The importance of the correct underwear

These days underwear is an under-rated element of dress. Oh yes, we all buy bras and pants, even pretty ones and matching sets, but how regularly do you actually give proper thought to underwear as a crucial element of an outfit? A lot is written about the importance of wearing a bra that fits properly, and yes that is a good start, but underwear is also an important way to ensure the correct hang and shaping of an outfit, and the wrong underwear can TOTALLY ruin the line of an otherwise perfect outfit.

Undergarments are something I’m giving a fair amount of thought to at the moment. I’ve been looking at a lot of 1950s outfits, and those nipped in waists and full skirts of the New Look are not  achieved without significant amounts of structure beneath the beautiful top layer. For example, a typical New Look style outfit from the 1950s would have a number of net petticoats and a very solid corset underneath its seemingly effortless prettiness. Rather usefully the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are brilliant at displaying the dresses from their collection with the undergarments alongside, so you can see how much structure is needed for this Balmain dress from c.1950:

Undergarments on the right – boned bodice and layers and layers of net go into acheiving the shape of the pretty white dress on the left

Or the even more rigid corset and (once again) acres of net of the undergarments on the right, which support and create the shape of this stunning 1954 Dior outfit (left):

Dior ‘Zemire’ evening ensemble 1954

And what of those straight-skirted shapes of the 1950s? Well, you certainly wouldn’t go without strucure! I imagine Marilyn here

Marilyn Monroe

was very likely wearing something a lot like this underneath that dress, to keep the stomach in, the hips smooth, and the boobs up!

Dior corset

Lately I’ve also been sewing away at early Victorian costume, which requires acres of petticoats to support the wide-skirted shape, as well as strict corsetry for the torso. Sometimes there’s padding too. For example, if you look at the little dress stand on the right in the picture below you will see a mini bustle pad on it. A Victorian lady might wear bloomers, then have the bustle pad at the waist, with several layers of stiff petticoats draped over the pad to create a shape that sticks out a little more at the back than the front, then the skirt on top:

Petticoat mid-construction on left, bustle pad on right

With a corset on top, full of whale bone, you can imagine the weight of clothing women of that era were carrying around! All to create this kind of shape:

1845-1850 Victorian dress, V&A collection

No wonder they weren’t exactly going out and making their mark on the world – they were probably too exhausted from just getting dressed in the morning!

Obviously most modern outfits don’t require this serious shaping, but underwear can still make or break a dress. Knickers or tights cutting in at the top so that you have a roll above it? – definitely a no-no on any occasion, but particularly with a body-skimming dress such as a wrap dress. And there’s many a slinky evening dress who’s hang could be dramatically improved either by a basque or a corset underneath to smooth the lines, lift in the right places, and shape in at others. I know its not the MOST comfortable – but if you were after comfort you wouldn’t wear heels either:  Sometimes its worth a little discomfort to look fabulous!

Oh, but I beg you, please no Spanx!!! I firmly believe underwear should be pretty, and those things are designed to kill all passion! If you’re going to wear something uncomfortable it can only be worth it, surely, if it is both functional and beautiful?!

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