History of lingerie: the steps of women’s emancipation over time

“Burn up the corsets!”: so affirmed activist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in 1873, with the aim of writing a new chapter in the history of lingerie. Her exhortation to “make a bonfire” of those specific underwear pieces, which had constrained female abdomens and thoraxes in a distorted dimension of their bodies, became an essential (yet embryonal) step towards today’s feminism. And it was not motivated just by the need to breath properly: “Do it for your emancipation which, I assure you, has from this moment begun”, she went on.

These famous quotes come from an accurate study about female emancipation in history, that journalist Carey Dunne has conducted for Fast Company. “We have feminism to thank for making our underwear more comfortable”, she explains. How could we dare disagree? As the expert recalls, the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York hosted the exhibition Exposed: A History of Lingerie in 2014, putting on display more than 70 pieces of female underwear to trace back their historical evolution. The freedom experienced by women in the ‘60s (some of those principles still have their echo today, just think of #freethenipples) was in fact the result of a long process that actually started at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The Victorian corset became the emblem of patriarchy: it forced women to adapt to “cartoonish hourglass shapes” according to the erotic allure of that time, even ignoring the risk of potential damages to women’s skin and internal organs.

But what happened next? The answer has to be found in a further moment in the history of lingerie, which ended up being crucial for female emancipation too. The ‘20s witnessed the rise of a new phenomenon: “Women were trying to please their husbands – unlike today, marriage was very much in vogue”, goes on Carey Dunne. Her vision is shared by Colleen Hill, who designed the exhibition for the FIT of New York: “In the early 20th century, exquisite lingerie came to be viewed as an important factor in a happy love life and, by extension, a happy marriage,” Hill explains. Nothing was seen as outrageous, if meant to please men. But did women really feel at ease in their underwear? And, most importantly, how close to women’s style and personality were those lingerie pieces? Did that kind of lingerie reflect their identity as women and individuals?

The history of female emancipation has taught us that these questions soon generated new kinds of awareness. It took time, of course. However, starting from the ‘50s, it began what Colleen Hill recalls to our mind as a glorious momentum of “sexual liberation”. Women were sick of constraining their bodies in bras that were everything but practical and respectful of female anatomy (think of the bullet bra during the ‘40s and ‘50s). Sexual liberation was paving its way towards a new revolution, as well as letting women understand that the lingerie they had been wearing had to be considered as an obsolete patriarchal tool. They rebelled against it, they freed themselves, they became real owners of their bodies in the name of all women. They did it for themselves, for past generations of women and – most of all – for future generations like ours.

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