Part 1 – The History of Women Beneath Their Clothes

A look at women’s issues in America often feels like a tense, politically charged study best suited to ivory towers and comfortable shoes. The usual topics stick close to the classics — the traditional roles of wife and mother, political issues surrounding the right to vote, or assessments of educational and professional equality. There is, however, a less traditional, and vastly more colorful look at the position of women in American society – and that is through a study of what women were wearing under their clothes.

Prior to World War I, women were primarily bound in their clothes by constricting and inflexible corsets that were as restrictive as their roles in society. When the US entered the war, women were asked to stop buying corsets, in order to repurpose the steel support boning for warship production. Once the war was over, and the 1920s began to roar, women gained independence and started voting and dancing. The confining underwear of the pre-war years made jitterbugging impossible, but with no stretchy modern fabrics to control flapping fronts, flat-chested fashions became symbols of women’s freer lives.

1931 marked the snap heard round the world – the introduction of Lastex. The revolutionary fiber had an elastic core that was wound with fabric thread, creating two-way stretch for the first time. In combination with new, cup-based sizing, women’s bodies — and Depression-era realities — required support to earn a living. The importance of women’s ability to be productive in the workplace became even more pronounced during World War II, the era of Rosie the Riveter. Women’s clothing during WWII was all about function, and underwear followed suit. Boobs needed to be contained without being constrained, and the bras of the day did just that.

In post-war America, the men came home from the fronts and back to their jobs, quickly and firmly reestablishing traditional gender roles. Men were manly, and women were sexy and ultra feminine. The ideal was a woman who wasn’t required to work outside the home, and clothes became tighter and constrained — with Rosie’s pants on a back shelf in favor of curve-enhancing skirts, cinched waists and tight sweaters. In order to achieve the hourglass feminine ideal, as modeled by Marilyn Monroe, the bullet bra became the norm. Bullet bras did for a woman’s shape what nature did not, and in combination with the shapers required to optimize fashions, women’s underwear was at its most restrictive since the corset.

With the 1960s came a backlash against traditional gender roles, which will be covered in Part 2 of this column, along with the myth of the bra burners, and how the role of women and their bras has evolved through today. Stay tuned!

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