Vintage Lingerie and Underpinnings: A Brief (not boyshort) Summary
We all know a good set of vintage lingerie, or none-at-all, can make us feel on top of the world. Whether it is your favorite bra and panty, that gorgeous lounge robe you love, or your nicest silk slip, it doesn't matter who sees it when you know it's there lending you confidence underneath that cute outfit you've got on. Women have worn specific undergarments meant to support, shape, and protect our bodies for more than 2000 years, going back to the first bandeau bras known as "tunica" or "apodesme" matched with loincloths worn by Greco-Roman women. Things sure have changed a lot since then, so let's look at some basic forms, types, and terms.
Vintage Slips and Shifts
Shifts and their successor, the slip, have been around since the Middle Ages. Shifts usually were made of cheaper materials, meant to be washed and replaced often. The initial purpose was to separate your dress away from your skin so that it would be less easily stained or soiled by sweat and skin oils. These were an important part of hygiene for women, as washing your outer clothing every day was not possible and could be expensive. Later, during the Renaissance these shifts also separated the corset away from the body helping to keep things comfortable and clean. The modern slip was made for much the same purpose. Ideally your slip would help keep your daily clothes clean from the inside out. They also provide comfort from itchy waistbands, and sometimes extra coverage when that skirt rides up a bit when you sit. Nowadays, we love a good slip worn as a dress all by itself as they often provide a lovely flowing femininity. Trying to mix them into your modern wardrobe with skirts is also a great option. Many slips, and some shifts, are embellished with lace, embroidery and sometimes crocheted details.
The bra and panty have a long history with many iterations, starting with the bandeau type wraps and loincloths worn by women in Ancient Rome and Greece. While these bras were more strips of fabric that were tied or pinned around the body, the modern sewn bra is probably older than you think, dating back to the Middle Ages around 700 years ago. They called them "breast bags” back then, the oldest found being from around the year 1400! Corsets, at the time however, won in popularity over the bra, and bras were definitely not in fashion for high society women. The reemergence of the brasserie, as they were called then, came about in the 1910's with the popularization of slimmer lined low back dresses and was made even more popular when WW1 broke out. The metal needed for corset making was being taken for the war effort, and so women did their part in changing how they garmented themselves saving an estimated 28,000 lbs of metal from corsets alone. After the war, the bra really took off and many of the manufacturer names we are still familiar with today began popping up. Maidenform started in the 1920's. Playtex was the first company to advertise their bras on TV in the 1950's, and then we had Wonderbra, which was created in 1964, before Victoria Secret came on the scene in 1977. Now we have bras in all forms from soft cup, to over-wire, to demi-cup and underwire bras. Showing your bra off used to be a taboo, but by the 1990's we were bedazzling our bra straps to show them off. Nowadays it's not uncommon to see a hint of a beautiful bra peeking from the top of an open blazer or showing off over cute mini-skirt and tights. We are here for it!!!
Vintage Corsets and Corset Covers:
The corset has often been misrepresented to the point of vilification in the modern media. These beautiful garments, when properly fitted, are supportive of the back and breasts and were even used to support a pregnancy bump, helping redistribute weight for a comfortable day. These garments are intended to be more rigid, sewn with channels that could have bone or reed stays slipped into them for support. The first corsets came about in the early 1500's and were used to slim the look of undergarments beneath the layers of outer clothing, and as a support for breasts. They were always worn over a slip, both to protect skin from pinching in the boning, and to keep that very expensive garment clean. A garment called a corset cover was an extra layer of protection for the garment, worn over both the corset and the slip. Corset covers were often as embellished, or more than slips were. The closures for corsets are widely varied depending upon the age and maker of the garment, from tie closures, to lacing, to hooks and eyes. Now corsets are often worn as an alternative to a blouse, or even over blouses for a sexy look. Corset covers too can be worn as shirts and might be just what top you need to pair with that cute little pair of denim shorts.
The girdle or "hip-confiner" started becoming popular in the 1920's with the dawn of the new look. Having a straight, slim, "boyish" figure was in vogue, so this garment that slims the hips and buttocks was a winner in stores around the globe. Girdles were meant to be worn over panties, and sometimes were covered by slips, or half-slips that started at the waist. These were often sewn with seamlines meant to smooth the figure and had hooks where tights or stockings could be attached to keep things in place. We like to think of the girdle as the vintage precursor to Spanx. Some girdles were all-in one-piece garments going above the waistline and including bra cups and often removable straps. The girdle retained its popularity through the 1960's but petered out in popularity in the 70's when women eschewed their confining underpinnings for freedom of movement. Nowadays, we love a good girdle with tights worn as an outerwear look!
Vintage Robes and Housecoats
The bathrobe, or housecoat has been a must have in a woman's wardrobe for centuries. Initially meant to keep warmth in the body when rising from, or heading to bed, they later became statement pieces for the modern housewife and something no one minded seeing around the house. Robes went from being made of simple and plain fabrics, to wonderful heavily printed silks and brocades. In the 1920's Japanese kimono inspired robes became popular and the style was seen included in many evening-wear looks at the time. In the 1950's the housecoat took a turn towards fun, and sometimes even humorous. Robes were also worn as swim covers, some producers making them out of terry cloth to aid in drying, while matching them to popular swimwear. We love a great vintage robe worn as a wrap dress, or over your favorite jeans and t-shirt combo as a duster.
The nightgown is a garment that goes back to before the Middle Ages, the purpose was to keep the bedclothes free from sweat and skin oils to help decrease the need for washing bed linens. These Medieval garments were often shapeless rectangles of easily bleached linen and were un-decorated due to the amount of washing they required. The modern decorated nightgown didn't become popular until the 1800's with patterns popping up for added collars, cuffs, and other fripperies. In the late 1800's some of the first ready to wear nightgowns were appearing in major stores, but they were still the easily recognizable long, and rather shapeless garments of almost 100 years before. The embellishments really took off in the 1920's with the modernization of clothing production, and the more liberated women being both willing and able to wear something a little finer. Silk nightgowns and Rayon sleep sets were very popular in a range of colors, and some of the first pajamas were popularized on the market. Stretching on to the 1950's sleepwear became even more intimate and wide ranging from the first teddy, a short slip like garment, to sleep shorts and thin sleep tops. Companies like Frederick's of Hollywood and Victoria Secret are still producing many of these types of garments each year. Vintage nightgowns are wonderfully versatile in your modern wardrobe. We love a good vintage pajama pant as day-wear and adore seeing your rayon nightdress belted and paired with tights at the bar.