The Search for the Ideal Feminine Body:
The History of Lingerie 1930-1959

In the 1930s, the Great Depression began after the stock market crash of 1929 and lasted until 1933. Because so many men lost their jobs and were struggling, women began joining the work force in response to this period of economic exertion.

While there was still no social acceptance of female independence, there was a type of psychological acceptance. Women had to do their part to contribute to the household, too, in order to compensate for the financial turmoil within their home lives.

Meanwhile, curves were becoming adored once again. Every woman wanted round, curved hips and wore girdles to shape themselves into that physique. At this point, two-piece underwear was the norm of the time, and bras were made to define the shape of the bust, and some bras even had lining to provide extra support.

They came in a thin, light fabric and came in a variety of cup shapes to accentuate the breasts. Cup sizes were also becoming prevalent, as most lingerie brands used an A-D cup size chart. Smaller breasted women used cup inserts ("falsies") to highlight their bust shape. The whole idea was to separate, support, and define the breasts.

The girdles of the time were, of course, essential for the quotidian dressing of a woman. At least latex elastic was developed in 1931, so it wasn’t as restrictive a design as previous decades. Now women could both play sports and look good in an evening gown thanks to this game-changing material.

And now for the 1940s. Until 1945, World War II was running rampant, and women went to work to compensate for all of the men who were sent to join the fight. The ideal female became more broadly shouldered, with a sturdy body and narrow hips.

The motto being “make do and mend”, women were encouraged to sew their own clothing and undergarments to conserve fabrics and other luxuries. There were many women who updated their clothing to match the current styles of the time, with their mad seamstress skills, of course! The styles for women of the time were often angular, fitted, and military-inspired, which called for more closely fitting undergarments. To work, many women wore trousers and overalls, which also required the same form-fitting underwear.

Silk was a casualty of the war, and so it became far less available, and as a result, slips were a lot less common. Nylon, previously used to make stockings, was instead diverted to make parachutes, so women countered this by drawing black, make-shift “seams” down the back of their legs. Pretty clever, you have to admit. In order to be able to still express themselves through what they wore, women donned elaborate hairstyles and accessories. Women “made do”, following the motto, and used what they had so that they could subsist through a time full of bloodshed and oppression. Pretty badass, right?

In 1947, two years after the war ended, Christian Dior introduced the “New Look” to the world, with his haute couture collection, debuting in Paris.

Bullet bras, girdles, and petticoats, oh my! This new style created the perfect hourglass figure for any woman, with the lift and definition of the bullet bra, the waist-cinching of the girdle, and the fullness of the petticoat to create the illusion of a fuller bottom half.

Christian Dior replaced the broad and sturdy with the feminine and traditional. The ideal woman became curvier again, fuller-bodied pin-up models and actresses became more popular, and the bust to waist ratio in mainstream magazines increased by one-third. Curves were great once again!

In the 1950s, Christian Dior’s “New Look” was still extremely popular, so the curves of the ideal female body type of the time were also still extremely sought-after. After the war, men wanted their jobs back and to take on being the breadwinners of their families. Women were once again sequestered to being housewives and mothers.

As mentioned before, bullet bras were very much at their height (see what I did there?) in the ‘50s and later became a symbol of the decade. These bras were being made with nylon, which was revolutionary for the world of lingerie.

Of course, the girdle was back in style, so that women could nip in their waists to add to the illusion of a more curvaceous body. All of this was topped off with voluminous petticoats on the lower half of the body. Any woman could now achieve the perfect hourglass figure with these undergarments. In addition, stockings were now available in a “seamless” variety on the market.