As recently as 70 years ago, foundation garments, as corsets were called, were fundamental to the way that women dressed. Eleri Lynn, author of a new book about the V&A's huge underwear collection, gives a brief history of shapewear, starting with the hourglass and S-bend forms - and steel and whalebone engineering - of Victorian and Edwardian corsets, carries on through the breast-flattening bandeau bras worn by 1920s flappers, the New Look underwear of Christian Dior, the conicle bullet bras of the 1950s and concludes with the arrival of Lycra in the 1960s and the renaissance of corsetry through the new popularity of burlesque.
Eleri Lynn: Stays, as they were called previously in corsets, were around for centuries beforehand, but the Victorians really took to it, partly because of the scientific discoveries and the technological advancements they were making. They were working with different ways of steel reinforcements and they invented this steel busk here which allowed women to take the corsets on and off themselves and invented metal eyelets and a form of back lacing the corset which allowed women to tighten the corset themselves. You'd wear it in every age and in every class and it would have been considered shocking if you did not wear a corset.
Throughout the 19th century the shape was changing, as much as through the 20th century really. It started off as a very tubular shape and then in the 1850s the shape was quite a pronounced hour glass. This corset is a late but some of the earlier corsets would really kick out at the hip. There was a massive shift from Victorian to Edwardian. They introduced the straight busk - the busk is this front bit here - they introduced it ostensibly so as not to put pressure on the internal organs. Actually what it ended up doing was pressing into the groin and causing such discomfort, the pelvis arched backwards and the breasts to be thrust forward so you had this very, very pronounced S-shape. In trying to be more comfortable, it's probably much more uncomfortable and bad for posture and your back and your figure generally than any of the Victorian corsets.
In terms of body shape throughout the 20th century, you get a few flash points. Also you get young people after the First World War really rebelling against the previous generation who'd sent them all off to war. They wanted to look completely different from this matronly figure, so you have a sort of androgenous flapper shape and that was created with a combination of girdles. If you were unfashionable enough to have a big chest, you would flatten that down with a bra called a bandeau which was basically just to flatten your boobs.
After the Second World War you see the resurgence of femininity after austerity. You get this style which is much more feminine. It's part of Dior's New Look which was all about cinched in waists and big skirts. This has got Powernet, so it's actually doing quite a strong job of compressing the body without whalebone. In the 1950s there was the introduction of a lot of man-made fibres, so this is doing the job of that Victorian corset just in a different and more comfortable way.
In the 1950s, particularly the mid-1950s, three out of every four women were wearing falsies, which were essentially foam cones at the front of the cup. Basically that was to create that kind of bullet bra shape, that really pointy conical shape that you see in old films. These are very hard cones here, but you did get versions of them which were little inflatable falsies or ones that you would fill with water, but I think they were a bit of a commercial disaster.
In the 1960s you get a very different kind of aesthetic. For a start, the introduction of certain fabrics helps. So lycra had been introduced in 1959 commercially and was incredibly successful because essentially it's highly tensile, so it turns back to its former shape, it pulls you in, it compresses the figure and it does it all without clasps and hooks. Because teenagers were rebelling against corsetry as something that was old fashioned and perhaps chauvinistic, a lot of designers tried to create something new that might perhaps appeal to them. So instead of corsets, you start to see bodysuits being advertised. Here is a Mary Quant body suit. Obviously Mary Quant was a very fashionable name in the 1960s, so this would have been quite desirable. It's got a lycra panel here to reinforce your tummy and moreover it can be worn under mini skirts or under tight dresses, it can even be worn with jeans. Fashionable people are trying to have a really natural body shape.
Almost the way the story develops, the introduction of separate bra and knicker sets in the 1960s is kind of the end really of this kind of foundation wear development.
Foundation wear is not really supposed to be seductive until you get to a contemporary era where you have this kind of retro vintage aesthetic where you're wearing Agent Provocateur or very Goth corsets - that whole kind of burlesque aspect. With corsetry and all of these aesthetics like the girdles and all these kind of things that were such a normal part of women's dressing routine, they fell very much out of favour and for a few decades were not fashionable at all. But I think then in the 80s and into the 90s it has been reclaimed as seen by designers like Vivienne Westwood as something quite empowering. So instead of being kind of hyper-feminine, they were actually kind of hyper-assertive.
It's difficult to trace a fashionable body shape now through underwear partly because underwear doesn't really do that job any more. Now you're pretty much expected to be that shape, you're supposed to have that.