The term lingerie originates from the brilliantly seductive French language, in which lingerie refers to any underwear worn by men or women. However, over the last century or so the term has taken on a much more attractive meaning in the English language. Ever since the late 19th Century, lingerie has become the term used to describe the more fashionable, alluring underwear worn predominantly by women.
One of the most influential figures in the history of lingerie is fashion designer Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff-Gordon. Known as Lucille, her designer name, she was one of the early innovators in couture fashion, working throughout the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. The British designer shot to international recognition thanks to her clothing advancements, which gave considerable weight to her development of less restrictive corsets. This led on to a promotion of other, more adventurous lingerie designs.
With lingerie well established in the fashion world, new designs and inspiration flooded the marketplace. However, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the brassier was invented by Mary Phelps Jacobs. The patent soon led to the bra replacing the corset as the undergarment of choice, backed up by the more functional work roles that women adopted during the First World War. This inevitably affected the development of lingerie, with more and more featuring the bra, instead of the corset.
Following the First World War and throughout the interwar period, WWII and beyond underwear in general became more fitted to the shape of a women’s body. Silk, lace and sheer fabrics were the main materials used in the production of lingerie, however, as new fabrics were invented the industry quickly integrated them to improve the shape fitting, lifting and stretching properties of underwear.
Perhaps the first big leap forward was the invention of nylon in 1935 by the synthetic polymer gurus at DuPont. The invention is widely credited to Wallace Coruthers, their head of organic chemistry and Experimental Station laboratory. Shortly afterwards, from around the 1940s onwards, nylon stockings became all the rage with superior elasticity to their predecessors silk and rayon.
The invention of spandex in 1959 (again by the DuPont dream team, but this time headed up by chemist Joseph Shivers) also contributed to the development of new material options. PVC would later become synonymous with kinkier aspects of lingerie, despite the fact that the process to make the polymer pliable enough for underwear was first completed in 1926.
As the century progressed the list of different forms of lingerie expanded to include many different types of underwear. Basques, baby-dolls and petticoats were added to by thongs, bras and teddys. More recently, lingerie has benefited from the popularity of push-up bras like the Wonderbra. However, the Wonderbra name was first trademarked way back in 1936 and its first push up bra was released in 1961.
Lingerie has evolved significantly over the last century and a half and it will no doubt continue to change as fashion trends change. Lingerie gifts remain to this day one of the most popular gift choices on Valentine’s Day, romantic birthdays and even Christmas’. How the industry will evolve over the next century will be interesting to see. Maybe the development of transforming clothes by British designer Hussein Chalayan in 2007 will be the next big leap forward in the lingerie industry. Bras that fasten themselves might be a welcome invention.