How has underwear shaped women's lives?

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1. A hidden history

Corsets, crinolines and crotch-less pants: for centuries, women were expected to wear a variety of weird and wonderful contraptions under their clothes to achieve a desirable silhouette.

Women's underwear has always been a source of fascination, contention and debate. In the Victorian era, dress reformers declared that restrictive garments prevented women living healthy lives, and dared to argue that underwear should not 'exceed seven pounds in weight.' In recent decades, its been hailed as a source of female sexual empowerment and scorned as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Underwear gives us a glimpse into a larger story: the expectations, limitations and status afforded to women throughout history.

2. Constructing a queen

Lucy Worsley gives us a glimpse of Elizabeth I’s underwear and reveals how the intimate dressing habits of a monarch contributed to the spectacle of her power.

(Tales from the Royal Wardrobe, BBC Four, 2014)

3. A second body

Throughout Western history women wore garments to contort their torsos into the fashionable shape of the day. They evolved from the laced bodies of the Medieval period, through to the constrictive boned corsets of the late Victorian era and the elasticated girdle of the 1920s.

For hundreds of years, they were an essential part of every woman's wardrobe and daily life. From childhood, women wore corsets as a kind of second skeleton: to support their bodies and create a gendered silhouette. In the late Georgian period a long silhouette was favoured, whereas in the Edwardian era, corsets which bent the body into an 'S' shaped called a 'Grecian curve' were most desirable. They also provided a framework for other undergarments, such as petticoats and crinolines.

The fightback

Foundation garments were generally accepted as a healthy necessity, but there were rumblings of dissent. It reached its peak in the Victorian era, when physicians blamed tightly laced corsets for compressing internal organs and causing a host of afflictions, including consumption, hysteria and cancer.

A small vanguard movement called the Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881, determined to liberate women from 'the tyranny of fashion' which restricted their movements and, by extension, their activities. But the mission failed to catch on and their work was met largely with contempt or ridicule by the public and the press.

Woollen undies

In fact, the work of Dr Gustav Jaegar, a German naturalist who endorsed underwear made from animal fibres, had a bigger impact on the design of underwear. He recommended combination garments made from wool to help regulate body temperature and promote sweating. These garments were less structured, paving the way for the rise of the liberty bodice at the turn of the century - a sleeveless vest made from fleece which kept the body warm without compressing it.

But it would take the seismic cultural upheavals of the 20th Century for women to shed the many layers of undergarments acquired over centuries of fashion history.

4. From stays to spanx

Click through the timeline to discover why the 20th century saw women's underwear undergo radical changes.

5. One for the boys

Click on the labels below to reveal how men's underwear has evolved.

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Images from V&A Images, Getty Images