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What DO flappers wear underneath?

Never underestimate the power of good lingerie on a bad day...

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s with a few of the notes I put together for something I wrote in the Fashion section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Folks are beginning to call this decade the Roaring Twenties. There’s a lot going on that you can see in the fashions that us dames are wearing. It’s been especially difficult for the former beauties of the Edwardian era with their generous curves and well-rounded figures. Instead, the slim, flat-chested silhouette has become all the rage with flappers and women who want a modern look.

And it happened fast, like a lot of things in the Twenties. One day there were bustles, corsets, and crinolines and the next day it was drop waists, bandeau bras, and bare knees. Yowzers!

Beautiful begins underneath

Only unconfined flappers can run, dance, and drive cars in comfort. Fast flappers are tossing their girdles into the closet, rolling their stockings to their knees, and hitting the dance floor. Many nightclubs have “corset check rooms” where girls who had to leave home wearing a corset can remove it during the dance. Talk about convenient! I remember trying to wiggle out of mine in the backseat of my girlfriend’s car. Not easy, let me tell you!

Corsets

Of course, not everybody was happy about the new look. Rejection of the stiff tailoring of earlier styles has made corset sales plummet. Between 1920 and 1928 corset sales declined by two thirds, but the industry has adapted to changing needs.  They came out with these long corsets to produce that boyish figure; but instead of thickly boned corsets, many women prefer thin elastic webbing that flattens the abdomen.

Wearing a corset certainly changes your state of mind.
Corsets squish flesh into a tubular shape, all the way from under the bust down over the hip. A heavy duty corset that “has a lot of work to do’ (wink, if you know what I mean) has a girdle on the inside and a longer corset on the outside. If you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll recognize the slow, stiff gliding motion of women as they walk wearing long corsets. And take it from me, none of those dames will be doing the Charleston anytime soon.

Bras

The function of the brassiere throughout most of the Twenties is to flatten, not enhance, the breasts. Bust flattening garments are usually made from cotton, do not have cups, and are worn tight against the body.

If your cup is only half full, you probably need a different bra.

For young ladies with youthful figures, a satisfactory bra is the four sectioned lace bandeau bra, lined in net.  A buxom woman’s bandeau is made of heavier twill cotton or brocade and had longer lengths.

Many women wear the Symington Side Lacer, a bra that can be laced at both sides and pulled in to flatten the chest. None of the bras give much shape, but most ladies don’t care about cleavage, they’re just wanting to stop the bust from wobbling. As long as they looked boyish they looked fashionable.

It’s no surprise that strapping the “girls” down has some negative effects. Many women who have worn the tight binding for a while say their breasts never came back to their previous perky life. As the decade comes to an end, more women are beginning to wear bras with cups that are designed to lift and separate

Step-ins knickers, and slips

Sherilyn says that what she would simply call underwear or panties today are called knickers or bloomers in the Twenties. Because the dresses are unstructured, underwear now is minimal, sheer and lightweight. The material is lighter and less bulky with crepe de chine being very popular, along with silk and cotton.

Knickers typically have an elastic waist and kneecaps. They come in nude, peach, and pink colors. (Although I have a scarlet red pair, but don’t tell my mother!) The cami-knickers / cami-bloomers, combining the camisole and knickers, are popular with women who like all-in-one undergarments.

Woven cotton or silk bloomers, drawers, and french panties are baggier and longer than knickers, falling to the knee or perhaps just above. Drawers and bloomers are basically the same with the primary difference being that drawers have a wide leg opening and bloomers have an elastic leg opening.

Of course, neither of these options are good for the iconic 20s beaded dress so in that case, a silk step-in chemise is the best option. Step-ins have pointed waist yokes that are cut on the straight of fabric while the side pieces were cut on the bias allowing the fabric to fall in graceful fluted folds. They are about as far away from a corset as you can get, complete with a button or snap crotch and are intended to be worn next to the skin.

For winter these light chemise or step-ins are too light. Cotton or wool union suits (long johns) are still worn, however, the legs and arms are cut shorter to accommodate shorter hem and sleeve lengths. They still have back flaps buttoned or snapped into place.

Slips are a necessity under sheer dresses. Many dresses come with matching slips that prevent light from being visible through the see-through fabric of the dress. These shadow proof slips fall straight on the body but have additional pleats at the hips for ease of movement. They have low “opera” necklines meaning square with pretty ribbon or lace straps. The slippery material is good for keeping the dress form clinging to the body but bad for the straps staying in place. Clips or pins on the inside fasten the slip to the dress.

Petticoats that fell to the calf were worn about ten years ago, but as hemlines rise, women have stopped wearing the petticoat. The petticoat is making a bit of a comeback now, as it is becoming fashionable to wear more than one under a chiffon dress.

Slips and petticoats are never supposed to show below the dress hemline. If you see your friend with an exposed undergarment you might say “Hey, it’s snowing down south” and she will quickly run off to fix it.

Stockings

In the Roaring Twenties, there is a lot more skin showing. The arms are bared not only for evening but also for day and the legs are covered in beige stockings visible to the knee which gave an overall more naked look than ever before. As hems rise, the legs are suddenly and shockingly on display.

Remember how fast all this is happening. My granny’s skirts dusted the floor and mine are at my knee. Lucky Grandpa to have such a view in his lifetime!

Suspenders are attached to girdles to hold up the stockings. Silk and rayon stockings hook onto long ‘girdles’ with snap on garters. Stockings come in shades of colors that gave the appearance of bare legs. Flappers roll their stockings to just below the knee for ease of movement while dancing.

Until the end of World War I, women always wore black wool stockings. Feet, ankles, and calves formerly hidden and encased in black stocking were suddenly on show. The fashion for wearing black stockings continued until 1918. But by the 1920s, stockings with patterns were hot fashion items. Embroidery snaked around the ankles and up to the knees.

Stockings or hosiery was made in either silk or artificial silk known as art silk later called rayon.  The rayon stockings were very shiny so girls powdered their legs to dull them before venturing out.

Ladies Underwear Show in 1929 – YouTube

Ladies Underwear Show in 1929 – YouTube

(to watch this rare vintage footage, click on the link beneath the black box)

2 Comments

  1. Viktor Zavadsky says:

    the term “Roaring Twenties” was in use while the twenties were still roaring – it’s NOT a recent appellation – in fact, a major motion picture from 1939 is titled “The Roaring Twenties”…

    1. Hi Viktor- thanks for leaving a comment. You’ll notice the present tense that the blogs are written in. That’s because I use an imaginary character called Bette Hardwick as the voice of the blogs. (You can click on her name in the blog to get her story). It’s tricky sometimes because she’s “in” the 1920s, so when she means “now” she’s actually talking about the 1920s. You’re absolutely right about the term coming into use in the 1930s, and even before that. Hope you read more…. Sherilyn

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