Beneath It All: '50s and '60s Underwear
by Pat Jacobs
After World War II, lingerie designers celebrated their liberation from
wartime restrictions with a lavish use of color, sheer fabrics, and lace
(In the 1950s, printed and colored underwear were successfully marketed. New fabrics like
Dacron and nylon debuted. There was increased use of rayon.)
Women missed and wanted glamour again that had been deprived in the war; enter the conical bra, the height
of 1950s underwear fashion.
The Bullet Bra (featuring exaggerated pointing or cone-shaped cups) and Push-Up Bra (by Frederick's Of
Hollywood) all debuted during this decade. Women now appeared to have breasts that almost reached
Panties became more colorful and decorative.
Hollywood and the movies also influenced undies: "Sweater girl" Lana Turner's bras helped to make her
an anatomical wonder (Legend has it that Jane Russell's bras were designed by Howard Hughes) and the
T-shirt (Named because of its shape and design) became popular.
T-shirts were previously worn as strictly
underwear, but Marlon Brando ("A Streetcar Named Desire", 1951) and James Dean ("Rebel Without A
Cause", 1955) remade this item into an icon of cool (for men only at this time).
As the '50s went on, Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat On A
Hot Tin Roof" (1958) made a fashion statement (and
probably scandal) wearing a custom-made slip through
most of that movie.
Slips were also featured in "Psycho" (1960) with
Janet Leigh in a white bra and slip, than later as a
decamping embezzler in a black ensemble.
Frederick's Of Hollywood and Maidenform became
nationally prominent during this decade. Frederick's
was created by Frederick Mellinger (he claimed to have
invented the first push-up bra) in 1946.
He started out with a racy catalog which quickly
became popular, then branched out into a chain of more
than 175 stores. You could say that Frederick's was
the Victoria's Secret of its day.
For two decades (1949-1969) Maidenform had one of
the most successful advertising campaigns ever. They
converted everyone's worst nightmare-appearing
undressed in public-into an effective way to sell
The ads featured models in everyday or fantastic
situations, elaborately costumed but wearing only a
Maidenform bra above the waist, with the slogan "I
Dreamed I (whatever action the ad conveyed was
inserted here) In My Maidenform Bra". For example, "I
Dreamed I Painted The Town Red In My Maidenform Bra".
A typical late '50s underwear ensemble might
consist of a very structured pointed bra to give
definition for fitted bodices, while sheer petticoats
long and short were layered to add buoyancy to full
The year 1959 would see some innovations that would
carry over well into the sixties and beyond.
Mesh stockings (or hose), which previously would
have been worn only on stage or for seduction
purposes, began its way into the mainstream.
Women's involvement in active sports (and dance)
also contributed to female undrwear change (pun fully
intended), but not quietly.
In 1955 Italian tennis player Lea Pericol revealed
lacy panties during her game that caused a sensation
at Wimbledon. In 1959, another tennis player,
"Gorgeous Gussie" Moran's one-piece tennis dress with
lace-trimmed underpants made headlines worldwide.
As the new decade dawned from 1960 to 1963, men had
a new underwear option: briefs and boxer shorts could
now be bought with bold patterns or with images on
them (Except for this and a wider array of colors
available, men's underwear basically remained the
However, Ringer T-shirts (the collar and sleeve
ends are of a different or contrasting color than the
shirt itself. Introduced in mid-decade, this took
hold in the late '60s. Tie-dye and screen printing
T-shirts were also in demand.) became popular among
the youth and rock sub-culture.
For women, the bosom was still the main fashion
focus: Bras, due to newer, lighter material (Lycra)
became prettier, easier to wash, and more wearable.
In 1961, the Model 1300 plunge push-up bra debuted.
This was the forrunner of the Wonderbra (made by the
A typical early-mid '60s underwear ensemble were a
softer, lighter bra and panty girdle. But even with
this vast improvement, more changes were underway.
By mid-decade, fashion went through a complete
revolution like everything else, it seemed.
Innovations such as panty hose (seamless debuted
in 1965 and in 1967 strong colors were considered
cutting edge; hosiery was still usually flesh-toned)
and mini-skirts made the girdle obsolete to a new
generation of women.
A few designers, such as Yves St. Laurent and Rudi
Gernreich put out sheer blouses without bras, or a
"no-bra bra" (this had molded nylon cups with a narrow
elastic band that encircled the rib cage), but these
were impractical for most women. (Inspired by
Gernreich's creation, Warners developed the body
stocking in 1964 or '65. Acounts vary.)
Smaller panties, like hip-huggers and bikinis,
Ankle-to-shoulder underwear for slacks and tights
debuted in '65.
By 1967, underwear no longer hid the body shape,
instead revealing and controlling it. Bras were wire
and padding-free (if you were wearing the newest ones;
Many women stayed with what they were used to.)
The Wonderbra debuted in 1968 (It made a 34 cup
look 36) and was a huge hit, as were bra slips.
It was also the era of protest. Some women
stopped wearing bras or underwear, period. It became
fashionable in some circles, perhaps in response to
the hippie movement.
But most didn't, because most NEEDED their
(Small-breasted women could go braless
and still look decent, but if you were a size 38 or 40
D, come on now!).
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