Fashion + Lingerie

From Corsets to Comfort: A Century of Women's Underwear Trends

Explore the fascinating evolution of women's underwear from the early 1900s to today. Discover how fashion, culture, and technology have shaped the intimate apparel industry, and why sustainable, inclusive lingerie is the future.

June 28, 2024

Table of Contents

Underwear has always been a fashion essential, evolving dramatically over the centuries. While modesty has long influenced its design, the focus on how a woman's body is presented has been equally significant. Women's undergarments serve a dual purpose: modesty and appearance. Each era brought its unique designs, reflecting the sentiments of the times.

This condensed journey traces the evolution of undergarments from the early 1900s (sorry, we’re starting post Bridgerton!) to today, the 21st century, and highlights the cultural and technological advancements that have shaped the intimate apparel industry throughout these times. 

Every garment has an effective purpose, but it can also be the vehicle of a message, or have a specific meaning: underwear also has and has always had this dual value. – Laura Paleari

1901-1919: The Edwardian Era

Two women from the Edwardian Era dressed elegantly in white laces dresses and fancy hats.

Watch any period drama and you'll notice that fashion in the early 20th century was heavily influenced by societal norms and expectations, particularly concerning women's appearances and behaviours. In the Edwardian era, undergarments played a crucial role in shaping women's silhouettes and upholding notions of modesty and propriety.

Left: A drawing of a corset from a French patent from 1905. Right: A photo from the 1900s of a women standing with her arms to the side showing off a body shaping corset.
Left: Drawing from a French patent for a corset by support of the abdomen. Right: Straight front corset (c. 1905).

Undergarments of this era were designed to conform to societal ideals, emphasising a small waist and an accentuated bosom. The corset, a precursor to today's bras, was central to women's wardrobes, cinching the waist and creating an hourglass figure. Meanwhile, drawers, a form of underpants, provided practicality and protection, albeit hidden from view.

Despite their functional roles, these undergarments were also paradoxical in nature. While they upheld societal expectations of modesty, they also allowed women to subtly emphasise their curves, considered essential for attracting potential suitors and securing social standing.

But by the end of World War I in 1919, significant changes were underway in fashion and society, setting the stage for more daring and innovative undergarment designs.

1920-1929: The Roaring Twenties

A photo from the 1920s of a flapper woman dressed in her undergarments lying across a chaise long strewn with lace and a decorative pillow.
Model with Flapper Pillow and Pointy Shoes (circa 1920).

The Roaring Twenties ushered in an era of cultural and societal liberation, marked by significant shifts in fashion, including women's undergarments. With the rise of the flapper style, characterised by its shorter hemlines and straight, boyish silhouette, undergarments needed to adapt to the new freedoms and lifestyle choices of women.

Elastic bands were introduced into waistbands and suspenders, revolutionising comfort and fit. Women of the 1920s favoured bras that minimised curves, in contrast to the previous era's emphasis on shaping the body with corsets. The chemise, a loose-fitting undergarment, gained popularity, replacing the more restrictive petticoats of earlier decades.

This decade not only symbolised a shift towards liberation from traditional norms but also a desire for comfort and practicality in women's fashion. The fashion trends of the 1920s reflected a broader societal movement towards modernity and individual expression, paving the way for future innovations in undergarment design.

1945-1960: The Post-War Era

A women smiling and leaning against an elaborate doorway and wearing 1950s style undergarments.

After World War II, the fashion industry experienced a significant transformation with the introduction of new fabric technologies and innovations in women's undergarments. One of the most revolutionary developments was the widespread adoption of nylon, which had been developed in the late 1930s and was mass-produced during the 1940s. Nylon offered a durable, stretchable, and lightweight alternative to traditional natural fibres, revolutionising the comfort and fit of bras, panties, and hosiery.

The 1950s saw further advancements with the introduction of new synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic, which provided enhanced elasticity and durability. These fabrics allowed for the creation of form-fitting designs that offered both support and aesthetic appeal. Additionally, the introduction of elastane (Lycra) in the late 1950s further improved the flexibility and comfort of undergarments.

A photo of a vintage bra from the 1950s displayed on a pretty floral hanger.
1950s vintage bullet bra. Photo credit: Emma Benitez.

During this era, undergarments evolved from purely functional items to fashion statements, reflecting the changing attitudes towards femininity and sexuality. The emphasis on enhancing women's natural curves while providing comfort and support became a hallmark of underwear design during the mid-20th century.

1964-1970: The Swinging Sixties

A photo from 1970 of a Women's liberation march in Washington.
Women's liberation march in Washington (August 1970). Photo credit: Leffler, Warren K.

The counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s greatly influenced the world of fashion, including underwear. With the emergence of the women's movement, traditional norms around women's clothing were challenged, sparking a rebellion against restrictive underwear. The famous 'bra-burning protests' may have been symbolic, but they represented a desire for liberation from societal expectations.

Hippie and liberation culture rejected all social restrictions, embracing peace, drugs, and free love. They stood against social injustice and political strife, advocating for a more egalitarian society. As part of their rebellion, many hippies disregarded underwear completely, ditching their bras and panties as a form of protest and to experience ultimate freedom. This movement was a powerful statement against societal norms, further promoting personal expression and sexual freedom.

An editoral image from Vanity Fair showing a women in a yellow bra and panty set kneeling with one hand covering her eyes.
Editorial image from a Vanity Fair edition published in the 1970s

The sexual revolution also played a role in changing attitudes towards underwear, as it encouraged personal expression and sexual freedom. Unisex styles became popular as society sought gender equality.

1980s-1990s: The Golden (or Gilded) Age

Left: Madonna is performing at one of her concerts in 1990 wearing one of the icon Jean Paul Gaultier corsets. Right: A photograph of a Jean Paul Gaultier corset worn by Madonna at one of her concerts.i
Left: Photo taken during one of Madonna's concerts (circa 1990). Photo credit: Hans Schaft. Right: Photo of the iconic corset made by fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier that Madonna wore during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. Photo credit: Brandon Carson

During the 1980s and 1990s, lingerie began to be worn as outerwear, influenced by fashion icons like Madonna, whose cone bra designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier became a cultural phenomenon. This era saw a blurring of lines between underwear and outerwear, leading to bold and expressive fashion choices.

Technological advancements in fabrics, such as Lycra, allowed for the creation of form-fitting, comfortable, and supportive underwear. Brands like Victoria's Secret rose to prominence, offering stylish and sensual lingerie options.

An image showing an editorial advertisement from 1986 from the brand Jogbra Inc showing a women posing in a white sports bra and the tagline "Less bounce to the ounce!"
Advertisement by JBI Jogbra Inc. for the Sportshape bra in Cosmopolitan magazine (1986).

The fitness boom of the 1980s made sports bras essential for active women, and the vibrant pop culture of the time introduced playful and colourful designs. By the 1990s, "innerwear as outerwear" had evolved, with slip dresses, camisoles, and corsets becoming mainstream fashion items. This period celebrated the versatility and allure of lingerie, paving the way for modern trends that embrace both comfort and style.

1990-2000: The Era of Minimalism and Supermodels

Two models posing in white bras.

The 1990s embraced minimalism in fashion, reflected in underwear trends focused on simplicity and comfort. Supermodels like Kate Moss popularised the "heroin chic" look with basic, understated lingerie styles. Calvin Klein's iconic campaigns featuring celebrities in simple, logo-emblazoned bras and briefs epitomises this aesthetic.

The decade also saw the rise of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, turning lingerie into a glamorous spectacle and making its Angels synonymous with beauty and sex appeal. Sports bras gained popularity beyond the gym becoming everyday staples and marking the athleisure trend.

Towards the late 1990s, the beginnings of body positivity and inclusivity emerged, with some brands offering a wider range of sizes and styles, paving the way for today's diverse lingerie market.

Underwear for the 21st Century

A women in a black lingerie set lying comfortable across a green sofa.
The Freya wrap bra and Hestia high-waisted panty from Bon+Berg.

In this new 21st century world of diversity and inclusion, lingerie styles have evolved rapidly, adapting to changing attitudes, fashion trends, and consumer preferences. While there's still a desire for sexy underwear that enhances a woman's shape, there's less emphasis on misogynistic undertones and a greater focus on female empowerment and femininity.

Fortunately, underwear has transformed from restrictive garments to modern comfort, offering a variety of options for different shapes and sizes. Brands now offer a wider range of sizes, styles, and colours to suit diverse body types and skin tones. The trend for comfort and functionality has grown, with bralettes, wireless bras, and seamless underwear becoming popular choices for everyday wear.

And, more attention is being paid to the environmental impact of undergarments. Although there's still progress to be made in sustainability and workers' rights, many eco-conscious brands are striving to reduce their environmental footprint. Materials like organic cotton, TENCEL™ Modal, and recycled polyester are becoming viable solutions to climate change issues.

There is still a certain duality when it comes to our underwear – sexy versus comfort, style versus sustainability – but fortunately, now in these modern times, we have more choice over the way we’d like to feel and the message we wish to send!

Bon+Berg is dedicated to making positive changes in the lingerie industry through ethical production, eco-friendly practices, and supporting inclusivity. Discover our latest collection of sustainable lingerie styles.

Jade Jasper is a Marketing and Advertising student at Grand Canyon University. She loves traveling and everything to do with nature and the world. Adventurous and a social butterfly, Jade inspires people to see the good in life and always keep a smile!

Jade Jasper

Jade Jasper is a Marketing and Advertising student at Grand Canyon University. She loves traveling and everything to do with nature and the world. Adventurous and a social butterfly, Jade inspires people to see the good in life and always keep a smile!