The A to Z Challenge – U for Underwear

The A to Z Challenge is on! Hello and welcome to my Main blog. My name is Rose Anderson and I’m a romance novelist. Join me and more than 2279 bloggers and authors as we blog the alphabet throughout the month of April. My daily posts will be mostly history with some science topics here and there. I’ve chosen subjects that tickle my fancy, I hope you will find them interesting too.

Keep the topic rolling! If you have comments or questions, add them at the end of the post. I may not know the answer off the top of my head but I love research and would enjoy discussing my topics further. Comments can be made just below my bio in the tag section.

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Today’s Calliope’s Writing Tablet post is brought to you by the letter U ~
U for Underwear

The mechanics of things fascinate me. They always have. As a girl I took apart telephones, clocks, and music boxes, rewired lamps and doorbells, and even cut open a doll’s head to see how those blinking eyes worked. (I didn’t play with dolls anyway, so no loss there). Even today, if we go on a vacation, it’s made all the better if I can find a factory tour. I’ve seen how all sorts of things are made like baseball bats, Chevy’s, and beer. I just love that stuff. My family laughs, but truth be told, they love it too. 😀

As a girl I imagined future career paths with a child’s wide-open potentiality. From baboonanthropologist to zoo dolphin trainer, and everything in between, I wanted to be all of it at one time or another. Always hungry for factual info, in 8th grade I discovered a book by an ethnologist named Desmond Morris entitled The Naked Ape. The book was all whys and wherefores on the mechanics of primates. In creating this post this morning I recall a chapter about baboons, namely mandrill baboons. They have the same bold bright colors on their faces as they have on their backsides. Why? As a sexual attractant. Interestingly enough, Morris goes on to compare it to the roundness found front and back on human females. Humans attractants. Now there’s a point to ponder. Women are subconsciously drawn to strength because in species pair-bonding a vital mate helps you both survive and create vital offspring. Conversely, men are drawn to breasts and butts. And that brings me to today’s topic.  🙂

From the bare-breasted garments worn by the Ancient Minoans that blatantly announced sexuality, to the severe sex-denying garments worn in a 1500’s Spanish court under the influence of a patriarchal church, accentuating or de-emphasizing our physical attractants has gone on for a very long time.

The underpinnings of society

Throughout history, women’s bodies were and still are controlled by social constructs. As a person involved in living history presentation for many years I did a lot of research to choose the correct clothing to wear. Having worn one, I can say in all honesty that the corset was its own particular kind of hell. Women and children of both sexes wore them even while they slept. These torture devices deformed the ribcage and messed with the internal organs. I think of that line from Gone With the Wind: “Miss Scarlett you done had a baby, you ain’t never gonna be no eleven inch waist again.”

The shifts in fashion were obvious. One decade saw the breasts accentuated. The next decade saw a small waist  all the rage. Padded hips came next, then the eye went back to the bust, then waist, then the hips, then back to the bust and so on. Brassieres, corsets, and panniers, bustles, stays, girdles, and necklines high and low — the pendulum of fashion swung wide and frequently. Of all the gadgets employed to achieve a certain look, no other garment is woven into the social standing of women like the bra. Bras hide, accentuate, or modify the most female attribute –the breasts. Control the breasts, control the woman. Historically speaking, that’s very true.

On one hand, bras are support structures worn for comfort. On the other hand they are seen as sexually repressing e.g. forcing women to physically conform to social expectations. And in between they’re seen to enhance sexuality a la Victioria’s Secret. Given the personal nature of under garments in a sexually ... una banda de tela alrededor del pecho llamada strophium o mamilarerepressed western world, we don’t exactly know when the recognizable bra with cups and straps came into being. Ancient women wore apodesmes, strophiums, kanchukas, fascia, and mamilares, all simple breast garments more decorative bindings than bra. >>>

By the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire had had enough temptation and issued an edict stating no woman will support the bust by the disposition of a blouse or by tightened dress. That said, the breast had officially gone into hiding. Even nuns were binding their breasts as late as the 1930’s.

Two hundred years later saw the bosom beginning to make a fashionable appearance in art. By the time of the Renaissance, an alluring décolletage was all the rage. In the opulent French court the bindings were off completely, and bare breast jewelry was a fashion statement. The breasts had their ups and downs, figuratively and literally, throughout the next two hundred years. Waists and hips had their decades too.

The Victorians took bosom to a whole new fashion level. Robust figures meant health and suggested wealth. To get that hourglass figure, Victorian-Era-Undergarmentsthe Victorians employed it all. They had corsets with stitch-shaped cups built in to make the bust fuller, laces and stays to make the waist smaller, and bustles and bum rolls to make the backside higher and bigger.

In throwing off the traditions of the century before, the 1920’s brought the Flappers who also threw the structured undergarments of the past out the window. Breast binding came in vogue but not 1920s Symington Side Lacerbecause of repression. The Flapper represented youth and vitality. Every woman wanted that teen body. To get it they bought the Symington Side Lacer. This bra laced at both sides and you pulled those  laces to flatten the chest.

After the WWII women’s clothing took on a tailored look and so did their underwear. The emphasis had gone from bust to the waist. By the 1950’s the torpedo bras arrived but backside was the big deal. High stiletto heels forced the rump up and out and girdles kept the roundness smooth. Picture Marilyn Monroe walking in a pencil skirt so tight it had to have a small slit at the hem in the back just so she could walk.

Then the 1960’s come and Twiggy brings that boyish Flapper figure back in style. By the end of the decade women were discarding the girdle and burning those bras — a statement saying the breasts are here to stay. Undergarment sanity ruled in the decades that followed. Given the run of things, I image the tide will turn soon enough.


A little long but comprehensive. She mentions the Kyoto collection. I have a few books from the Kyoto Museum. The best historical clothing books I’ve ever seen.

Tomorrow ~ letter V


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About ~RoseAnderson

Rose Anderson is an award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and delights in discovering interesting things to weave into stories. Rose also writes under the pen name Madeline Archer.
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6 Responses to The A to Z Challenge – U for Underwear

  1. Great resource and wonderful information. I’m rather a fan of the bra, as it saves my poor back. I do wish bloomers were still in fashion though–is that crazy? Talk about comfort. 😉

    True Heroes from A to Z

  2. rosgemmell says:

    Another great post, Rose – I love costume history and have sympathy for all those contraptions women had to wear at times.

  3. My redheaded grandmother always wore bloomers and I used to stare in fascination at them blowing in the breeze on the clothes line… ah they joys of childhood. Thanks for the post, Rose.

  4. Ray G says:

    People say women’s fashions are to impress men and not the women wearing them, but don’t fashions really get determined by designers and manufacturers who are more interested in the bottom line more than the bottom, the dollar more than décolletage?

    • I think there’s some truth to women dressing for women. Humans are more like bonobos than we like to think.

      That bottom line seems to run everything. The waifish sizes in fashion have to do with the yardage of cloth. Less cloth, less cost to make.

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