The Search for the Ideal Feminine Body:
The History of Lingerie 1960-Today

In the early 1960s, girdles and bullet bras were still in style, but were starting to fade as a boom in the women’s rights movement started up again. The Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for the first time in 1960, Betty Friedan published her book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and the National Organization for Women was founded in the United States in 1966. Women were even told to “burn their bras” to counter against the patriarchy.

Of course, no woman actually burned their bra, but many smaller-breasted women did start to go braless. There were even many women who started to go braless when they slept. This was a big deal at the time, because it was the long-time belief that sleeping without proper support would compromise the shape of your breasts.

Even amidst all of this progress made in the women’s rights movement, women were still confined to live up to the ideals that society (and fashion magazines) had placed upon them.

The bust to waist ratio had dropped to approximately where it was in the 1920s, and women in mainstream magazines became absurdly thin. Yes, this was the rise of British fashion model, Twiggy (shown at left), also known as Leslie Lawson.

Although many associate this decade with the “freedom” of the woman’s body, severe anorexia nervosa requiring hospital admission rose during this time, which clearly tells you that women were still restricted to the “feminine ideal” even then. Shape-manipulating undergarments were just replaced with diet and exercise, to the point of eating disorders.

 As far as how this affected the undergarments of the time, there was an emphasis on more reliable designs. By the mid-1960s, many bras had a fine layer of latex rubber bonded to the top of the lace, which made the cups stand on end. This created a more much more natural shape than the previous decade, which helped minimize the breasts— the goal of the time, as curves were now “out of style”.

There was even something called the “no bra bra”, designed by Rudi Gernreich in 1964, which was made of a light, sheer netting. It was very simply shaped with little support, which didn’t really work for larger breasted women. This design later inspired the development of a transparent material for lingerie by Warner’s in 1965. Bring on the sheer!

Here it comes: the ‘70s. The ideal woman was still extremely thin, and anorexia nervosa was still on the rise. The era of disco was upon us, and so was the height of the women’s rights movement, as the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was in full swing.

Unfortunately, the ratification stopped short of Indiana in 1977—two years before the deadline of March 22nd, 1979. Since then, three more states have ratified the ERA (creating a total of the needed 38 states), but because Congress has not updated the deadline, this amendment is still not officially a part of the Constitution. Nice, huh?

During this time, lingerie designers were becoming a lot more adventurous. Manufacturers were releasing bras that came in pink, purple, or even mini-printed autumn leaves (you know, if you want your bra to match the season). Flesh-toned, natural looking bras were becoming more desirable at this time, too. Of course, what was considered “flesh-toned” wasn’t always right for everybody. What works for you may not work for your neighbor down the street.

Here it comes: the ‘70s. The ideal woman was still extremely thin, and anorexia nervosa was still on the rise. The era of disco was upon us, and so was the height of the women’s rights movement, as the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was in full swing.

Unfortunately, the ratification stopped short of Indiana in 1977—two years before the deadline of March 22nd, 1979. Since then, three more states have ratified the ERA (creating a total of the needed 38 states), but because Congress has not updated the deadline, this amendment is still not officially a part of the Constitution. Nice, huh?

During this time, lingerie designers were becoming a lot more adventurous. Manufacturers were releasing bras that came in pink, purple, or even mini-printed autumn leaves (you know, if you want your bra to match the season).

Flesh-toned, natural looking bras were becoming more desirable at this time, too. Of course, what was considered “flesh-toned” wasn’t always right for everybody. What works for you may not work for your neighbor down the street.

At the end of the decade, nude, straight-across strapless bras came into style, with the intention of being worn with “Boob Tubes”, or tube tops. With the designs from Janet Reger and others, lingerie was becoming a lot sexier. Designs of luxurious lacey bras and sultry French knickers brought passionate sensuality to the world of lingerie. There was also a rise in the popularity of the baby doll nightie, named after the 1956 film, Baby Doll. This was all a glimpse into the soon-to-come ultra-erotic lingerie designs of the 1980s.

When it comes to lingerie, designs were sensual and borderline fetishistic. That’s right, thongs and G-strings were in! Teddy bodysuits were lace-trimmed and high-cut at the legs, with garters galore. These teddies were worn without bras, and they usually had cup formations which gave little support, unless you were smaller-breasted or had a surgically enhanced bust.

From French knickers, to hip briefs, to tangas, it was lace, lace, lace! Even camisoles, which were usually worn under women’s suits, were lacey and silky. Basques, which give a much gentler support than corsets, were also very popular for the bedroom. All of this ultra-feminine underwear was a contrast to the shoulder-padded suits of the ‘80s.

In the 1990s, the ideal female body types became very, well, “waif-like” thanks to the increasing popularity of Kate Moss. This ideal woman was still very thin, but cleavage was returning. Of course, hips were still out, so a lot of women surgically enhanced their breasts to achieve this silhouette. There was still extreme dieting during this decade, and anorexia nervosa reached its highest mortality rate amongst all mental disorders.

At the same time, there was a rise in obesity, which was a disparity to the anorexic eating disorders that many other women suffered from. All of this was in response to this ideal woman who was forced upon American women’s psyches during this decade. Every woman wanted to be like the women they saw in the mainstream magazines they read through while waiting in the doctor’s office, and they were desperate to live up to that ideal.

To accomplish this new, popular silhouette, cleavage enhancing bras, such as the Wonderbra, became very popular in this decade. Matching lace bra and panty sets were also the sensation of the time.

The women who shed their bras in the ‘60s and ‘70s still occasionally sought figure control with bottom-lifting Lycra panties and control-top tights, but most women at this point attempted to achieve the ideal female body type of this decade through diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery.

And that brings us to the conical bullet bra of queen of pop, Madonna in 1990, which launched the “underwear as outerwear” trend of the early 2000s, and then, finally, to today. What have we learned?

Well, to start, women have a history of constantly being told what we should be. We should be pretty. We should be thin. We should be this; we should be that. And we have submitted to these ideals of what we should be by starving ourselves, getting cosmetic surgery, and altering our silhouette with undergarments.

Earlier, at the beginning of this article, I asked you “How do we find our inner power?” The truth is, that’s up to you. Us. You can become a women’s rights activist, or you can express yourself through art, music, or poetry. It can even be as simple as exercising your right to vote or signing petitions, so that you can communicate to the world what you believe in.

We, as women, have always had that power; we just chose not to use it, because we have been afraid throughout history.

It’s 2021. It’s time that we take our power backStep up, ladies!