In the 1890s, Charles Dana Gibson drew
pen and ink illustrations of tall, slim-waisted, voluptuous female figures for
mainstream magazines. This was the “Gibson Girl” also known as the “New Woman”
at the time. This ideal woman was independent, educated, socially adept, and,
of course, beautiful.
This became the national beauty standard across America, and so women strived to become and/or appear to be this “New Woman”. It seems that even then, the fashion industry left an impression on young women to achieve a certain standard of beauty—to be something that is unachievable and unrealistic for the average woman.
This ideal carried over to the early 20th century, and in an attempt to achieve this female body ideal, women wore whale-boned corsets, which cinched their waists to the extreme, although not this silhouette was not as extreme as previous decades.
But, of course, this silhouette was still reminiscent of the “Gibson Girl” ideal. (See Gibson's illustration at right.) While this corset focused mostly on the waist, there was little attention placed upon the bust (remember, we didn’t have push-up bras yet), but the cinched waist created the illusion of a more voluminous upper body. This corset was accompanied by a mountain of petticoats to add to the illusion of a more curvaceous body.
Now, once you take a look at the 1910s, silhouettes start to become straighter, and leaner—a preview to the extreme slenderness of figures in the 1920s. The figures in magazines became slimmer-hipped, with full, low busts. Sort of a slimmer version of the hourglass figures of the previous decade, right?
As a result, the corsets became longer, lengthened to past the hips, and came up to just under the bust. This helped support a more linear silhouette, which complimented the empire-waisted styles of the time. Petticoats became slimmer as well, and bloomers were replaced with closer-fitting underwear, which were redolent what we wear today.
Also, because machine-made lace became easier to get your hands on, decorative underwear became cheaper, and was therefore more common. Women’s undergarments were beginning to truly become lingerie as we have come to know in today’s modern era.
Fun Fact :
In 1910, socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs, also known as Caresse Crosby, invented the first real bra by sewing two handkerchiefs together. She became the first receiver of a patent for the modern bra thanks to this ingenious idea!
And now, onto the roaring ‘20s. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1919, granting women the right to vote, women were beginning to attend college, and the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed by Alice Paul in 1923. It seemed like the fight for women’s rights was booming, and ladies’ hemlines rose all the way to just above the knee in response to this, and so did their slips.
Now, the modern belief is that women in the ‘20s were mostly flappers who drank, smoked, were more sexually free, and did generally “unladylike” things, but the truth is that most women of the time didn’t do any of those things. (Many still adopted the fashionable wardrobe though.) While there were some women who followed the flapper lifestyle, most women were still restricted to being the “proper” woman. But, hey, at least we can vote now!
Even with some gains in the women’s rights movement, women were still subjected to a standard of beauty which was unachievable— it’s just that this time, you were expected to be absurdly thin with no hips or bust. In fact, the bust to waist ratio of models dwindled by about 60% in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal magazines during this decade, according to analysis in some studies.
The slender women in mainstream magazines represented the “ideal” woman, and, in response to this, the mid-1920s brought upon an unprecedented (excluding the 1980s, but we’ll get to that) epidemic of eating disorders. This “New Woman” was one of the thinnest in history.
To attain this lean, boyish figure, curvier women wore tube-like corsets under their dresses which flattened the bust and slimmed the hips. Other women wore hip-slimming girdles to fulfill the standard. To match this straighter silhouette, the volume of bloomers was completely replaced by the thinness of the slip. No curves for you! Decorative stockings and garters also became big around this time. Yep, we replaced the large skirts with some eye candy below the knee. Scandalous! There was a seam up the back of each stocking, which were meant to “slenderize” the legs. There were some two-piece garments that were making headway, but bras weren’t lifting or defining the breasts yet. At this point, minimizing a woman’s curves was the norm.