Underneath It All: A Brief History of Women’s Underwear, 1900-1970

When dressing a period show, it is important to remember that it’s not just the clothing the audience sees that makes the look authentic. To really capture a realistic period style, the proper undergarments need to be used to help achieve the accurate shape or silhouette.

For those doing a show set in the first half of the 20th century, the following crash-course may be of some assistance.

The 1900s

As you can see in the photos above, the early 1900s embraced a truly “feminine” shape; big hips, large breasts, and a very cinched in “wasp waist”. The look was not quite as extreme as it had been in previous decades (where, in some cases, women may have had ribs removed to try and make their waists smaller, though this idea is debated), but it still required tightly bound whale bone corsets and layers of heavy petticoats.  Little attention was paid to the breasts; push-up and padded bras did not exist, instead the curved upper torso was created by cinching in the waist, so that while the upper body appeared fuller, it did not yet have the definition that would be seen in later decades.

The 1910s

As the century progressed, silhouettes began to transform into a leaner, straighter shape, and the corsets and bustles of the previous decades mostly disappeared. What corsets were still in use now were longer, coming down past the hips and up to just under the bust, helping to achieve a streamlined look. The waist line rose to an “empire waist”, just below the bust, and as the ankles were now often visible, the length of slips shortened. As the petticoats slimmed, bloomers were replaced with a closer fitting underwear, more similar to what we see today. It is also during this time that we see a change in the overall aesthetic of undergarments; they were truly becoming lingerie. Machine-made lace was more readily available, and so decorative underwear could be purchased for a more reasonable price. The ads of the time no longer looked like a textbook page on what was available, but began to embrace the beauty and sensuality of the products.

1920s

The 1920s saw the change from a “womanish” figure to a “girlish” one; the bust, hips and waist were slimmed to a straight, narrow, almost boyish look, and hemlines shortened dramatically. We begin to see some two-piece undergarments, but the bras still are not lifting or defining the breasts. As hemlines were shorter, decorative garters and stockings became popular. Tube-like corsets were used to help curvier women attain a straighter silhouette.

1930s

Two-piece undergarments were the norm come the 1930s and slips were less common. Curves again were being embraced, and women with round, curved hips were adored. Tight-fitting girdles were sometimes used to shape the hips, and early versions of the bras we wear today are seen. Hollywood began to have a major part in the popularity of women’s styles, and ads of the decade catered to those looking for a glamourous silhouette.

1940s

The war had a major effect on women’s fashions as many materials were rationed. “Make do and mend” was the motto, and women were encouraged to sew their own clothes and update their old ones to match the current styles. The limits on fabrics meant that a more angular, fitted look defined the decade, and hemlines were once again shorter, hitting just below the knee. Military styles were popular, and women’s suits came in fashion. Nylon was one of the casualties of the war, as it was needed to make parachutes, and so nylon stockings disappeared from the stores. In an effort to maintain the look, some women drew black “seams” up the back of their legs, giving the illusion of wearing stockings. As many women went out to work in factories, they traded in their dresses and skirts for trousers and overalls, a style that required more form-fitting underwear. Silk was also unavailable because of the war effort, and so slips were less common. To make up for the simplicity in clothing, women’s hairstyles became more elaborate, and accessories were used to decorate an outfit rather than wearing a whole new garment. While there were new styles in 1940s undergarments, keep in mind that many would not have been purchasing them, and would have likely used what they already had instead.

1950s

When the war and its rations ended, fashions embraced the new availability of fabrics, and the female silhouette returned to a fullness it had not seen since the turn of the century. Fitted tops showcased a full bust, and pointed bras lifted and accentuated the breasts. The waist was cinched with a girdle, and full skirts were ballooned with petticoats and bouffants. Stockings were again available, and new “seamless” ones were on the market. Underwear ads became increasingly sexual, and there is a noticeable turn in the marketing which now aimed itself more at men (purchasing for their wives) than women.  Most women were back in the home, and so fashion could again take place over practicality. The ideal women was one who, as Audrey sings in “Little Shop of Horrors”, “cooked like Betty Crocker and looked like Donna Reed”; feminine, fashionable and a devoted wife and mother.

1960s

While many in the 1960s still embraced full skirts, girdles and push-up bras, as feminism blossomed many in the fashion world began to lean towards more natural silhouettes and more comfortable clothing. Skirts got very short, cut high on the thigh, and so slips and underwear shortened as well. Late in the decade and into the 1970s, some women stopped wearing bras and by that point most had long abandoned the corset or girdle. When dressing the 1960s, there are several ways you can go, so before looking for undergarments, ask yourself; is your character a Glamour Puss? a Hippie? a preppy teen? There are many ways to go.

Earlier Decades:

While we here at Bygone tend to focus on the first half of the 20th Century, when it comes to underwear, earlier periods have some of the most interesting articles. Want to learn more about women’s unmentionables? Check out some of these articles:

Mental Floss – A Funny Approach

Hosiery History – Stockings Through The Years

Vintage Lingerie Ads

Elizabethan Costuming

 

-E.

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Set Design Inspiration – Art Deco

Recently I did a blog post on set design inspiration in a Mid Century Modern style  and referenced our production of “Dial M For Murder” that was set in the mid 1950s. As we start to get ready for our next show, Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope”, written in 1929, I’ve been thinking about another major design trend; Art Deco.

The term Art Deco refers to a visual design period that originated in France after World War One. While it was still seen into the early 1940s, the style is most commonly associated with the 1920s and 30s. It featured bold, geometric patterns, rich colours, metallics, and modern Machine Age imagery. It is associated with modern glamour and mass production (which did not have the negative connotation then that it often does today).

Now for a recap – when starting to research a period’s design aesthetic, I start by looking at the following three elements:

  1. Silhouette: What sort of general styles and silhouettes were common, and where can we find those in both vintage and modern pieces?
  2. Colour: What colours were popular at the time? And in particular, what colour schemes would have been used then that are rarely used today?
  3. Accents: Are there any accent pieces (lamps, phones, statues, vases etc.) that are frequently associated with the decade?

They always say there are three things everyone wants when putting together a show; for it to be good, fast and cheap. The catch, of course, is that you can only ever have two of the three. For most of us in the theatre world, “cheap” is a necessity, and personally I always want “good” as well, which means I have to put a lot of time into researching and sourcing materials. If you want to have a great looking set, start early. Very early. And take your time looking around not only vintage stores (they can be pricey) but thrift stores, garage sales, and hell, even checking out what people throw out on garbage day. You know what they say, “one man’s trash…”.

Time to start the research bit:

Art Deco Palette: 1920s and 30s Colours:

Colour schemes of the Jazz Age were anything but subtle; while many pastels and secondary colours were in use they were often used as a background against bold, contrasting pieces. Sherwin Williams has a great section on authentic period colours that you can check out for some specifics. Purples and blues were very popular, as were accents of red or orange. Black trim alongside a tropical colour like peacock blue or a bright mint green was common.

Possibly more important than the colours were the patterns used on anything from walls to curtains to furniture. Intricate geometric patterns, often featuring shell or fan shapes adorned often multiple pieces in a Art Deco room. Tiled floors in black and white were also a common feature.

 

Of course, not all homes of the 1920s and 30s were complete examples of the Art Deco style, however, many had some features that can be associated with the look; in the photos below, you can see examples of minimal Art Deco features (like the tile work in the kitchen floors or on the bathroom wall) alongside rooms that are the epitome of the look (like the gorgeous bedroom and the circular interior entryway).

Art Deco Silhouette: 1920s and 30s Furniture

Art Deco furniture is about glamour and bold statements; each piece is like a work of art. Complex geometric designs alongside beautiful organic curves created a look of extravagance. Often different types of wood were mixed within one piece, creating interesting patterns and design, and mirrored furniture and metallics were all the rage.

Art Deco Vibe: 1920s and 30s Accent Pieces

Bronze sculptures are a staple of the Art Deco look. Gorgeous women (often either naked or wearing a flapper-style outfit) sometimes held a light, or simple stood there as a beautiful accent. Greyhounds were the “it” dog, and are often seen on anything from lamps to ashtrays.  Panthers were also a common sculptural subject. The lamps of the period were more about artistic beauty than practically shining light in the room.

Bygone’s Art Deco – How to Fake The Look Today

As we prepare for “Rope” I have started a pinterest board collecting some of my favourite examples of Art Deco; you can see it here, and I will update this once our set design begins.

For those of you trying to do this look before then, here are some tips on how to fake it and do it on the cheap:

Painting a Art Deco design on a simple tray

Painting a Art Deco design on a simple tray

 

Art Deco Tray: The simplest and easiest way to create a Deco piece is with paint. If you’re new to stenciling, try starting with something small, like a tray, and if that is successful you can move on to a larger piece like a dresser. HGTV has a great tutorial here to get you started.

 

artdeco

Moldings create architectural detail.

Art Deco Molding: If you’re doing a show with flats, try adding some architectural detail above doorways or windows. This can be done with wood or even cardboard. For a great tutorial on this look (one meant for the home, remember, cheaper materials could be used onstage), check out The Joy Of Moldings.

 

1980s Finds: Finally, as always, when setting a stage on the cheap, your local thrift shop is your best friend. The 1980s saw a revival of Art Deco style and so you may be able to come across some pieces on the cheap. Look for things with the right “bones” – changing the colour of a dresser or adding a throw pillow on a sofa is easy, but you don’t want to take on anything that doesn’t have your desired silhouette. If you don’t have a lot of money for set pieces, but want to make an impact, stenciling designs on the flats may be a good way to go.

Again, not everyone in the 1920s or 30’s had art Art Deco home – country styles were common in the 1920s, and during the Great Depression of course, homes were rarely decorated with anything new. So before you start to collect deco pieces for your set, make sure that it fits the show – this style is associated with the upper class, new money, “modern young things”. A great look but not for everyone.

-E.

 

 

Vintage Labels: Creating Authentic Props with Public Domain Images

When dressing a period set, one of the first problems you may encounter is how to have vintage items that don’t look old. While your show may be set in 1920, you of course don’t want a can of beans that looks like it has actually been around since the 20s – rusted, peeling label, dents etc. And of course, to buy a mint condition vintage item you’re likely looking at spending far too much. Still, the importance of period-specific props shouldn’t be overlooked, so here are some handy hints on creating your own authentic looking props:

grapenuts1

  1. Research The Food and Packaging Materials Used In The Period: Foods come in and out of fashion, just like anything else. Start off researching what was popular during your period: The Food Timeline is a great resource for this. They even have a section on popular brands advertised during the decade. From there, look up how your items were packaged; looking at a show in the 1920s or earlier? You’re not going to see plastic. Go for cans, glass bottle and boxes. War-time also had an effect on the materials used, and women were encouraged to make their own preserves. If you’re setting something during one of the World Wars, try have some homemade items on hand.
  2. Think About What Your Characters Would Use: A play about a bachelor doesn’t need a jar of baby food, and a family-centered drama may have more crowded cupboards than one about a single man. You can of course go much more in-depth with this; read though carefully to see if there’s any references to food and think about what types of things make sense for your show when you consider cultural and ethnic background, socioeconomic status, trends etc. This can be a fun exercise to do with your actors too. Sometimes the more details you think of (ie. my character loves pickles but can’t stand mustard) the more nuances you come up with.
  3. Use Authentic Vintage Labels: Finally, nothing will help make an authentic prop more than a real vintage label. See below for my list of favourite sites to score great graphics.

My Favourite Sites for Free Printable Labels: 4964821_orig

  1. The Old Design Shop:  Not only do they have a section on labels, they have just about every category you could think of if you’re looking for some general inspiration. Check out the Food & Drink section and you can see what kind of bottle or can you should affix your label to.
  2. The Graphics Fairy: Beautiful vintage labels and other graphics, many of them turn-of-the-century French. Not as many food labels, but there are beautiful stock images of things like vegetables, if you were interested in designing your own.
  3. The Candy Wrapper Museum: If you’re looking for some authentic candy wrappers, look no further! This well organized site has everything you could need from just about any time period. The only issue is they are scans of old (often crumpled) labels, so I would suggest using them as a guide and photoshopping them to clean them up a bit.

Of course, if you’re handy with photoshop, you can always google vintage labels and try to replicate one yourself. There are lots of free fonts and filigrees to help  you out, and that way you can customize your prop exactly how you want.

6a00d83451ccbc69e201a3fced05fe970bRelated Sites:
If you’re looking for vintage posters, say to decorate a store front or to put in a replica magazine or newspaper, check out Free Vintage Posters. They also have some great WWII ads.

Another good resource is Free Vintage Art, again, not for labels, but for some other beautiful, free vintage stock photos.

And finally, if you’re finding the whole concept of “public domain” a little daunting, check out Public Domain Treasure Hunter; they spell it out for you 🙂

 

For this post, I focused simply on creating canned and boxed goods, bu you can make things like cookies and sandwiches as well. Stay tuned for another post on authentic, non-packaged period foods.

-E.