From Naughty Knickers to Negligees: A History of Lingerie

by Christopher J.

March 8, 2022

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In 2022, women’s underwear enjoys much higher visibility in fashion and in public awareness than any time in the past. Once quietly referred to as “unmentionables,” lingerie is now often worn as outerwear or as a costume piece for a rock star or celebrity, exposed for all to see.

Before they cancelled their runway shows in 2019, Victoria’s Secret’s titillating televised lingerie fashion program reached more than 3 million people each time it was broadcast.

All of that belies the long history of highly concealed items of underclothing and their often torturously uncomfortable designs constructed of whalebone contraptions with pulley systems that, fortunately for all involved in their donning and doffing, evolved into light, silky, frequently form-fitting or transparent lingerie since the 19th century.

Actually, that’s why fashion historians were shocked in 2012 at the discovery of what appeared to be a 15th century bra and panty set in an Austrian castle long before bra and panty sets were thought to exist. The underwear was stashed under some floorboards at a time when there was more fabric in a woman’s undergarments than a man’s entire suit.

Until the early 19th century, women’s underwear, particularly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was typically composed of white shifts, smocks and chemises. (If you would enjoy an intimate tour of the colorful history of intimate things, check out The Underpinnings Museum online.)

In the 1830s, the word “lingerie” emerged – no surprise – in France. Taken from the French word “linge” for “linen undergarments” and “linger” for “a dealer in linen,” it continued to gain popularity throughout the 19th century, specifically in reference to women’s underwear, but also to sexy robes, pajamas, or undergarments such as camisoles.

Through the years, it became more specific to wispier, lighter-weight women’s undergarments. Informally, “lingerie” took on the meaning of visually appealing and even underclothing designed with erotic intent, all of which was heightened by the fact that no one was likely to see it outside of the boudoir back in the day. Since then, designers have also expanded lingerie to include underwear for men.

Originally, the idea of “crotchless” underwear for women had nothing to do with eroticism or convenient copulation but served a very pragmatic purpose: easy access through several layers of fabric to use the toilet. In the 1700s, for example, a woman wore a long chemise that dropped below her knees under her dress, corset, bodice, stockings, and multiple petticoats. Those layers of underskirts meant women didn’t need to wear any type of brief. Instead, their undergarments consisted of two cloth leggings; in the days before elastic, bloomers had tied at the top so that left the crotch uncovered.

At first, people thought only prostitutes would wear such revealing garments to facilitate sex with their clients. By the end of the 1800s, when skirt designs took on a more natural shape, that idea disappeared, and pantalettes or pantaloons became acceptable.

1800-1830 Period-accurate “Regency Pantalettes” pattern from Patterns of Time

“Before the 1800s polite women went completely commando; only prostitutes bothered with pants (presumably because their legs got colder?),” explains Nkkingston in “A Short History of Knickers: Queen Victoria’s Crotchless Panties.” “Then came pantalettes, aka ‘two tubes tied on with string,’ which tended to come undone and fall off one leg at a time. As crinoline comes in, split leg drawers become more popular, mostly because of the drafts, but then the crinoline flattens at the front and moves to the back and there’s no need for drawers to be completely split any more.”

The 20th century then brought a progressive onslaught of improved and more comfortable clothing construction and increasingly daring lingerie and negligee designs. Before Victoria’s Secret made women’s choices of underwear significantly diverse, affordable, and, well, sexy, Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogues were the Holy Grail for young men in search of salacious viewing material because their lingerie designs offered women a no-holds-barred selection of sexy and skimpy ‘wears.

Of course, lingerie may represent a clear barometer in a sexual relationship.

“Nothing indicates the stage of a relationship better than the underwear we choose to wear while in it,” writes Kylie Orr in her 2019 article “The five stages of underwear in a relationship” for The Sydney Morning Herald. “Our partnerships and levels of desire fluctuate over time, so – whether we are in plunging necklines or nude-colored granny knickers – what is worn underneath can convey just where we are in our long-term unions.”

In fact, no brief history of briefs would be complete without mentioning what resulted after Marilyn Monroe’s now iconic scene in the film The Seven-Year Itch (1954) as she stands spread-eagle over a New York subway grate, exposing her panties under her skirt lifted by air rushing up from the subway. That erotic image enflamed a lot of men in good and bad ways, including her then baseball-hero husband, Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper allegedly clipped her back at their hotel that night, after storming off the set because of her “exhibitionist act.” Shortly after, the two were divorced.

More recently, of all things, the pandemic had a direct impact on underthings when lingerie sales soared. Experts credit the rise in the sale of dainties to an increased desire to be comfortable, especially because so many women started working at home. There’s also been a swing toward wearing sports bras or no bras at all.

According to Vue.ai, an online retail research source, during the forecast period of 2018 to 2023, the global lingerie market is expected to record a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 2.2% and reach a valuation of US $59.15 billion by 2024. Additionally their reports “reveal that the market has matured in North America and Europe with global lingerie brands working to expand their presence in countries like China, India, Brazil, and Argentina for higher market revenues.”

Honestly, we could lounge around and ponder the compelling history of lingerie and what it means for our love lives. But we prefer to be brief.