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Exposing the history of lingerie

90 years of innovation

From waist-whittling corsets and bloomers, to barely-there thongs and push-up bras, the history of lingerie offers an illuminating perspective on the changing role of women in society. In the past 90 years under garments have transformed from restrictive devices to wispy flounces or the focal point of an outfit as women have moved from repression to empowerment. Let’s take a trip back in time to see how lingerie has changed in the past 90 years, noting the key trends, innovations and expertise along the way. Originally designed to serve three key purposes – changing a woman’s shape, preserving her modesty and to ensure her hygiene – underwear has had a myriad manifestations and transformations in line with social and political developments of the day. Today’s lingerie is the product of staggering innovations in craftsmanship and fit and function, with a beautiful bra available for literally every body. Here are the top 10 iconic moments in lingerie over the past 90 years.

  1. 1920s

    As fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and Madeline Vionnet were refashioning the ideal female body shape from hourglass to boyish and straight, flappers put the fun into lingerie. Built for shimmying to the Charleston and drinking champagne, there was no corset required for the flapper dress, which required undergarments to be as invisible and free-moving as possible. Simple, unstructured styles were the vogue of the day with a “V” at the cleavage to suit the plunging and drop-waisted styles worn with elan and attitude by a generation of Bright Young Things. The slip came into fashion as a symbol of the flappers’ freedom, and decorative, embellished lingerie was also on the rise in line with the decade’s hedonistic spirit. Camiknickers – literally, a camisole and knickers sewn together – were popular in the ‘20s as they worked well under the short dresses of the time.

  2. 1930s

    To paraphrase Bjork, the 1930s were all about Big Time Sensuality. The babe was back as lingerie once more highlighted women’s natural curves, with pointed or rounded bras coming into fashion. Undergarments became even more decorative and feminine in the post-war era and technological advances and new fabrics, such as elastic, also increased the possibilities and styles. Marks & Spencer became the first British retailer to establish its own research laboratory dedicated to pioneering new fabrics as shorter and more modern-looking underwear began being sold in retail stores. Lingerie shopping became a “thing” with the help of clever marketing campaigns and mail order catalogues that also established corsetry and hosiery as immensely popular apparel growth categories. Lingerie departments mushroomed in size in the major department stores as women of the 1930s brought the corset back, now called the “girdle“. Many women began wearing the strapless bra as well, which gained popularity for its ability to push the breasts up and enhance cleavage.

  3. 1940s

    World War Two wasn’t just fought on the battlefield every day. It was also a struggle in the underwear drawers of women across the world. All clothing had to adhere to utility standards, in order to conserve materials for the war effort. British department store Marks & Spencer developed a utility lingerie range that was aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, then staged its first lingerie fashion show in 1947, when the social and undergarment mood was euphoric following the lifting of austere wartime restrictions. Before she became a Hollywood star, Marilyn Monroe put her famous curves to good use by modelling for lingerie advertisements, which in in the ’40s were painted by hand.

  4. 1950s

    In the era of rock’n’roll and the golden age of television, the charmingly-named corselet came in style. As Marilyn Monroe became the most popular sex symbols of the decade, she often took to the silver screen in a corselet, a generally strapless garment incorporating underwired cups that were designed to be worn under evening gowns. A small waistline and a pointed bust defined the ideal mid-century look. Christian Dior pioneered this “New Look” centred on full skirts and wasp waists that required full petticoat half-slips and wired and structured bras to create décolletage set against plunging necklines. Jayne Mansfield and Betty Page pioneered the glamorous, pneumatic silhouette that emerged towards the end of the decade while rayon and spandex were also used to make undergarments, which made lingerie more comfortable and easier to wear than ever before.

  5. 1960s

    Along with the Beatles and the Stones, the early 1960s saw a more youthful and fun style of lingerie emerging, with playful baby-doll nighties and frilly knickers to match the coquettish mini dresses of the time. As the decade continued, the Swinging Sixties became the era of ‘no-underwear underwear’ following the introduction in 1965 of the No-Bra by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich.  The same year British retailer Marks & Spencer launched its first sheer nylon bra. It was not only transparent but also promoted the braless look of the sexually liberated 1960s as women wore bras with no metal or wiring that provided little support. Pantyhose, which combined panties and hose into one garment, made their first appearance in 1959, but gained great popularity in the 1960ss due to the popularity of the miniskirt.

  6. 1970s

    In 1977 that the first sports bra, known as the Jogbra, was launched by a female duo who created their original design using two jock straps.

    What began in the men’s locker room would go on to be literally a game changer in women’s underwear drawers everywhere. The girlie styles of the 1960s gave way to a more sophisticated, womanly look as lingerie incorporated luxurious fabrics like silk and lace in elegant designs. The iconic cover of Roxy Music’s 1974 album, Country Life, featuring two models wearing the daring underwear of the disco era, defined the hedonism and glamour of the decade.

    The Trellis Lace bra by Marks & Spencer defined this new decadence when it was launched in this decade and became the department store’s first style to sell over one million pieces, which it did in under 18 months, and is being re-released this year to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the British retailer.

  7. 1980s

    The one-piece teddy emerged as a garment recommended for sleepwear – and other activities in the bedroom – and classic lingerie styles became popular again, after going out of style in the 1960s. Career women who wore menswear-inspired power suits to work often wore sexy, lacy underwear as a reminder of their femininity. Thongs also became a thing in fashion, arising from their origins in South America to gain popularity around the world.  The thong became responsible for the cultural phenomenon of the Brazilian wax, after Brazilian Janea Padilha, who co-owned a New York salon with her sisters. They came up with a solution regarding hair removal for the skimpy undergarments. The 1980s is also the decade that brought us the bodysuit –infamously worn by Cher.

  8. 1990s

    Madonna ushered in the Vogue – literally – for underwear as outerwear on her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990 wearing a conical bra designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Other celebrities and plebians also embraced the trend of wearing classic ’50s lingerie as outerwear, but as the decade wore on it became defined by cool minimalism. This was personified by the newest supermodel on the block, Kate Moss, in her clean-lined cotton underwear in black and white campaigns for Calvin Klein. The branded waistbands of the underwear became a style status symbol, and were soon to be spotted poking above the waistband of jeans the world over.

  9. 2000s

    After the androgyny of the ‘90s, Agent Provocateur brought sexy back when it launched in 2001 with a vision to reinject the colour, glamour and sass into lingerie. An advertisement featuring Kylie Minogue riding a bucking bronco in Agent Provocateur lingerie has been cited as one of the sexiest advertisements of all time, while Marks & Spencer took ‘skin-is-in’ one step further when it launched the Secret Support range which gave women the freedom to go without a bra at all, winning the retailer the Queen’s Award for Innovation. The 2000s also marked the invention of Spanx – shape wear worn with pain as well as pride, and clothing also began to incorporate built-in breast support with camisoles, tank tops, and even some figure-hugging dresses providing support to their wearers.

  10. 2010s

    Lingerie today is defined by its diversity. There is a colour, style, shape and coverage for every figure and every personal taste, and technical innovations continue apace to improve fit and function. Lingerie is more accessible and popular than ever in all its forms, but more importantly its diversity has contributed to a contemporary version of womanhood completely different from past eras. It’s not about dictating a woman’s body shape or how she should dress, but about celebrating femininity in all its forms. Lingerie in 2016 is all about a woman of confidence, strength and inner beauty who can embrace whatever definition of sensuality she chooses.


    Marks and Spencer are a British clothing retailer founded in 1884. 1 in 3 UK women wear an M&S bra and they have hundreds of years of expertise in lingerie. They offer free tracked delivery on all orders over $100, with fuss-free local returns.