What Lies Beneath:
Modern Foundations Revealed
By Courtney Iseman
Photographed by Jan Lehner
Few wardrobe elements have higher expectations to meet than lingerie. It must highlight, smooth, support, and flatter. It must impart confidence and comfort, be glamorous or subtle, depending on the occasion and mood. The perfect lingerie can do all of these things, creating the perfect foundation for a myriad of ensembles through a formula that has been refined over centuries.
“Styles of lingerie generally followed the course of fashionable clothing during the 20th century, rather than acting as a reflection of change in and of themselves,” says Colleen Hill, the associate curator at the Museum at FIT who organized the 2014 exhibit Exposed: The History of Lingerie. The more clothing was expected to cover and have a life of its own, the more its foundation had to do the same. Corsets were created to keep the top half of a woman’s body slim and straight. Caged crinolines helped skirts achieve sweeping circumferences.
As the final barrier to the fully nude body, lingerie is simultaneously modest and erotic.
By the 19th century, lingerie design was taking aesthetics into account, with pieces intended to be shown as part of an outfit. Petticoats “were meant to be seen beneath skirts that were open in front, and those styles were made from beautiful fabrics with decoration such as elaborate top-stitching,” says Hill. It was also at this time that the true cinching power of the corset was realized. The purpose of lingerie had changed from necessary coverage to scaffolding for grand outfits and, now, to reshaping the body itself. With the goal of creating a “wasp waist,” the corset trained the body’s structure to shift, shrinking one’s waistline even when the garment was removed.
The constrictive trend reached a fever pitch and broke: women began seeking lingerie with more freedom. They wanted garments that wouldn’t irreversibly manipulate their bodies, but that would still flatter and support. Hill points to Hermine Cadolle as “integral to the shift away from corsetry to the modern bra,” a staple that Mary Phelps Jacob would come to patent. The revelation grew in popularity by word of mouth, and then became an official staple when the government asked women to stop buying corsets during World War I to conserve metal.
Amid ever-shifting proportions of comfort and glamour, lingerie maintains its sense of necessity.
Lingerie loosened up even more in the 1920s—again, to answer the call of changing fashions. With the straight, knee-length dresses that became popular, women could no longer bind themselves in bulky underpinnings. The brassiere became even more essential, along with fluid slips and smooth, lightweight briefs. When World War II called for women to join the workforce, the undergarments that were already veering into practical territory took a truly utilitarian turn with designs like the “camiknicker,” a one-piece fusion of a camisole and briefs.
In 1947, Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection revived femininity and, along with it, the use of corsetry to achieve the designer’s vision of “flower women with gentle shoulders and generous bosoms, with tiny waists like stems and skirts belling out like petals.” Women embraced the romantic look, but with more women working outside the home, demands for practicality soon won out.
By the 1960s, lingerie designers had fine-tuned the marriage of form and function, creating pieces that could be comfortable and supportive but still elegant and sexy. From there, designers have played around with that balance. The 1970s were glamorous, the 1980s were sexy, the 1990s were minimalist. All of these trends have experimented with aesthetics while keeping practicality in mind, eventually creating a world in which no-nonsense Base Range jersey briefs coexist with Yasmine Eslami’s floral-patterned tulle bras. Today, whatever the prevailing proportions of comfort and glamour, lingerie maintains its sense of necessity. It is the most intimate outfit, the layer we keep closest all day and night.
Styling Alex Harrington at Creative & Partners
Hair Jordan M at Susan Price NYC
Makeup Daniel Martin at The Wall Group
Model Amanda Wellsh