Undergarments went to a dramatic change during the New Woman’s historical arc. While the Gibson Girl still wore a corset and several layers of clothing – though certainly less than her mother’s –, undergarments became increasingly lighter, less constraining, and, in the last part of the 1920s, sometimes really flimsy.
Starting with the New Woman, in the 1890s, women’s undergarments changed drastically and became simpler, lighter and less constraining than it had been for a very long time.
At the beginning of the 1900s, a woman still wore drawers/bloomers, a chemise, corset, corset cover, and petticoats underneath her dress. Wearing up to eleven layers of lingerie was still quite common for the Gibson Girl, but women’s demands for rational dresses caused underwear to become increasingly simple, a trend WWI accelerated.
After the war, corsetry began to be replaced by brasserie, though one didn’t yet supersede the other.
Corsetry and the New Woman
We often wonder, were corsets comfortable?
The short answer is yes. Well-crafted corsets were custom made and fitted the owner’s body perfectly. They were made of materials that slowly took the form of the owner. The longer a woman wore her corset, the more comfortable it became.
To the Victorians, a small waist signified beauty and femininity. Confining the body symbolised self-determination and self-control. It was also a symbol of high culture and even cultural superiority. As women were expected to be the keepers of social morality, wearing a corset became almost a social duty and being the proper thing to do.
Yet, Victorian times were when dress reform and the debate between rational and lady-like dresses heated up. Although most reformers were more concerned with the length and volume of skirts, the corset also became an item of contention.
Many of the things we believe today about corsets were born from this quarrel though they are often at least questionable.
It is probably not true, for example, that corsets caused miscarriages. In fact, special corsets were made for expecting mothers.
Some detractors argued that corsets, particularly tightlacing, could corrupt a women’s blood and turn it impure, leading to the birth of inferior babies. Tightlacing could also lead to illnesses of the mind and impure feelings. Women were innocent and pure creatures, devoid of any ‘animal instincts’, but tightlacing could induce these instincts in women, and once a woman tasted them, she was forever lost.
Corsets did mould a woman’s body, sometimes forcibly, but at the beginning of the 1900s, and especially during and after WWI, corsets began to adhere more naturally to a women’s body shape. Even when a woman still decided to wear a corset, she was freer to move.Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022 – Women's undergarments drastically changed during the New Woman's historical arc. She shed layers of clothing, gaining freedom of movement #WomenFashion #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
The 1920s New Woman’s undergarment
After WWI, the change in women’s undergarments accelerated.
Corsets would still be worn, but less frequently. Flappers often refused to wear them as a form of protest, yet many women chose differently.
Women who had grown up in the previous decades still felt better wearing a corset. Also, more curvaceous women often chose to wear corsets that were now designed to flatten the body rather than accentuate the bust or the waist.
But increasingly, corsetry was replaced by brasseries, which at the beginning gave very little support. Often called a bandeau, a bust confiner or bust bodice, it was a simple rectangle piece of fabric worn tightly across the chest with two 1 inch straps over the shoulders. Many women adopted the Symington Side Lacer, a bra that could be laced at both sides and pulled in to flatten the chest.
Indeed, 1920s corsetry and brasserie were made to flatten rather than highlight.
Flapper would also wear knickers or bloomers and a camisole or slip over it so the dress would not cling to the body. Many dresses were sold with matching slips that prevented immodesty when wearing a sheer fabric evening dress.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of American, 2021
Runaway Magazine – History of the Skirt and how it became short, or Everything you need to know about the Miniskirt
OSU.Edu – Reforming Fashion – 1850-1914 Politics, Health, and Art
People Loyno Edu – The Debate Over Women’s Clothing: ‘Rational’ or Lady-like Dress by Justina Rodrigues
Hagen History Center – The Changing Silhouette of Victorian Women’s Fashions – The History of the Corset
History – How World War I Helped Women Ditch the Corset
Victoria and Albert Museum – Corsets in the Early 20th Century
Vintage Dancer – 1920s Lingerie History- Underwear, Slip, Bra, Corset
Flapper Style | 1920s Fashion – Brassieres
Smithsonian Magazine – The History of the Flapper, Part 3: The Rectangular Silhouette