Throughout the twentieth century, the design of undergarments offered a mix of durability, comfort, and aesthetic appeal. As hemlines rose, women had new choices in stockings, knickerbockers, girdles, and brassieres. Men’s smalls led to long johns and eventually to the jock strap that coincided with the invention of the bicycle.
Undergarments, originally unseen and unmentionable, became functional, fashionable, and affordable. The undergarment industry boomed and competition forced manufacturers to innovative and market their designs to the public.
Underwear advertising first appeared in the 1910s. Early advertisements emphasized durability and comfort over fashion. By the end of the decade, bloomers gained popularity with ‘Gibson Girls,’ who enjoyed pursuits such
as cycling and tennis. The ‘Gibson Girl’ was an ideal of feminine beauty and independence, named for the artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) whose figurative drawings inspired the ‘look.’ This new female athleticism,
coupled with a metal shortage during the First World War, helped push the prevailing corset out of style. In the 1920s, undergarment manufacturers produced flexible and supportive materials and designs that became the
standard for women.
The corset, an undergarment worn by both men and women from the 16th century (some say even earlier) to the turn of the 19th century, came back in the 1930s. The modern girdle marketed solely to women shaped the waist
like a corset but provided support rather than constriction. In 1934 Arthur Kneibler, an executive and designer at the Wisconsin hosiery company, introduced a new kind of snug, legless underwear for men, establishing the
boxers-versus-briefs phenomenon that persists today.
During the 1950s and 1960s, women’s underwear became both fashionable and simplified, emphasizing the attributes of the female form. Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ (first presented in 1947) featured shaped, push-up, and
strapless bras that dominated fashion for decades. Panties and pantyhose replaced old-fashioned girdles, garters, and stockings.
Sex appeal, marketed to both men and women, became the focus of advertising and sales for underwear in the 1970s and 1980s. Although some women shed their bras as a feminist political statement in the seventies, underwear in the eighties took a romantic turn, bedecked with lace and ruffles. In the last decades of the twentieth century, renewed interests in health and fitness inspired ‘active wear’ for everybody.