silk girdles and all-in-one “corsolettes” provided a structured frame to nip the waist and pad the hips, while still prioritizing comfort. This was what those aforementioned Maidenform ads did so well, rebranding control for a more autonomous shopper.

“I dreamed there was no end of me in Maidenform Confections” campaign, circa 1969.Maidenform

Though confining, midcentury lingerie proved to be a safe haven for women — as consumers, of course, but also as designers. Deirdre Clemente, a historian and curator of 20th-century American material culture, notes that this was an industry very much interested in customer opinion, with Mad Men-style focus groups playing a crucial role in the industry’s advancement over time.

“There was a lot of commerce around this for women,” adds Clemente. “The physicality of the garment was one thing, but the opportunities within the industry was quite another. This was really one of the first garment industries that listened to women’s voices in a cohesive way.”

But against the onset of the Vietnam War, the emerging second-wave feminism was quick to associate intimates (and other feminine objects like hair accessories and makeup) with the patriarchal control under which protesters so ardently looked to escape. Women began burning bras or otherwise disposing of them in public trash cans.

Yet as King explains, a bra-free lifestyle wasn’t entirely practical for all women’s bodies. Modernist designer Rudi Gernreich looked to close this gap with what he called the “no bra,” a more freeing contraption made of transparent netting that still allowed women to wear a layer beneath her clothes, albeit a transparent one.

Lingerie Is Individualized — Sort Of

The industry turned yet another corner in the 1980s, when women looked to punchy pastel undergarments from labels like Janet Reger and La Perla to balance out the harshness of the menswear silhouettes they were starting to wear for work. With a bra top and attached slip, sleek teddies became the decade’s answer to the contemporary bodysuit, hugging the body while safely tucked beneath hefty layers of wool suiting and shoulder pads.

“The women in the 1980s had laid that trail in which lingerie could be the place where women could conceivably belong in the workplace without feeling like they had something to prove by only wearing a suit,” says King. “They could lean into their femininity without fear.”

By the 1990s, though, women’s lifestyles and the aesthetic trends that addressed them swung to the opposite end of the pendulum. The United States entered a mild recession at the top of the decade, sparked by high oil prices, tightening within the Federal Reserve and an overall financial pessimism off the heels of the 1980s-era economic boom.

Underwear, in turn, moved in a minimalist direction, much like the rest of fashion. Rebelling against the larger-than-life, hyper-bright flash of the prior decade, 1990s minimalists like Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Issey Miyake relied on clean lines — and a spectacular fit — to carry the look. This, of course, also translated to undergarments: In 1992, Kate Moss’s bare-basics Calvin Klein campaign — in which she and co-star Mark Wahlberg, shot in unadorned black-and-white, simply wear white briefs — instantly became iconic and rendered Moss a supermodel herself.

Kate Moss with Mark Wahlberg in bare-basics Calvin Klein campaign, circa 1992.CK

When the economy rebounded by President Bill Clinton’s second term in 1997, however, lingerie began to return to the lace-covered, ultra-romantic heights of the prior decade. During the women’s liberation movement, undergarments had been a subtle, more individualized way for women to show their femininity on their own terms. But this new era focused more intently on male fantasies. Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author, has referred to the 1990s as a “backlash” decade. After women “liberated themselves” in the 1970s, the pendulum swung the other way, with the feminist movement receiving little publicity.

Naturally, this had ramifications within the world of lingerie: Underwear got sexier and more explicit, oftentimes sported by larger-than-life supermodels and marketed toward the literal appeasement of men. In 1994, the Playtex-owned Wonderbra debuted its mega-popular pushup bra with its aptly titled “Hello Boys” campaign; in 1995, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show brought high-wattage sex appeal to network television, where it stayed until its “Me Too”-fueled downfall in 2018.

Wonderbra bra in “Hello Boys” campaign, circa 1994.Playtex

Through the new millennium, pants grew tighter and more low-slung. The silhouette demanded thongs, which Y2K-era companies (namely Commando, founded in 2003) catered to with “raw-cut” elastic-free waistbands and weightless seams. And for those not dedicated to hiding their underpinnings beneath their clothing, visible lingerie — from colorful bras to “whaletail” G-strings peeking out beneath skimpy tanks and waistbands — came in its place. And this, as we know, changed everything.

Underwear For The Next Generation

In the years since, the 2000s have been described as many things — the digital decade, the disaster decade, and the look-at-me decade among them. Whatever you want to call the epoch, it was heavy time, replete with the fall of the Twin Towers, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Hurricane Katrina. Celebrity-fueled pop culture was a welcome distraction back then, and with it came a whole new way that women viewed their bodies — which is to say, toxically.

Between 2000 and 2010, diet culture and weight stigma ran rampant. Tabloid covers fueled a deep, disturbing obsession with thinness, with lingerie trends tapping into this focus in widespread ways, including the once-untouchable Victoria’s Secret Angel and the dark pre-show preparations that went into creating them. But the mid-2010s turned this on its head, with body-positivity movements creeping in to update the very ways women viewed — and ultimately dressed — their bodies.

Karolina Kurkova models the Star of Victoria Bra in 2002.KMazur/WireImage for Victoria's Secret

Which brings us here, to 2023. This is a time of abject social, political and cultural upheaval, but also of unparalleled inclusivity. Women are losing their rights to control their own bodies, but they’re also helping to redefine how society internalizes their bodies in the first place.

“We are a ‘new’ generation of women, and we’re wearing intimates as a form of empowerment and self expression, a means to bring us back to our embodied experience,” says Colcord, the Cou Cou founder. “Gone are the days of sacrificing comfort for confidence. Every day is worth wearing our favorites.”

In fact, experts believe that lingerie is on the precipice of a new age altogether. Once calculated to appeal to a male cohort, bras, underwear, and everything in between are now expected to reflect the needs and desires of those who wear them. And “challenger brands” — i.e., those companies that are neither the market leader nor a niche brand, like Parade, for example — are more than prepared to fill any gaps in the market.

“The rise of challenger brands catering to different niches means there's lingerie for everyone, like never before,” says journalist Emily Cronin, the co-founder of Hello Girls, the podcast about women’s underwear. “Women aren’t going to accept being told they have to wear a thong (unless they want to) or that granny panties are embarrassing when, actually, a lot of women think they’re pretty great. It’s an exciting time.”

Looking forward, Cronin anticipates a similar trend in the bra market as to what retail has seen in the denim sector: Instead of pushing a singular shape, any style that anyone might wish to buy will be available from somewhere, at all times. This includes each and every style throughout the last two centuries, inclusive of corsets, bodysuits, no-frills bralettes, and ultra-sexy Y2K-period looks. Today, in fact, entire communities exist around the aforementioned styles of decades past. Take Gen Z, which has claimed the 2000s-era underwear as its own as an extension of so-called thirst fashion, which emerged post-lockdown as people began itching to show more skin after such long periods of solitude.

Maidenform, for one, understood this idea. Rather than marketing a specific silhouette, the company instead sold a multilayered fantasy, and that made all the difference.

“The fashion industry can propose whatever it wants, but if people don’t want to wear it, if it doesn’t work with their lives, if it doesn’t solve some sort of need for them, they’re not going to go for it,” says King. “We should give women of the past credit for doing what worked for them at the time.”