History of Lingerie Fabrics and Lingerie Styles
Lingerie’s unique history traces back to 3000 BC in Egypt. Figurines throughout ancient times suggested different types of undergarments were worn even then. The word Lingerie originated from the French word “linge” meaning “linen” and was not frequently used until the late 1850’s. The soft linen’s during the Middle Ages were worn by nobility for the sheer purpose of modesty, hygiene and warmth. At that time they were bulky, uncomfortable and designed to flatten breasts while contouring the body in a female silhouette. While in the 16th Century a chemise, petticoats and corsets were designed to accentuate the female form, mainly to tease and entice men. It was considered scandalous in those days to even mention the word undergarments.
In classical Greece, several female statues wear a crossed band over their shoulders and across the breast, as in the famous statue of the charioteer at Delphi. The Odyssey and Iliad mention women’s undergarments, as does Herodotus, Aristophanes, and the later Hellenistic writer Lacian (Ewing 1972). In these texts, women are described as wearing a band of linen known as the zoné around the waist and lower torso to shape and control them. Other Greek words also appear to describe women’s undergarments, including the apodesmos (meaning a band, breast band, or girdle), mastodeton (or breast band, which actually flattens the bust) and, occasionally, mastodesmos (with a similar meaning) (Ewing 1972). These garments appear to presage the bra as well as the corset.
A famous Roman mosaic from A.D. 400 shows several women wearing what appear to be bikinis or briefs
Roman women followed Greek fashion closely. The Roman poet Martial describes a cestus, which is similar to the Greek zoné but wider, and Cicero also mentions a strophium or breast band. Other Roman terms describing women’s underclothing include the mamillere and fascia, which were tight bands of cloth that primarily supported the bust rather than the abdomen. A famous mosaic from A.D. 400 shows several women wearing what appear to be bikinis or briefs (Ewing 1972). For both the Greeks and the Romans, underclothing (which sometimes was worn as outer clothing as well) was designed more for function than exclusively aesthetic reasons.
In France in particular, the Middle Ages saw the rise of French lingerie with the introduction of the chemise in the fourth century. However, it wasn’t until the fourteenth century that lingerie began to be used as a shaping garment in France with the introduction of the cotte – a stiff piece of linen that was slipped under the bodice to flatten out the breast.
Since Elizabethan times and the introduction of the corset, the French have been at the forefront of designing gorgeous and sexy underwear. What’s more, during the French Revolution, French women rejected the fashionable corset for more loose fitting underwear with only an inbuilt bustier.
The French Revolution in the late 1700s also revolutionized women’s lingerie. French women begin discarding petticoats, corsets, and camisoles as symbols of French aristocracy in favor of the “un-corset,” or a type of corset without stiffening. In a deliberate return to classic Greece, the birthplace of the freedom that revolutionary France was proclaiming, women sometimes would wear a band wrapped around the body similar to the Greek zoné under slim, high-waisted muslins that echoed Grecian rounded breasts and well-rounded figures (Ewing 1972).
The term lingerie was originally introduced into the English language in the 1850s. However, rather than simply describing ‘washables’ as it does in French, the English adoption of the word brought with it an implication of undergarments that were scandalous and sexy.
“Without proper foundations, there can be no fashion.” Christian Dior
Of course, lingerie has been around a lot longer than the usage of the word; it was first evident in Ancient Egypt according to hieroglyphic representations. Clothing in 3000 BCE was considered to carry a certain degree of status, with only the very privileged wearing undergarments to mould the shape of their silhouette – not so dissimilar to today’s society.
In the hundreds of years that have followed, lingerie has been used to shape women’s bodies in all sorts of interesting shapes, according to the fashion at the time.
Lingerie is a big industry in France, with women spending an average of 20% of their style budget every year on these silken goods. Classic French style is timeless, chic and always polished. Just think of modern day style icon Marion Cotillard. So often Cotillard wears simple lines in classic black and white and yet the contrast in shades gives her look a modern yet understated elegance.
Go ahead, mention them: A touring show on the history of French lingerie
Ewing, Elizabeth. 1976. Underwear: A History. New York, NY: Theatre Arts Books.
Kunzle, David. 2004. Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body—Sculpture. Thrupp, UK: Sutton Publishing Limited.
Steele, Valerie. 2001. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Workman, Nancy. 1996. “From Victorian to Victoria’s Secret: The Foundations of Modern Erotic Wear. Journal of Popular Culture. 30.2, 61-73.