As with other areas of life, women today have more undergarment choices than ever before in history. Take a look back with us, and see how we got here.
How long has "plus size lingerie" been going on? Try the second millennium B.C., when the women of Crete wore a simple corset that supported their breasts at the base, then thrust them up and outward, boldly naked.
It was definitely a strong fashion statement by a society who worshipped a host of female divinities.
Things were a little more mild in the Middle Ages. Small, firm breasts were back in style, and women wore a multitude of corset-like variations - the cotte, the bliaunt, the surcot - which slipped on over their dresses and hugged the breasts tightly. (Lest anyone overlook this smaller bust, one fashion fad was the wearing of small bells along the neckline - surely the only jingling breasts in history!)
Toward the end of the Renaissance, Spain (the dominant empire of the time) set a more serious standard for fashion as an upholder of virtue. The padded silhouette came into being, with a flat stomach, narrow waist, and cone-shaped bust. The corset became a virtual straitjacket, molding women's bodies into unnatural shapes, compressing their internal organs, and frequently causing their ribs to overlap one another. What was often called "a fit of the vapors" - a symbol of feminine weakness - was actually the result of too much pressure applied to the stomach and solar plexus, causing women to faint at the drop of a hat.
In the eighteenth century, life lightened up a bit and the elegant society of the salons was ruled by women. Their bodies were still ruled by the corset, which achieved an artistry never seen before in undergarments. Lavish use of damask, satin or brocaded silk, embellished with embroidery, ribbons and exquisite laces, disguised the rigid structure of whalebone within.
Corsets of the day compressed breasts from below to make them bulge upward, looking as though they were ready to pop out. They also served to separate the aristocracy from the commoners, who wore a simple front-lacing cotte.
In the 1770s, revolution was in the air and a crusade was launched against the corset, with doctors, philosophers, writers and naturalists agitating for the abolishment of this "body press." Boned corsets were specifically prohibited, as clothing became simpler and more practical.
Yet, the idea that the body needed firm support was so deeply entrenched that corsets soon reappeared. In the early 1800s, the fashion was for wide-set breasts, which were achieved by a complex system of boning, invented by the corset-maker Leroy and known as "divorces." Other technical changes came to the corset: styles were woven without seams for greater smoothness; metal eyelets replaced the weaker embroidered ones; and "Instant Release" and "lazy lacing" systems of pulleys allowed women to lace and unlace themselves.
By the 1840s, women's figures were completed exaggerated: huge full sleeves, a miniscule corseted waist, followed by whalebone hoops and crinolines covered with yards and yards of fabric, flounces and trims. A waist that could be encircled by a man's two hands was held up as the model to emulate, and women laced themselves tighter than ever.
Medical records note one fashionable young woman who died when three of her ribs actually pierced her liver.
In the late 1800s, the crinoline vanished but the corset stayed, now accompanied by a bustle in back, for a distinctive S-shaped silhouette. The projecting "bustle" effect was first achieved with a horsehair pad, and then with a metal frame that meant a woman could only sit with the very tip of her bottom on the very edge of the chair.
In the 1900s, the corset reached new heights. Models became more numerous and more specialized. There were corsets for morning (lightly boned), bathing at the seaside (unboned), horseback riding (elasticized at the hips), riding a velocipede (made of jersey), and much more. Some corsets came with their own perfumed sachet hanging in the center. Others were crafted of white satin, especially for wearing to a ball.
As the century progressed, medical opinions became sharply divided on the corset. On the one hand were the doctors who saw the corset as an instrument of torture, deforming the body and internal organs. On the other hand, the majority still believed that corsets provided valuable support to the breasts, and kept the internal organs safely inside the body.
By the end of the 19th century, women were so tightly corseted that they could not bend over. And the corset itself was hung with a combined system of garters and suspenders to hold up the stockings - a system as complicated, some said, as rigging a ship. The idea of the "artificial breast" was introduced. Designed to be worn in a corset, these were made of chamois leather, quilted satin, India rubber - one style could even be inflated at will!
As the 20th century dawned, women continued to wear corsets - now lacing down to the knee - but the tide of public opinion was turning against them. Popular dancers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller reintroduced the ancient Greek idea of formless, free-flowing clothes - and no pinched waists. Couturier Madeleine Vionnet banished the corset and cut her dresses on the bias to provide more freedom of movement. And in 1913, a young woman names Mary Phelps Jacob invented a new type of bra - very soft, short, and designed to divide the breasts in a natural way. Eventually she sold her patent to the Warner Company, and the rest is history.
World War I assured the end of the corset as an everyday undergarment. While the men were fighting at the front, women were on the homefront, laboring in factories, working in the fields. Corsets were abandoned in favor of a shorter and more pliable girdle, coupled with the modern bra. And as the Roaring Twenties swept in, American women led the way with their breast-minimizing bras, loose chemises, and other promoters of the new "flat chest."
Technology continued to affect women's plus size lingerie. One leader was Dunlop, better known today as a rubber tire manufacturer. In the 1930s, the Dunlop company invented a combination of latex rubber and ammonia that they called Lastex, an elastic yarn finer than any ever achieved. Lastex was woven into new stretchy support garments like the Roll-on, which simply slipped on the body like a sock. plus size lingerie manufacturers also began making their items to accommodate women's different shapes and sizes, for the first time offering better-fitting underwear in a greater range of sizes. Bras were developed with fitted cups, sizes A to D, and elastic straps, and variations were created with padded cups and underwires to enhance the breasts.
In the 1950s, bras and girdles were used to exaggerate the feminine form, much as corsets had for centuries before. Missile-solo breasts were obtained by wearing constructed bras with circular top-stitching. Millionaire Howard Hughes even got into the act, when he designed an aerodynamic bra reinforced with wiring for Jane Russell, who played the female lead in his movie The Outlaw. Warner developed a "Merry Widow" in 1951, a combination of elasticized satin girdle and wired bra that was designed to go beneath evening wear.
A backlash followed in the Sixties, as feminists set fire to their bras -- a fiery symbol of their new emancipation. The fashion for going braless would result in many plus size lingerie manufacturers going out of business. But the pendulum soon swung back, helped in large part by those women whose breasts were simply too big to be comfortable for long without a bra. By the 1980s, the rounded breast and well-padded bosom were back with a bang, and wired bras became number one in sales.
Today, women are enticed by a dazzling array of plus size lingerie styles, colors, and textures. If a woman wants to enhance her silhouette, she can easily do so, without having to endure the tortures of ages past. The new seamless support garments mold the figure gently but firmly, in revolutionary new blends of breathable fabric. Bras can be found with or without padding, and the new ultra-padded bras can create amazing cleavage effects for special occasions. Yet above all, plus size lingerie today is fun. It's a personal pleasure, a way to pamper yourself and indulge your romantic nature.