What is ‘lingerie’?

The word lingerie evokes a variety of ideas, but originally it came from the French linge, which directly translated means “washables” or “laundry”. Even before this, the word lin referred to washable linen, which was the chosen material for making undergarments in Europe before cotton arrived from Egypt and then India. Today, the word in the French language can refer to any undergarment worn by either gender; however, the word in English is used most typically to describe items worn by women that are designed to be alluring or seductive. Since the original linen fabric used to make undergarments in the past, there are now a huge variety of fabrics that are considered appropriate for lingerie, including synthetic materials such as Lycra, nylon and polyester, or for more luxury pieces; silk, satin, lace.

The idea of lingerie as a visually attractive item of clothing was in reaction to the repressive and restricting corsets worn by women up until the late 19thCentury. At this time, women were expected to wear corsets under any item of clothing to tighten the waist and push up breasts in order to create an hourglass figure and resemble the classical figures in historic art. One of the most well-known pioneers for introducing lingerie as a freer piece of undergarment was Lady Duff-Gordon, a leading fashion designer of her time, who was also attributed to an innovator in couture styles and in fashion public relations.

Lingerie often changes as a reflection of the culture and society of a particular time. From the 16th to the early 19th Century when women were expected to take a more domestic role, it was unnecessary to partake in any form of manual labour, so they could wear uncomfortable yet flattering corsets. In the late 19th Century, corsets became gradually smaller in size and often divided into parts, which eventually led to the brassiere, which Mary Phelps Jacob first patented in 1914. As a result of the First World War, bras became lighter and made with more breathable fabrics because women were required to do the work that was traditionally expected of men. Lingerie became a more practical item, rather than something to change the outer body shape.

More recently, lingerie has several different functions, both practical and purely aesthetic. During the 20th and 21st Centuries, as lingerie has grown to become a multibillion dollar industry, it has become glamourized through intricate and innovative designs and the use of luxury fabrics. Like the name, the concept has remained fairly French, with the use of traditionally French fabrics and based on French designs, however the industry is now worldwide, with some of the biggest names residing in North America and in the United Kingdom.

With such a huge demand for a wide variety of styles for different occasions, there are new types of lingerie being invented and designed all the time. Some are made specifically with the intention to be worn in the bedroom, typically suggestive and appealing in appearance, others are described as Shapewear which are designed specifically to alter and enhance the shape of the body, such as the Bodysuit or Unitard. Freer, more loosely fitting styles include the Chemise, Teddy, Babydoll and Camisole.