Chapter 6 - 1950s: Dior's New Look, The Merry Widow & padding

After the end of the Second World War, many of the innovative design and textile developments that had started life in the 1930s made a return and hit the mainstream. Underwiring became more common and boning in longline styles was popular, in part due to the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘Corolle’ line in 1947 (more commonly known as the ’New Look’ after after a remark from the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow). The amount of fabric in its full skirts was often reported on – not least because clothing in the UK was restricted by rationing until 1949 and the Utility scheme continued until 1952 – but it was the return to ‘feminine curves’ which influenced underwear construction and design.

Valerie Steele points out that, although Dior’s dresses were boned inside, the vast majority of New Look copies were designed to be worn over foundation garments which cinch the waist and emphasise broad hips and a full uplifted bust. This perky hourglass shape is not achievable to most women without assistance and so many foundation garments offered a solution, with longline styles which nip in the waist or were designed to be worn with cinchers, and structured bras offering added fullness along with uplift.

Padding the breasts, the practice of which was already long established, increased dramatically in the 1950s as the options available to women in the US and the UK were more extensive and technical. This included: padding built into a bra, made from foam rubber, felt or eiderdown; removable pads that slipped inside pockets in the cups; and also separate ‘bust forms’ or ‘falsies’ to be placed inside any brassiere.

Monowire heart padded lace bra by Belligne, c. 1950s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

MONOWIRE HEART PADDING & LACE BRA BY BELLIGNE

Date: c. 1950s

Origin: France

Fabric: Lace and nylon

Brand: Belligne

This luxurious bra incorporates many of the technological innovations of the 1950s, transforming them aesthetically as well as functionally.

The bra cup construction of this garment is most notable. Although it’s a relatively simple cut using only a single dart for shaping, the three layer constuction offers both beautiful design and effective bust shaping. An exterior of scalloped lace and an interior of sheer nylon (which has been roll hemmed with an extremely narrow machined zigzag stitch) sandwich a panel of sturdy nylon padding, that has been carefully and laboriously bound in ribbon with a neat zigzag stitch. The layers have all been topstitched together neatly for extra security. The layering of the sheer lace, black padding and beige tulle give a very graphic affect when worn against the skin.

The bra uses a monowire-style underwire: a 3D structure that curves around the body, rather than the 2D flat underwire used in most modern lingerie. The interior of the garment encases the wire with luxurious velvet ribbon. The cradle and wings of the wire are made of a single layer of nylon, and the seam sandwiches a very narrow steel bone for vertical tension and support. Both underarm and underband seams are taped over on the interior of the garment with nylon bias tape.

Lace And Velvet Trim Longline Bra By Christian Dior, c. 1950s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

LACE AND VELVET TRIM LONGLINE BRA BY CHRISTIAN DIOR

Date: c. 1957

Origin: Designed in Paris, likely made in England by R. & W.H. Symington

Fabric: Lace and nylon

Brand: Christian Dior

This longline bra by Christian Dior is an iconic 1950s lingerie piece, combining both luxurious design with the defining pointed bust line of the era. The ready-to-wear lingerie collections of the late 1950s saw signature design elements such as luxurious laces, lattices of velvet ribbon and velvet linings.  Colourways were either white with sugar pink trimming or plain black.  The collections were extremely high end: the combination of difficult construction and design, French-sourced materials and limited market meant that stock was limited and prices were high. Nevertheless, the collection was a great success. A corselet from the collections was advertised in 1959 as costing £7.19s.6d, approximately £170 in 2016.

Christian Dior was a trailblazer of post-World-War-Two fashion, launching his ‘New Look’ collection in 1947. The previous war years took a very economical approach to fashion, with many restrictions on clothing. Initially the ‘New Look’ was criticised, as it centred around the image of a corseted figure with sloping shoulders, a small waist and long, voluminous skirts. It required specialist foundation garments to achieve, as well as a great deal of fabric at a time of economic shortages. The collection ended up defining an entire era of fashion, with Dior emphasising the importance of foundation-wear to achieve the appropriate silhouette for outerwear.

The license for ready-to-wear Christian Dior lingerie was won by the R. & W.H. Symington factory in 1957. The range’s designs were outlined in Paris, then refined and produced in the Leicestershire-based factory. The range was very exclusive and sold in high-end department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. The collection was launched in September 1957 at the London-based Savoy hotel; although Christian Dior himself was meant to attend the event, he passed away within the month.

Strapless black lace structured bra by Cadolle, c. 1950s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

STRAPLESS BLACK LACE STRUCTURED BRA BY CADOLLE

Date: c. 1950s

Origin: France

Fabric: Leavers lace and bobbinet tulle

Brand: Cadolle

This unusual bra is a highly luxurious example of 1950s foundationwear, incorporating some of the most complex structures used in bras of this period. This longline style incorporates a combination of vertical steel boning throughout to maintain vertical tension, encased in tight satin bone channels. There are underwires around the bottom of the cups and a triangular wire separator, both encased in velvet lined channels. An overwire even extends over the top of the bust, though it doesn’t extend down into the underarm. The cups themselves have steel boning extending both vertically and horizontally encased in satin channels, with padding at the bust point. This padding could potentially be intended to help created the fashionable pointed bust shape that the decade’s fashions demanded, but it likely also prevented the boning from bursting through the seam.

LONGLINE ‘CINCH-BRA’ MERRY WIDOW BY WARNER

Date:  c.1953

Origin: United States

Fabric: Nylon and lace

Brand: Warner

In the late nineteenth century, New York physician Dr Lucien Warner gave up his practice to begin a new career lecturing on women’s health issues, including the effects of the corset. In 1873, he designed a corset that provided the desired fashionable shape along with increased flexibility. The following year, Lucien Warner and his brother founded Warner Brothers Corset Manufacturers. After buying Mary Phelps Jacob’s brassiere patent in 1915, Warner’s went on to introduce lettered cup sizing in the 1930s and released its first line extremely successful of ‘Merry Widow’ foundation garments in 1952.

Named after but not featured in Lana Turner movie The Merry Widow, Warner’s expanded their collection and updated the styles throughout the 1950s. All Warner’s ‘Merry Widow’ corselets and cinch-bras were promoted for their ability to create a fashionable hourglass silhouette. Travel was popular in the 1950s and synthetics were not only easy to look after but also lightweight and so wouldn’t take up much of the newly introduced baggage allowance on flights. The Warner’s ‘Merry Widow’ is a good example of an almost Victorian style of corsetry made using the lightweight materials of the 1950s. Usually constructed from embroidered nylon marquisette or lace and lined with plain nylon marquisette, with nine spiral steel bones for structure and shaping, these garments weigh a fraction of a similar garment made from cotton coutil.

Longline 'Cinch-bra' Merry Widow By Warner, c. 1953 The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017
Spiral Stitch 'Floating Action' bra by Exquisite Form The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

‘FLOATING ACTION’ SPIRAL STITCH BRA BY EXQUISITE FORM

Date:  1952

Origin: United States

Fabric: Nylon

Brand: Exquisite Form

An iconic 1950s bra that was considered extremely innovative for the time period in its unusual construction and technological advancements. The ‘Circl-o-form’ bra used a combination of spiral stitching and partially elasticated strapping to shape and lift the bust, with claims that the cut would give a more comfortable fit.

A 1950s UK magazine advert for Exquisite Form Brassieres illustrates how the complex styles of the post-war period were marketed to consumers using the latest technological developments as a differentiator. The advert features two Exquisite Form bras, which it claims will mould your figure ‘to a new bewitching loveliness’. The CIRCL-O-FORM bra is spiral stitched, available with or without the ‘amazing floating action’ – which, it claims, distributes shoulder strap pressure – and it comes in superfine poplin or nylon, in A, B and C cups. The Equalizer bras are only available for A and B cups but are subtly padded to ‘maintain cup-section fullness’. They also have ‘self-adjusting sections for perfect fit’, although it’s not clear from the advert how this is achieved.

Exquisite Form Advert 1953, The Underpinnings Museum

EXQUISITE FORM ‘CIRCLOFORM FLOATING ACTION’ BRASSIERE ‘EASTER’ ADVERT

Date: November  1953

Brand: Exquisite Form

Exquisite Form 'Circloform Floating Action' Brassiere Advert, The Underpinnings Museum

EXQUISITE FORM ‘CIRCLOFORM FLOATING ACTION’ BRASSIERE ADVERT

Date: November  1952

Brand: Exquisite Form, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal

Technical innovation was extremely popular in brassiere design after the Second World War and patented or unusual features were often used to differentiate brands in their advertising. Exquisite Form launched in New York around 1945 and introduced a bra with patented wiring in 1946, once war-time restrictions on the use of metal had ended.

Their CIRCL-O-FORM bra is spiral stitched, available with or without the ‘amazing floating action’ – which, it claimed, distributes shoulder strap pressure – and, at this time, came in cotton broadcloth, acetate satin, or nylon, in A, B and C cups. They also have ‘self-adjusting sections for perfect fit’, although it’s not clear from the According to this advert, a woman can bend, stretch and twist wearing this bra and it will stay comfortably in place.

Textile and clothing historians Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau reported in their book Uplift: The Bra in America that ‘Exquisite Form was one of the earliest major brassiere companies to advertise in Ebony, a magazine of fashion and social features for African Americans first published in 1945.’

LOW BACK TEAR DROP QUILTED CUP BRA BY CHARNAUX

Date:  1950s

Origin: Germany

Fabric: Nylon

Brand: Charnaux

Like many bras of the 1950s, this example utilises stitching and padding to provide lift and give the fashionable pointed silhouette. Unusually though, it does not use spiral or circle stitching. Instead the stitching is in a ‘loop’ shape, crossing over under the bust for a double layer of stitching and perhaps providing more effective support than the typical spiral stitch. Whilst spiral stitching usually used a specialist machine, the slight inconsistencies in this bra indicate that it was likely freehand sewn on a twin-needle lockstitch

Low Back Tear Drop Quilted Cup Bra By Charnaux, c. 1950s The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017
Red Nylon & Lace Padded Quarter Cup Bra By La Parisienne The Underpinnings Museum shot by Tigz Rice Studios 2017

RED NYLON & LACE PADDED QUARTER CUP BRA BY LA PARIESIENNE

Date: c. 1950s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Nylon and lace

Brand: La Parisienne

This bra incorporates light padding and a low, quarter cup cut. Although it would give a lifted bust silhouette, it would have retained the pointed shape that was so popular in the 1950s due to the uncovered nipples. Although low cupped bras such as this were on occasion worn for this silhouette, the colour and construction of this piece suggests it was intended for boudoir wear more than anything.

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The Underpinnings Museum 1920-50s Bra Pattern Pack: 3 patterns for £25