Depending which generation, the trend of wearing your underwear exposed might remind you of Madonna, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian West, or perhaps your mother yelling “you’re not wearing that are you?” Despite what mom says, flashing your undies is quite fashionable, and pretty much always has been. In fact, the intermingling of underwear and outerwear has existed for centuries with each generation calling attention to a suggestive new fashion trend that toes the boundaries of what’s appropriate and not. The fact of the matter is, the distinctive line of what’s provocative in fashion is constantly evolving and styles that were once considered indecent are now deemed a chic new trend. From 18th century corsetry to 2000s-era whale tails, these cyclical trends are embedded in a long line of history that just keeps on reinventing itself.
Arguably the first developed example of underwear as outerwear began in the 15th century within menswear designs of the Middle Ages. During this time, typical men’s dress was composed of tight leggings with attached feet that made it difficult to use the chamber pot and left men feeling rather exposed. In response, a small padded flap or pouch was designed to cover and accentuate the junk (think of it like a vintage jockstrap). Providing both style and function, the must-have accessory ultimately paved way for a future of women’s fashions that invert the roles of underwear and outwear.
The emergence of underwear as a fashionable style for women first erupted in popular culture when Queen Catherine de’Medici of Florence introduced the corset to the French court in the 16th century. The trendsetting queen developed a variety of other fashion accessories, including perfume and gloves, notably exercising her power by influencing the latest fashion trends. The body-binding style was introduced to the public as a result of de’Medici banning thick waists from the court. The corset’s function aimed to emphasize the curvature of the female figure while providing medicinal and utilitarian advantages like spine alignment and better posture. Though the Queen is credited with spawning a 300-plus year period of corseted fashion, it’s likely the style was originally derived from an extensive history of body modifications practiced by women in Asia, Africa, and other indigenous cultures around the world.
Over the next few centuries, corsets became an essential component of women’s dress. Many designers experimented with corset styles changing the necklines, fabrics, and even structural materials to match the trends of the time. Unlike its cousin the girdle, the design and shaping of early corsets was intended to be seen as part of the outfit rather than something to be covered up. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when French designers Paul Poiret and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel famously abolished the restrictive corset and petticoat in exchange for draping and looser fitted silhouettes for women. The corset was virtually absent from fashion until the mid-’70s when designer Vivienne Westwood stepped onto the scene embracing the burgeoning punk milieu of London. Westwood adapted historical garments like 18th-century style corsets and crinoline skirts in an effort to revive vintage trends for a contemporary audience.Other heavyweight designers would follow in her footsteps frequently incorporating a modern rendition of corsetry into their work. Alexander McQueen would experiment with Elizabethan and Victorian-era corsetry not only as a nod to his British heritage, but also an anatomical exploration in fashion. Additionally, designers Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier used corsetry as a theme of embracing the female shape to express sexual empowerment in their work. A growing presence of armor-esque corsets in the ’90s epitomized power dressing in this era and popularized a style of fetish dressing with the influence of megawatt pop stars like Madonna and the infamous cone bra designed by Gaultier for her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990.
BloomersWhile men in Europe and the United States traditionally wore undergarments on the top and bottom, women’s undergarments had largely been exclusive to the upper body. Bras, corsets, chemises, and camisoles all existed for women to control their shape, never before had panties or other legged garments existed for women due to the bifurcated style belonging to menswear. During the mid-1800s, Suffragette Amelia Bloomer made rebellious strides in both fashion and politics when she popularized her eponymous bloomer trouser style (also known as “pantaloons” or “Turkish trousers”) as a statement dress in pursuit of gender equity. Worn under the skirt, women began to adopt the style as a way to liberate themselves from heavy dresses and protesting inequality, though not without receiving some backlash.
“I stood amazed at the furor I had unwittingly caused,” Bloomer wrote. “Some praised and some blamed, some commented, and some ridiculed and condemned.” While the Suffragette didn’t intend to start a fashion revolution, Bloomer’s design was one of the first radical representations of women wearing a bifurcated bottom. Pants were finally incorporated into women’s wardrobes in late ’50s with the help of top designers of the time like Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior who used the silhouette of the bloomer to herald a new generation of women who wore the pants. Since then, bifurcated bottoms have transcended androgynous fashion as a central component of womenswear.
At the turn of the century, cumbersome layers of clothing that restricted the body fell out of fashion and popular style pivoted, giving rise to the starkly different (and far more scandalous) flapper fashions. With the rise of women’s suffrage and the sanction of the 19th amendment in 1920, women embraced a more liberated style of life than ever before where they smoked cigarettes, drank, and wore their hair short. Flapper women were considered provocative and their choice of dress was no exception. As a symbol of their newfound independence, flapper women wore loose-fitted dresses that closely resembled undergarments like chemises and teddies. Historically an undergarment, the chemise was originally meant to be worn next to the skin to protect clothing from sweat and body oils.Though flapper women weren’t the first scrutinized for the edgy style. In 1783, Marie Antoinette supported artist Vigée Le Brun commissioning her to paint a portrait of the young queen. Le Brun became one of 14 women (among 550 artists) admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris. She displayed a number of portraits there, including one of Antoinette dressed in a muslin chemise and straw hat. However, the depiction of the queen in a casual chemise was condemned inappropriate and was soon removed from the exhibition.
Following the ’20s, the chemise dress was adapted for changing decades evolving the utilitarian garment into a style that was sexy and alluring. The style became an early iteration of the modern slip dress which surged as a popular trend during the ’90s and into today. Popularized in the heat of the era by Kate Moss, Posh Spice, Caroline Bessette-Kennedy, and even Princess Diana, the slinky slip dress that was once seen as unfit to wear in public was soon one of the decade’s biggest trends.
Perhaps there is nothing more definitive of early 2000s fashion than the whale tail. Whether it’s Sisqo’s 1999 hit “Thong Song” or Manny Santos’ cobalt blue thong and low rise jeans combo strutting down the school hallway in Degrassi: Next Generation, the hip-hugging trend permeated the tone of the era and eventually made its way into our closets. Despite its massive popularity during the 2000s, early examples of the trend go back to around 75,000 years. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the loincloth was created as one of the earliest forms of human clothing and is believed to have been mainly worn by men. Similarly, Japanese men began wearing a thong style for sumo wrestling as early as 250 CE. The thong we know today happened almost by accident at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In an act of restoring decency, Mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia ordered that the fair’s nude dancers had to cover up. The performers were savvy and knew that covering it all would be a disservice to their profession. In response, the dancers created the thong technically honoring Mayor LaGuardia’s prudish rules, but not without bending them a bit.
The thong became more of a household name in the 70s’ when Austrian-born designer Rudi Gernreich designed the first thong swimsuit responding to Los Angeles banning nude beaches in 1974. The style powered through into the ’90s aligning with Tom Ford’s vision at Gucci illuminating a sense of sophisticated sensuality to the house that seemed synonymous with the spirit of era. At his Spring/Summer 1997 show, Ford showed the iconic Gucci thong featuring a thin black G-string calling attention to a silver Gucci emblem centered on the back. Logomania at it’s peak, if you ask us.The thong style came to fruition in the early 2000s when the popularization of low-rise pants was at an all time high. The upsurge of low cut hipsters prompted the trend of deliberately showing your underwear, and thus, the birth of the whale tail. At the same time, the comparable sagging pants became a trend in menswear derived from styles popularized in hip-hop and rap music. The era’s biggest and brightest stars hopped on board with celebrities like Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera showing public displays of their hipbones cradled by the barely-there new trend. The whale tail even worked its way onto the runway in John Galliano’s Fall/Winter 2001 show for Christian Dior where models strung their thongs out of their pants cheekily showing a bit of lace detail. People quickly made the whale tail their own adding adornments like jewels and embroidery to the back.
On the horizon of a new decade, the whale tail seemed to fade out toward the 2010s. Though as fashion constantly repeats itself, the whale tail was soon popping up again on red carpets in 2019 as a nod to nostalgic ’90s and early 2000s trends. Model Hailey Bieber coordinated a bubblegum pink whale tail and bedazzled logo detailing for her 2019 Met Gala look designed by Alexander Wang. On the runway, Versace’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection paid homage to the trend with low-rise black trousers and added thong straps embellished with the house’s medusa logo.
When it comes to wearing underwear as outerwear, this trend has a past of being a radical statement over anything else. The women who first pioneered these styles were often initially scrutinized for wearing them. From ultra-cinched 18th century corsetry to ’90s curve-hugging slip dresses, these designs were originally used as a method of challenging society and soon worked their way into high fashion trends. Today, wearing your undies in broad daylight is quite common, but the evolution of these garments shows that it’s OK to break the rules and wear whatever you want, just as long as your best accessory is a heaping side of attitude.END
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