Today’s piece looks at various styles of retro lingerie currently available. In order for clothing to hang correctly, it is important to consider the underpinnings of one’s vintage outfit. The purposes and connotations of lingerie and why we wear specific garments over others is a complex issue.
Historically, women’s undergarments consisted of numerous layers of petticoats, chemises or shifts, and stays – which later evolved into corsets. As different centuries passed, women’s skirts were held out by farthingales, panniers, crinolines, and hoops.
But women’s underwear was about to undergo a change. The 1920s saw a rebellion against restrictive undergarments. The Bright Young Things of the day abandoned the long corsets of the previous decade, instead electing to wear loose whispers of fabric in the form of slips and camiknickers.
Women’s lingerie was now widely available in varying hues, and no longer was the female of the 1920s restricted to choosing only white lingerie. Silk grew in popularity. Once thought of as vulgar and sinful (as it represented vanity and greed to the previous generations), it now encased the skin of the 1920s woman. Silk, of course, is a beautifully luxurious fabric, but for many it remained beyond their means. In the middle of the decade, a new artificial silk was manufactured – sometimes referred to as ‘art silk.’ This new fabric soared in popularity – now every woman could wear dainty, silk-like undergarments.
Retro Underwear / Panties
Somewhat surprisingly, women have only been wearing what we would refer to as panties for the past two centuries. Around the 1800s, a new type of undergarment was being worn – at this point by the few rather than the many. Drawers were the first bifurcated garment women wore, which would later develop into Directoire knickers (a kind of bloomer style), then tap pants, then eventually the styles of panty we are more familiar with today.
This new style of undergarment was met with extreme discontent at the time, most ladies thought it shocking that a women could wear garments which were so masculine; and most men were unsettled at the idea of the female adopting, what was up to that point, an exclusively male garment.
During the 1920s up to the 1940s, loose figure skimming panties were worn – the tap pant. These usually fitted to the waist, fastening with buttons or poppers at the left hand side. Styles of tap pants today are available from What Katie Did and Secrets in Lace.
From the 1950s, lingerie became much more form-fitting with the high waist panty proving popular. With the use of new elastic fibers and a changing silhouette, women desired more supportive undergarments, which brings us onto:
As the fashionable silhouette suddenly shifted at the end of the 1940s to an idealised, hyper-feminine womanly figure, undergarments changed accordingly.
Now, instead of skimming the figure romantically in silks, authentic or of the artificial variety, underwear needed to provide a framework. Doir’s New Look cut a figure of dramatic proportions – a full bust tapering in to an impossibly slender waist, curving out to fully rounded hips.
Girdles – worn during the 1930s, but due to fabric restrictions were cast off in the 1940s – soared in popularity. Waist cinchers were also worn to do just that – cinch and nip in the waistline.
Rago is another shapewear brand commonly found in major retail stores that work well for most 1930s-1950s vintage decades.
The bra as we know it developed from the brassiere, first appearing in 1916. During the 1920s, it was mostly worn loose, providing a covering rather than support or shaping. By the 1930s, a triangular style had emerged, acknowledging the need to lift and separate the bust. Bras began to become more structured from the 1940s, and eventually in the 1950s the ‘Bullet Bra’ burst onto the scene. They were contraptions to mold and separate, forming a pointed silhouette.
Vintage Retro Slips
Slips serve an important purpose of ensuring a smooth silhouette between lingerie and outerwear. As well as providing an extra layer of warmth should it be required, slips prevent the outer garments from ‘sticking’ to hosiery or lingerie.
After all, if a woman has spent time selecting her outfit, she does not want to ruin the line with her frock clinging in an undesirable manner to her stockings!
Most slips today are anti-static, which means they will skim the body and prevent the dreaded hosiery cling. In the 1920s, sheer dresses were often paired with a brightly hued slip to add visual interest. Today, we can choose from slips to match our skin tones, or more playful prints and patterns. Of course, their function can be two-fold in that they can also be worn in the boudoir as nightwear.
Petticoats were another key component in the wardrobe of the 1950s woman. In order for her skirts to reach those voluminous Dior levels, petticoats were essential. Usually fitted to the waist, the layers of gathering would normally begin at hip level, so as to keep volume at the waist to a minimum.
Petticoats not only added volume to a frock, but also added wonderful movement. They were a definite improvement upon their earlier cousins, the crinoline cages and hoops. As the fabric was malleable with no boning or steel, the act of sitting was made much more convenient. Read more about 1950s petticoats here.
Today, reproduction crinoline petticoats are made in an array of colors to match any mood or outfit. The fabrics are softer, allowing for more layers to be utilized whilst being comfortable on the skin. Malco Modes is one of the best brands (very soft and full).
In the 1920s, hosiery was usually pale cream or black. Pastel shades were available and were worn by the more daring Bright Young Things. Patterns such as plaids and stripes were also popular.
In the 1930s and 1940s, nude stockings with a seamed back were worn. The seam was formed when the stockings were made, termed ‘Fully Fashioned.’
By the mid 1960s, as a new fashion trend and silhouette emerged, so did a changing attitude to hosiery. The mini skirt proved incompatible with stockings and garters, so a new type of legwear emerged – tights. These were available in a whole host of shades, one to match every outfit. For plus size tights and any color you could want you must get Snag Tights.
Today, for a 1920s look, match pale hosiery with your outfit. Creams and pale pastels look wonderful with light toned outfits. As pastel shades are difficult to come by in stockings, look out for tights instead. For 1930s-1940s, opt for seamed stockings in nudes and black in the 1950s. Shop seamed stockings here.
Retro Lingerie: Corsets
Although perhaps only worn by a minority in today’s times, corsets form a key part of the history of retro lingerie. In times past, every woman owned and wore a corset.
In the beginning of the history of the corset, they were worn more as a display of morality than to shape and contort the figure. By the 1920s they had been abandoned by the new generation of the day, but by the 1950s, they grew in popularity once again.
Today, corsets are worn out of choice, rather than social or moral obligation. Choosing a corset is a difficult task, and as such, retailers are equipped with ample knowledge on the subject.
Where to Shop Retro Lingerie
- Secrets in Lace – Bras 32B-42DD, panties Small-4XL selected styles, corsets 22”-30”
- Rago – Girdles, panties, and shapewear at affordable prices
- Bettie Page Lingerie – 40s-50s bras, panties, slips
- What Katie Did – Bras 30B-40F selected styles, panties UK8-UK18, corsets 18”-34”
- Dottie’s Delights (Etsy) – Bras 32A-38DD, panties XS-XXL
- Buttress & Snatch – Bras A-J cup, panties UK6-UK22 selected styles/XS-XL
- UK Tights and UK Lingerie – Offers a fabulous selection of hosiery of all kinds, and lingerie
- Orchard Corset – I hear over and over again how much retro women love Orchard corsets
- Seamed Stockings
- Nightgowns and Pajamas
- 1920s Lingerie History
- 1930s Lingerie History
- 1940s Lingerie History
- 1950s Lingerie History
- Victorian Nightgowns for sale and some history
- Victorian Lingerie – Shop and learn history