Victoria's Secret catalog, circa 1979.
Purveyor of mildly provocative underthings Victoria’s Secret announced last month that it would no longer print its iconic catalog—you know, the one that’s been piling up on America’s coffee tables and bookshelves since 1977. The change is just the latest reminder that what society deems sexy in the world of undergarments is never set in stone—or silk, in this case. To bid the catalog Angels a fond farewell, we busted out some other flirty (and often faint-inducing) favorites of yesteryear.
With its chamber pots and various horrific diseases, the Medieval era probably never struck anyone as particularly sexy. But archaeologists digging in Austria in 2008 discovered a few clues as to the type of garments ladies were hiding underneath their dresses. Linen fragments that look a little like modern bras were uncovered, which seemed to be “breastbags,” a pretty straightforward name for a piece of clothing that both supported the bust and could at times be tightened to either enhance or flatten the chest.
2. OPEN-CROTCH DRAWERS
Imagine the feeling of going commando, even if you were technically wearing drawers. Or at least, pseudo-commando underneath layers upon layers of petticoats, stays, and other garments. Panties are actually a relatively new invention. Before the late 1800s, ladies’ drawers had two separate legs with an opening between them.
3. CLOSED-CROTCH KNICKERS
Because men were the only ones who wore closed-crotch underwear up to that point, it was pretty scandalous when women started incorporating the style in the 1870s and '80s (the idea being that women wanted you to see their fancy new underwear). The voluminous precursor to modern day panties was born.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1860. Getty
Queen Victoria’s secret may have been the sexy (for the day) undergarments she kept tucked under her royal dresses. The idea that underwear could be sexy as well as practical really took hold around the time the influential ruler was on the throne, as women were just beginning to view themselves as more sexual beings and Paris Impressionists were shocking polite society with their paintings of mistresses and friends in their skivvies. (This, of course, is in contrast to the buttoned-up image Victorians are often associated with. It was a complicated time.) Naturally, even the queen couldn’t resist the tempting trend. According to a piece in Home Journal magazine at the time, Victoria nabbed a red petticoat to “reawaken the dormant conjugal susceptibility of Prince Albert.” It must have worked—they had nine children together.
5. THE S-CURVE CORSET
Long before women were squishing themselves into Spanx, corsets were molding female bodies into whatever was deemed the ideal shape at the time—without the help of today’s super-stretch elastic. Around 1900, that enviable form was an S: breasts forward, arched chest, accentuated hips. While the Edwardian S-curve corset would become notorious for forcing the spine into an unnatural state, it was actually an improvement on the faint-tastic Victorian corset. One 1902 magazine described this new corset as "[not only giving] more room for the digestive organs, but the breathing apparatus is freer and permits the lungs to be inflated properly."
6. BANDEAU BRAS
Unlike their Victorian forebears who used an extra-curvy silhouette to rev their beaus' buggies, women in the 1920s opted for a straight, boyish figure to complement their freewheeling Flapper ways. That meant looser-fitting dresses, shorter hemlines, and flattening bosoms with bandeau-style bra bands instead of emphasizing them.
7. THE CONE BRA
Jayne Mansfield, circa 1955. Getty
Bombshells Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe launched a cup-shape craze in the 1950s. Legend has it director Howard Hughes developed a torpedo-shaped bra to accommodate Jane Russell’s bust for his 1943 movie The Outlaw (though Russell claimed she refused to wear it, opting for one she fashioned herself), and though the look broke the era's decency codes, the military-inspired garment seriously caught on in the years that followed. The fierce fashion has enjoyed more than one renaissance since—perhaps most notably when Madonna donned a set of cones designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in 1990.
8. THE NO-BRA
In the early 1960s, designer Rudi Gernreich launched the lightweight, wireless No-Bra. The minimalist design was fitting for the changing times: Women were pushing back against the buttoned-up prudishness of the 1950s and embracing a more natural, budding-feminism-friendly aesthetic in the undergarment department, if they even wore bras at all. (No wonder they called it the Swinging Sixties.)
Women in the 1980s took their cues from Jane Fonda aerobics videos and Cher concerts and made high-cut bodysuits a thing. The suggestive style made legs look longer and embraced the era’s shift away from basic “granny panties” and toward more fashionable everyday underwear. Victoria’s Secret seized the same empowered moment, and around this time, the company shifted its focus from marketing toward husbands and lovers to marketing toward its female customers who wanted to wear sexier undergarments each day. And though the styles come and go, Victoria's Secret's popularity has not: The company is responsible for 40 percent of the intimate apparel market, and even if the bi-weekly catalogs are no longer collecting in America's mailboxes, we'll always have the fashion shows and semi-annual sales to help stay abreast of the latest lingerie fads.