Vintage Lingerie:
Foundations of the 1940s


11 Nov

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By Adam Welsch
Cupid Intimates

The 1940s.  It was quite a decade.  For much of the world, it was a time of tremendous military, political, economic, and cultural upheaval.  World War II was fought, and the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, and Decolonization all began. In the United States, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.  With the occurrence of such historically significant events, it’s easy to forget about the pop-culture markers of the time.  The Slinky®, the Frisbee®, Tupperware®, and Velcro® were all invented, commercial television was born, classic books like 1984 and The Little Prince were written, “film noir” rose to prominence as a cinematic style, and swing and crooning became all the rage in music.

Of course, women’s fashion of the decade was highly distinctive.  Trousers, shoulder pads, little black dresses, pumps, and elaborate hats all were popular.  In the world of intimate apparel, nylon stockings, when not in short supply due to wartime rationing, burst onto the fashion scene, as did the push-up bra.  Of course, girdles with garters, and slips, were widely worn.

With the explosion of exposure that intimates have received in recent years via television’s morning news shows, celebrity talk shows, shop-at-home networks, late-night infomercials, and an endless stream of websites, it’s easy to miss the fact that some of today’s finest intimate apparel manufacturers can trace their lineage back as far as the 1940s when catalogs, newspapers, and newsreels were the vehicles that delivered fashion information.

Though some of you reading this post are indeed old enough to have lived through the 1940s and can remember its fashion firsthand, most of you are probably less familiar with what the bras, girdles, slips, and other pieces of lingerie of that time looked like.  What follows is some vintage film footage that will help give you a good idea of what women of that time wore underneath Christian Dior’s “New Look,” and Claire McCardell’s “American Look,” collections.

The first clip, courtesy of British Pathé, is taken from a British newsreel.  It features a “London show of corsetry and underwear” from the late 1940s.  In addition to the great images, note the narrator’s use of political satire when he says, “When women’s figures are nationalized, they’ll be no corset problem.  Everyone will go in, and come out, in the same places.”

Here’s a second clip from British Pathé.  The fact that attention is called to “new-style, elasticated girdles” shows how much things have changed in the past seven decades.

The next clip, courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, features what was then the latest in rayon lingerie.  Though shown in color, the hairstyles, furniture, and full slips of this film strongly evoke an era from long ago.

The next video, also courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, not only shows a great example of an intimate ensemble from back in the day, it also gives an idea of some of the foundation requirements created by the outerwear fashions of the time.  Notice that the woman is wearing an open-bottom girdle, the predecessor to the more modern, panty girdle.

The final clip mostly shows examples of dresses, hats, shoes, gloves, and coats of the 1940s.  But watch for the appearance of the corset at the 59-second mark.  Ask yourself whether you could ever wear something like that.

What’s your favorite aspect of the fashions from the 1940s?

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CC Image courtesy @NYCphotos-flickr on flickr CC BY 2.0
CC Image courtesy michal_hadassah on flickr CC BY 2.0

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