I’ve been falling down a design rabbit hole recently in doing research for Sewing the Scene, and I can’t stop thinking about… underwear. Bear with me.
See, as you may have noticed, I have a thing for 1930’s fashion, and I’m currently working on a Simplicity vintage reissue lingerie set. I’ve finished the bra, and trying it on I was amazed at how similar it is in fit and function to a modern bralette. In the 1920’s and 30’s, women’s undergarments changed quite drastically to accommodate not just a fashionable silhouette, but a more active lifestyle.
No wonder they all look like they’re having a whale of the time at the beach – they’ve finally ditched the corsets! I mean, Coco Chanel made her name with jersey. What’s more comfortable than jersey?!
Cut to WW2, and women have jobs, trousers, and comfortable underwear. So far so good. But progress doesn’t go in a straight line, and by the end of the 40’s, corsetry was back with a vengeance and hung around for 2 decades. That Mad Men silhouette? Foundation garments, folks.
I was rewatching Outlander recently, and Claire, a time-traveller from the 1940’s crash-landed in the 1740’s, wears a (stunning) reimagined Dior Bar Suit in season 2. It’s clever design: Terry Dresbach is referencing a famous garment from Claire’s time, which had taken inspiration from the 18th century in the first place. This (really interesting) article from Vanity Fair explains the specific period references that Dior was mining. My question is why though? Dior’s New Look, iconic to this day, was quite an outrageous throwback if you think about it. It surely is not a coincidence that it gained popularity in that post-war period when women were literally expected to get back to the kitchen, and let the men wear the trousers again.
It’s such a blatant backlash that it hardly bears pointing out (not least by someone so unqualified; I imagine a fashion historian and a sociologist could have some real fun with this), but ideas like this always make me suspicious of fashion that is limiting, uncomfortable: anything that holds us back. I often argue with my daughter about what is appropriate to wear to school. If you can’t play in it, I say, then it isn’t fit for purpose. I admit that I sometimes love the deliciously impractical, but it should be on our terms, right? (Do you know that old Kirsty MacColl song, “In These Shoes?” She’s invited to do fabulously romantic things with various sexy men, but turns them all down because “in these shoes?” I particularly recommend the Camille O’Sullivan cover.) I just find it interesting to think about the clothes we make and what they mean to us in terms of identity; especially if we choose to make clothes from other eras, what is it about those eras that we are responding to? What are we embracing? What are we rejecting? The clothes we wear, right down to our knickers, can’t be separated from the lives we lead.
None of this is to say that I think a modern woman who likes a bit of corsetry is in any way anti-feminist – often quite the opposite. I own mid-century repro lingerie myself. I’ve only noticed it as I get less and less tolerant of spending my day in any sort of discomfort – no matter how good it may look. My gravitation toward the 30’s has as much to do with that as it does a good nod to vintage style. And while I find this style to be comfortable and “fit for purpose”, perhaps ladies who prefer more bust support would be in a hell of a different kind, especially if this was all that was on offer. You need only look at the polarising effect of the mere word ‘bralette’ to see that not everyone is on board. But again, I was reading another article (I can’t remember where I’m afraid), about declining profits at Victoria’s Secret, thought largely to be due to a growing mismatch between the way they have branded themselves (sexy! Sexy! SEXY!), and what modern women want to wear. What do we want to wear? And what does it say about us?
I want comfort AND a little glamour. I like practicality that still feels slightly anachronistic. I like the tension of 30’s fashion, held forever between Hollywood glamour and hard times. So I’m making some undies. They do say to start from the bottom up…