“ We cannot appreciate the significance of the outer form unless we understand the nature of the supporting garments beneath.” – C. Willett Cunnington
The word “underclothes” includes all articles of clothing, worn by both sexes that are concealed by the outer layer of costume. This exhibition will showcase a variety of underclothing from our permanent collection, as well as take a historical look at the evolution of undergarments over the centuries.
(Photo:The Ruskin Players dressed up for a production during 1960s. Note the crinolines, garters and fancy knickersunder their costumes. The women in the middle shows off a ‘slip dress’ that became popular in the 1920s and 30s.)
Protection: Traditionally women have worn more underclothing than men. This in part had to do with lifestyle, but also quite simply had to do with the fact that dresses were made of a thinner material, so additional underclothing was needed for warmth. Woman tended to layer the lower half of their bodies, whereas man have acted in reverse, not resisting bulk in their upper body.
Support: Female costume has always relived heavily on the shape and support on what lay beneath the outer layer of clothes. The extraordinary shapes provide an air of mystery to the costume.
Cleanliness: Until a few hundred years ago, cleanliness was not considered as important as it is today. Underclothes served as protection and support, but they also kept the costume away from the skin. Up until the first world war, the notion that the skin should not be in contact with clothing was something adhered to by mainly the “leisure class.” Today, this practice has all but disappeared from our culture, with the habit of the “daily bath”, skin is in frequent contact with clothing.
Class Distinction: Traditionally, women showcased class distinction by the size of her skirt. The more petticoats, or hoops, the higher up the social ladder one was. Men emphasized this more with the showcasing of the shirt. The clean white-cuffs were proof that the wearer had no soil on his hands.
Materials, Construction & Fastening
Linen, Cotton & Silk: The difference between linen and cotton illustrated a class distinction. Linen was considered to be a material used by the “upper class”, while cotton was seen as inferior. Wool was also used as far back as the Middle Ages for petticoats, and used for warmth in underclothing even during the last few centuries. Silk, even more than linen was a rare commodity and was not used on a large scale until the Victorian era.
Until the middle of the last century, underclothes were all hand-made. It was not until the introduction of man’s drawers in the Victorian era that the garments were recognized for having such an ill fit. It was an innovation that the drawers closer to the leg provided greater warmth.
The first corsets can be traced back to Greek and Roman times, to the island of Crete. The waist and hip corset was considered a decorative part of underclothing. During this time, and the centuries that followed, women and men wore loose flowing robes. Layers indicated wealth, and to give shape to the robes, they were tied with a girdle or sash.
From the loose flowing robes of the Greek and Romans, the Middle Ages ushered in a more modest approach to clothing. Women’s bodies in particular were covered from head to toe, and underclothing was viewed as almost shameful. Corsets were worn as underclothing in the 13th century, yet as in later centuries, they were also worn outside robes, tying in fabric at the waist.
By the 17th century clothes were starting to return to the softer and more flowing nature of previous times, the iron corset gave way to corsetry that emphasized the waist and full skirts. Soft muslin dresses made it difficult to wear corsets, but in order to achieve the synched waist, one did not have a choice. Although by the 18th century corsets where much lighter, as they were lined with less bone, this gave way to slinkier shape and a more pronounced bust.
After the mid 1800s a new style of corset emerged, made from individual pieces. These reinforced stitched corsets of while twill cotton used vertical rows of whalebone to produce a more natural body shape, and were laced at the back, loosing its strap to become a free standing structure.
During the Edwardian era, fashions favoured the mature women, accentuating curves and females went to great lengths in achieving the hour glass figure, lacing themselves so tightly they caused damage to their internal organs. Most commonly referred to as the “S” shape, associated with the era. In an effort to correct this, what was called “The Health Corset” was introduced and it aimed very simply, to allow women “room to breath.” It was designed to support and raise the abdomen instead of compressing it and forcing it downwards.
By the turn of the 20th century, the waist started to become less synched and corsets became straighter. Although this fit the dress style of the time, it also made sitting down quite uncomfortable. By the end of WW1, corsets were starting to be replaced with girdles and the development of the bra. They made the move into becoming a lingerie piece. Today, corsets are worn more outside the clothing than as a means for support.
Petticoats & Crinolines
In the 1830s a linen material woven with horsehair called crinoline was first used for cloth petticoats. This version of a petticoat was the original crinoline and later the name continued in use incorrectly, but became universally used for caged or hooped underskirt frames.
As the decades progressed, material was added to the skirts to give extra width. On average, 6 petticoats were added to give the skirt the proper fullness. One could only imagine how heavy and unbearable the weight all off those petticoats would be in the heat. It was not until the mid 1850s that the caged crinoline was introduced. The support provided from the caged crinoline allowed women to wear only one petticoat, to essentially soften the edges of the cage.
Women loved the caged crinoline, soon after its introduction it was mass produced and widely distributed. Even though the caged crinoline was somewhat awkward to wear and was a tipping hazard, it was a was much more freeing than wearing multiple petticoats.
(Photo: Celebrating the British Columbia centennial in 1958 in Haney, these women are dressed up in period costumes dating back to the 1890s. Notice the pantaloons peeking out from under the dress on the left!)
Bras, Girdles & Stockings
Similar to the corset, Bra fashion history began as far back as Cretan times. As mentioned earlier, bust improvers had been made available in England during the Edwardian period. However, it was not until the start of the 1900s that the word “brassiere” began to be used (French for support). Mary Phelps-Jacobs of New York, patented her bra design in 1914. The bra consisted of stitching two silk handkerchiefs (that were tied together), baby ribbon sewn on to make straps and a seam set in the centre front.
Phelps Jacobs did not get much interest for her idea and sales were minimal, so for $1500 she sold the rights to Warners. In a few years the patent was worth millions of dollars. Warners have been involved in bra production ever since.
Latex to Elastic
Although rubber had been around some time it was not until the 1930s it was used as a textile fabric. Bra history changed forever when chemists were able to transform latex into reliable, washable, elastic thread in all sorts of dimensions. Aptly called, Lastex.
Heavy boning and lacing were soon replaced in corsetry by Lastex, and figure control was soon under elastic fabric panels. By the 1950s and early 1960s came along a rubber Girdle that left imprints on the skin from the evaporation holes in the rubber.
As a substitute for the full rubber girdle, a common everyday girdle was called a “Roll On” and was used as a directional stretch garment along the waist. It was worn up until the 1960s in place of a suspender belt. It gave tummy control and helped to hold up stockings. If Stockings had not been invented, which now have built in Lycra to help slim the waist and legs, perhaps the “Roll On” would still be in existence today.
After the 1930s bra manufactures started to use quality cotton and lace, and by the mid 1930s cup sizing had been introduced to North America; instead of the small, medium and large sizing that was in place overseas in Britain. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that Britain followed North American sizing standards.
During WWII materials were scarce and women fashioned their own bras and even Knicker sets from paper patterns. The fabric they used was sometimes parachute silk, parachute nylon or old satin wedding dresses. Once the 1950s arrived changes in textile technology saw new developments in all underwear items, but particularly in the costume history of bras.
Bra history changed for the better through the use of nylon, making them lighter, prettier and easier to wash. Yet, the most memorable bra history was made when Gossard launched its Wonderbra campaign in 1968. Inserts of extra wadding or foam rubber could be inserted into little pockets in the Wonderbra to give a little more fullness where the bust was lacking. It has seen many incarnations since its inception, and is still widely purchased today.