The precursor to the bra took on many forms, and the early bra during the Renaissance and Victorian era went to new heights to provide shaping for women to assume the fashionable ideal of beauty. Women during this era donned torturous undergarments every single day for the sake of appearing “fashionable,” and women developed a host of medical problems as a result, including fainting, eating disorders and even fatality as a result of extreme tightlacing. The Clothing Reform Movement and hard work of feminist activists throughout the latter half of the 19th century led to the beginning of hope for women in the Edwardian era.
Less Restrictive Undergarments Emerge
As a result of the hard work of the women in the clothing reform era, less restrictive undergarments began to emerge at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. The emancipation bodice was promoted as a replacement for the corset; it included a tight, sleeveless vest which buttoned up the front, and could support the weight of skirts and petticoats across the entire torso instead of focusing that weight at the waistline. As more women began to throw off the yolks of fashion, new, less restrictive garments began to emerge and women began to enjoy a more active lifestyle in the Edwardian era.
More Active Lifestyles for Women in the Edwardian Era
Women in the Edwardian era were no longer content to sit in the parlor and sew; instead, many women relished the freedom to pursue a more active lifestyle. Many women took up bicycling in the early 1900s, which required freedom of movement and the ability to breathe freely. This interest in sport led to the evolution of undergarments in the Edwardian period, as well as a change in the feminine silhouette as a result of these new styles and fashions.
Example of the Bicycling Suit in the Edwardian Era
Undergarments in the Edwardian Era
In the early Edwardian era, the corset began to get shorter, becoming instead more like a girdle around the waist. A separate upper undergarment evolved to deal with the rest of the feminine attributes, called the Bust Bodice, or BB. Women who did not want this two-piece undergarment system began wearing a one piece undershift, which separated into a camisole and drawers. These garments were designed for coverage, not support, and removed the restrictive influences that women had been suffering under for more than a century.
Women’s silhouettes changed with the new change in undergarments. Without the restrictive tightlacing of the Victorian era corsets, the girdle effect of the new undergarments promoted an indrawn stomach which gave prominence to the bust and posterior. This created an S-shaped silhouette, compared to the old carriage of the Victorian era.
Evening wear still consisted of dresses that displayed the bust prominently, with satire at the time sniping that “The high-water mark of modesty would ebb after sunset some six inches!” Women in this era were enjoying the new freedom of the less restrictive undergarments, and this is the last period during which corsets were the main form of support. This shift in attitude gave way to the rise of the bra as we know it in the early 19th century.