Silken Petals - Flowers, Femininity & Lingerie. The Underpinnings Museum

This exhibition is split into chapters, which can either be navigated page by page or through your area of interest with a full list of links at the bottom of each page. Clicking on images will take you to their dedicated object page, where you can learn about the individual piece in detail.

Curation and commentary by Caroline Elenowitz-Hess

All photography by Tigz Rice Studios unless otherwise credited

Object descriptions by Karolina Laskowska

Chapter 1: Introduction

The history of lingerie, femininity and flowers have long been intertwined in history and myth. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, the very first clothing comes from a plant: the fig leaf, worn by Adam and Eve after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and grew newly ashamed of their nakedness. What we call underpinnings, underwear or lingerie is probably the closest descendant of this mythical garment of both knowledge and shame.

Die Cut Corset Trade Card By Dr Warner's, c. 1890s, Great Britain. The Underpinnings Museum

Die Cut Corset Trade Card By Dr Warner's

Date: c. 1890s

Origin: Great Britain

Brand: Warner


A trade card produced to advertise the Warner range of corsets, as stocked by retailer Morrison & Brown, based in Great Britain. The card has a centre fold, and is die cut to follow the curves of the illustrated corset. These advertising materials became highly collectible, with many corset brands releasing variations of trade cards.

Silk Ribbonwork & Lace Garters By Simone

Date: c. 1926

Origin: United States

Fabric: Silk ribbon, leavers lace

Brand: Simone


These lavish garters incorporate a base of silk ribbon encased elastic with a delicate leavers lace trim, with delicate silk ribbonwork rosettes as a focal point. Curiously, the patent printed on the original packaging of these garters refers to the packaging itself rather than the garments; the special cut of the cardboard backing was a patented method of packaging garters.

Silk Ribbonwork Garters By Simone, c. 1926, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice
Floral Silk Appliqué Kestos Style Bra By Maryvon, c. 1930s, France. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Floral Silk Appliqué Kestos Style Bra By Maryvon

Date: c. 1930s

Origin: France

Fabric: Cotton bobbinet, silk satin

Brand: Maryvon


This bra is a luxurious and detailed interpretation of the ‘Kestos’ bra style. The base of cotton bobbinet tulle is lavishly embellished with floral and botanical motifs, appliquéd in silk satin. The shoulder straps are crafted from silk satin, and the wraparound underbust strapping uses a knitted buttonhole elastic, attaching to the main bra with delicate mother-of-pearl buttons. The button plackets at the underbust are made from silk-velvet. A channel at the interior centre front of the bra encases a draw string, allowing the wearer to ruche this area according to their preference. The bra is stitched with a mix of machinery and delicate hand work.

In the modern era, flowers rather than fig leaves appear as some of the most commonly used motifs associated with lingerie and femininity. Woven into this imagery is the long history of associations between women, flowers, beauty, and dress. Despite the popularity of books demystifying the ‘language of flowers’ in the 19th century, there has been no fixed, universal meaning, but a wealth of subtexts. One of the most popular flowers in art and poetry, the rose, embodies contradictory connotations, as the signature flower of both Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Virgin Mary, representing eroticism and chastity respectively. 

'I Dreamed I Had Spring Fever' Advertisement By Maidenform, c. 1956, Great Britain. The Underpinnings Museum

'I Dreamed I Had Spring Fever' Advertisement By Maidenform

Date: c. 1956

Origin: Great Britain

Brand: Maidenform


An advertisement for the ‘Maidenette’ line of bras. The model is shown reclining in a field of flowers, with the product prominently on display. The ‘I dreamed…’ series of Maidenform advertisements was conceived in 1949, and were so wildly successful that they ran until 1969. They depicted models in a range of mundane and fantastical situations, from everyday shopping to hunting tigers.

Maidenform was founded in the USA as a women’s underwear manufacturer in 1922. The brand was started by seamstress Ida Rosenthal, her husband William, and Enid Bissett, the owner of the shop that employed Ida. The brand initially specialised in supportive bras and foundationwear that accentuated the natural shape, rather than the compression bandeau that was the fashion of the period. The patent for this particular bra was filed by William Rosenthal.

Novelty Fig Leaf Pastie & Merkin Gift Set

Date: c. 1962

Origin: United States

Fabric: Plastic and wire

Brand: The Leister Game Co.


A novelty gift set comprising of plastic and wire pasties and a merkin in the style of figleaves. It’s unlikely these were ever intended to actually be worn on the body, as the paper leaves are flimsy and the attached wire stalks relatively sharp.

The printed text on the outer cover of the gift box states ‘For Milady who never has anything New to wear/by Adam …gifted designer with a sublime understanding of feminine charms’, with the text accompanied by the illustration of a fully clothed woman. The interior box mirrors this image, with the clothing now removed and replaced with illustrated figleaves. The accompanying text on the box interior is framed by illustrations of apples and includes the phrases: ‘Easy to clean… needs little or no ironing’, ‘You can dance all night in your Adam original’ and ‘Have fun in this exciting Adam creation’. The biblical allusions in the branding are clear  (the designer’s name ‘Adam’ and the figleaf motif), and are clearly intended humorously.

Novelty Fig Leaf Pastie & Merkin Gift Set, 1962, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

These dualities, or even paradoxes, make flowers an ideal image to pair with women’s undergarments, themselves often meant simultaneously to protect and expose the body underneath. Although floral imagery and undergarments have existed in different forms throughout millennia, the 19th century saw an increase of both the manufacturing and advertising of lingerie making it a perfect atmosphere for the profusion of underpinnings using floral-inspired fabrics. The 20th century only saw an increase in the variety of flower details, shapes, and imagery, either promoting or subverting the expectations of the associations with delicate, decorative, or demure femininity.

'Rendez-Vous' Silk & Lace Bralet & Short by Chantal Thomass, 2014, France. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

'Rendez-Vous' Silk & Lace Bralet & Short by Chantal Thomass

Date: 2014

Origin: France

Fabric: Silk and leavers lace

Brand: Chantal Thomass


The ‘Rendez-Vous’ collection drew inspiration directly from 1930s lingerie detailing. This bra in particular is a very close replica of the original ‘Kestos’ style bra, with the same triangle cup shape and elastic strapping configuration. The knickers are a much more modern cut but still include nods to 1930s style lingerie and construction, including lace appliqué, gusseted and bifurcated patterning, narrow silk binding and ribbonwork embellishment. Both garments include contemporary construction techniques and fabrics, such as bartack stitching, lycra blend silk and nylon lining.

Chantal Thomass founded her eponymous lingerie label in 1975 and quickly became renowned for her flirtatious aesthetic and commitment to luxurious fabrics. In 1985 it was financed by Japanese group World, leading to an expansion into licensed lines of clothing, shoes, watches, scarves and swimwear amongst others, alongside lingerie. The label retained popularity and its trend setting reputation until 1995, when Thomass was made redundant by partner World. A year later the company went bankrupt and liquidated its assets. Thomass eventually reacquired the rights to her own name in 1998 and reentered the lingerie market in 1999.

Today, Chantal Thomass is one of the best known contemporary French luxury lingerie brands. The products have a strong market presence worldwide with a wealth of boutique and department store stockists, and a flagship boutique on the Rue St. Honoré in Paris. Alongside the lingerie, the brand also has ranges of umbrellas, hosiery and other accessories.

Pale Pink Habotai Silk & Filet Lace Bed Jacket, c. 1920s, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice

Pale Pink Habotai Silk & Filet Lace Bed Jacket

Date: c. 1920s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Habotai silk, cotton filet lace

Brand: Unknown


The bedjacket is a short cut jacket style designed to be worn whilst reclining or sitting in bed. Early examples can be dated to the 19th century, but the style was popularised in the 1930s after it appeared heavily in Hollywood films, quickly gaining an association of glamour and luxury. Bed jackets became more of a decorative lingerie style, as opposed to purely being worn for warmth. Fabrics such as lace, tulle and satin became popular, alongside extravagant embllishments such as feathers, embroidery and appliqué.

This jacket is a relatively lightweight version of the style, made of just a single layer of silk habotai, with insertion filet lace appliqué and trim. There is some decorative gathering at the bustline overlaid with ribbonwork rosettes, and the garment fastens at the bust with a silk ribbon tie. Gathers at the centre back are worked into with faggoting embroidery. The garment is cut incredibly simply, with the fabric panels essentially cut as rectangles; the gathered details at the bust and back serve to give the jacket a semblance of fitted shape. The rectangular and unfitted sleeves are stitched in place at the underarm with silk rosettes.

Silk Georgette Ribbon Girdle With Button Fastenings And Lacing, c. 1920s, France. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography By Tigz Rice.

Silk Georgette Ribbon Girdle With Button Fastenings And Lacing

Date: c. 1920s

Origin: France

Fabric: Silk georgette

Brand: Unknown


A luxurious girdle crafted from silk georgette. It is largely machine stitched.  One inch wide strips of silk are interwoven in a basket weave to form the body of the garment. The garment closes with buttons at the left princess seam in the front, and silk ribbon lacing through metal eyelets at the centre back. Loops are formed with the silk strips to form the button holes. There are are four suspender straps, crafted from silk georgette encased elastic straps with metal garter grips. Silk georgette ribbon flashes are further embellished with silk rosettes. The silk rosette trim is used as embellishment throughout the garment: trimming the underbust edge, and as accents to the bottom of each ribbon edge and suspender point. Such silk rosette trims were originally produced as continuous lengths, and it was common to see these cut into shorter pieces as embellishment work.

Dress reform movement of the previous decades led to manufacturers having to change their corsetry styles in the 1920s. Of course, corsetry was still popular but it came in a variety of styles, lengths, and weights to aid the individual in achieving the ideal straight, flat figure of the period. This particular piece was probably intended to be an occasional wear garment (and meant to be seen, rather than an everyday foundation garment). The garment appears to be unworn and is in remarkable condition for its age, with only some minor fraying visible in the rose trims. It is an excellent example of the lighter, more flexible types of fabric that were used to allow for freedom of movement in the many new physical activities that women were able to indulge in.

This exhibition traces the history of flowers, femininity and lingerie through objects, from 18th century whalebone stays to a 1920s embellished teddy to contemporary floral bras and corsets. These myriad examples demonstrate the importance of floral imagery to the history of lingerie, tied to conceptions of womanhood, youth, and ideal beauty.



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