Foundations: From Underwear to Outerwear

By Rebekah Lazear

The evolution of base garments tells an architectural history of fashion. Foundational clothing styles are slow to change, their innovation is usually spawned by technological advancements in materials, and style applications can be expanded by consumer perception. The reciprocal relationship between base and outer garments is that one cannot change without the other and one always changes because of the other. From bustles to butt pops, nuance to necessity, let’s explore the world of foundations.

Historically, the outer shape of a fashion has been formed by foundation garments. Corsets, hoop skirts, and layers of petticoats arranged in their different forms built centuries of silhouettes. Elizabethan tight bodices with full-from-the-hip skirt Marie Antoinette’s French hip hoops so wide women would have to walk through doorways sideways. Victorian layers hid the body while the Gibson Girl form of the late 19th/early 20th century was built of corsets and bustles to enhance the female form. Rib cages were warped to achieve this style and fainting couches utilized in interior design to accommodate the falling ladies deprived of oxygen by their base garment structure.

The early 20th century increased the speed of trend cycles in every facet of industrialized societies. The 1920’s flapper did away with the cumbersome layers of restrictive undergarments; styles required loose slips and boxy shapes. As material technology evolved, mass-produced fabrics, metals and plastics built new girdles, garters and conical bras that created the structure of the next four decades. Women’s wear from the 30’s through 60’s was shaped by war, the workplace, and the new look, but the foundational structure was much the same. Small waist, lifted chest, curve at the top of the hip and narrow through the thigh.

The 1970’s saw revolution in the burning of bras and a move to more natural body form while simultaneously moving towards wider use of man made fabrics. The 80’s and 90’s began taking the taboo out of visible underwear. Previously only seen in nightclubs and edgy fashion runways, bras became shirts, garters decorated thighs, and pieces of the body were carefully highlighted with tighter fabrics. Madonna and Selena popularized the bustier. Cindy Lauper wore layers of petticoats. Punks and Goths wore fishnets as pants. The workout craze showed off sports bra straps and exercise leggings. Push up Wonder bras enhanced the bust while control top pantyhose slimmed, lifted and hid lower body minor illicit offenses.

As forms became increasingly fitted, clothing grew tighter and base garments were at the same time highly visible and completely invisible. The first two decades of the 2000’s have brought sheer panels, cutouts, body suits, peekaboo styles, side boob, micro minis and more. Women want to show off colorful patterns, lace, beautiful fabrics and interchangeable straps. Thongs eliminated panty line worries, though we are all glad the visible string on the hips above the low cut trend died so quickly.

With every new textile, each new construction method, style has been able to blossom. When outer form demands a deep V, under garments have been built with V- and U-shaped underwire. Breast tape, sticky bras, and the lace up “Instagram bra” composed of two sticky cups/cutlets with a drawstring center for instant cleavage allow the braless look without sacrificing support. The bandage dress used its outer form to shape the body as though the best base garments were in play. Spanx and other malleable shape wear allow people to smooth and shape with soft, breathable, more comfortable pieces. Butt pads, or “booty pops,” give fullness and height under anything from dresses to jeans.

As material technology and outer fashions change, base garments will too. With foundations, there is always a return to basics. They exist to provide form and function simultaneously. Shape the body while providing comfort. Though thousands of types of foundational garments have been created, they are all rooted in the same form. They exist to enable outer fashion providing support, modesty, shape and style. Whatever the future of fashion brings, there will always be a slip, garter, stocking, petticoat, and waist cincher to make it possible.

Amanda Harth