What Lies Beneath: How Lingerie Got Sexy

Women have long expressed their sexuality—and the mores of the time—through their choice of undergarments. A new exhibit takes a look back at the evolution of women’s intimate apparel.

Eileen Costa/Raquel Laneri/The Museum at FIT

There is a moment in a woman’s life when she must graduate from mere underwear to lingerie—from the white cotton undershirts and briefs of girlhood to those structured, stuffed, elasticized contraptions that lift and hold and wrangle and enhance and protect her rapidly changing body.

I did not want to wear a bra, had clung to my eyelet-trimmed Fruit of the Loom camisoles for probably too long before my mother dragged me to Victoria’s Secret to have a stranger measure and appraise my bust. She picked out a slightly padded, flesh-toned brassiere that I could barely bring myself to try on. Because, you know, a bra isn’t just a bra. It’s the first step toward adulthood, the first admission of one’s sexual identity. A first bra is at once humiliating and titillating, terrifying and exciting, mysterious yet somehow utterly banal. It’s surrendering to the expectations of being a woman, but also to its pleasures.

These pleasures—and pains—are laid bare in Exposed: A History of Lingerie, a new exhibition that runs through November 15 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “Lingerie is a tricky subject,” says the show’s curator Colleen Hill, who also wrote the equally seductive accompanying catalog, which Yale University Press will publish in July. “Even today you have some women who really hate the idea of these seemingly oppressive underwire push-up bras or corsets and then other women who fully embrace them.… But looking at these garments says so much about the history of fashion, and how lingerie was working simultaneously with outerwear, with women’s lib, with all these social changes.”

Drawing from the museum’s vast collection, which includes some 500 lingerie items dating from the 18th century to the present, Exposed features more than 70 pieces tracing the development of intimate apparel from the chemise to the thong, the corset to the Wonderbra, the tea gown to the pajama pant—as well as its place in fashion and culture.

The idea that underthings can serve any other purpose besides a purely functional one, of course, is relatively new. For centuries, men and women wore plain T-shaped linen tunics under their clothes, most likely for warmth and, as FIT Museum Director Valerie Steele writes in the catalog’s forward, to protect more decorative outer garments from “the dirt and sweat associated with the (seldom washed) body.” (Eww.) Undergarments did enjoy a brief moment of exposure in the 18th century, with the ruling class indulging in decorative corsets. (Think Marie Antoinette and her semi-public dressing rituals.) Yet by the early 19th century, the rise of the middle class—and a certain “bourgeois modesty”—sent these undergarments back into hiding, with women relegated to simple, white stays and petticoats that served to enhance their virtue rather than their allure.

That all changed in the late 19th century. The Impressionists had shaken up Paris with frank portraits of their mistresses and friends wearing blue silk unmentionables. Department stores opened to cater to an increasingly powerful middle class that no longer felt shy about displaying its wealth. And, most importantly, women began to see themselves not just as housewives and mothers but also as sexual beings. Silhouettes—the hourglass, the “S” (achieved by wearing a corset and a rear-enhancing bustle)—became more extreme, and underwear more luxurious. Take a sexy raspberry-colored satin corset from 1889 that looks like something Dita von Teese would wear, or a pair of red silk stockings embroidered with a flirtatious Jack of Hearts motif (ooh la la). Even the notoriously proper Queen Victoria reportedly donned a red petticoat, in order to, according to the American magazine Home Journal, “reawaken the dormant conjugal susceptibility of Prince Albert.”

Of course, it took the legitimization of the ultra sexy corset for women to decide to abandon it. Indeed, the golden age of lingerie—the early 1900s—consisted of exquisitely wrought diaphanous nightgowns and loose-fitting, embellished lace tea gowns, worn without a corset to entertain in the home. (One 1918 example, in wispy silk chiffon and lace is even trimmed in mink!) There are countless other gorgeous, now-obsolete curios from this time: a light-as-air lace eyelet “combination,” which is a camisole attached to a set of drawers; a linen bust supporter, a proto-bra that gives the wearer a “monobosom”; and a lace “boudoir cap,” which stylishly protects a woman’s hair when sleeping (can we revive that?). Even the 1920s flapper—with her angular, boyish frame—had some very pretty underthings: silk stockings, modern, streamlined slips, and adorably skimpy bandeau bras designed to deemphasize the bust. Tea gowns—or hostess gowns—became even more suggestive, such as Fortuny’s tightly pleated silk creations, which tantalizingly skim the wearer’s liberated body.

After the return of the hourglass shape in the 1940s and ‘50s, however, young women had had enough. To them, lingerie wasn’t just associated with their retrograde parents and the trappings of female sexuality; it was mass-produced, expensive, and unnecessary. In the 1970s, many high fashion designers—such as Halston and Stephen Burroghs—insisted that their clients wear their clingy, sexy sheaths without undergarments. Lingerie—once so scandalous, erotic—was worse than taboo, it was passé.

But lingerie has enjoyed a slow renaissance, and Exposed does a wonderful job illustrating how it has reclaimed its mystery and allure. It started with the punks—spearheaded by the British designer Vivienne Westwood—who took the sexually fraught, much-maligned corset and began wearing it as outerwear. French enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier, obsessed with his grandmother’s corset as a young boy, showed them on the Paris runway, and put one on Madonna for her Blonde Ambition tour. In the 1990s, grunge rockers did the same with slips, turning them into dresses and subverting their sweetness by wearing them with ripped fishnets and combat boots.

It’s this sort of renegade approach to lingerie that informs the sci-fi S&M corsets engineered by the brilliant Suki Cohen, or the Guy Bourdin-inflected kinkiness of Agent Provocateur, both of whom have pieces in the exhibition. Then there are Jean Yu’s minimalist paneled chiffon briefs and bra-lets. And Hanky Panky’s no-nonsense cotton thongs. “The thing that’s really fascinating about 21st century lingerie is that there’s something for everyone,” says Hill. “You can really have it all.”