Advertising for Undergarments (1890s-1920s)

The time around the turn of the 20th century was filled with cultural, social, and technological change. During this period, new technology directed production to large-scale manufacturing. Seeking to self promote, manufacturers branded their products, naturally leading to a need for sales promotion and consequent proliferation of advertising. Increasing production and markets led to tight competition within industries, further highlighting the importance of advertising to differentiate the brand. In the span of 20 years after the turn of the century, the advertising industry grew from $540 million to just under $3 billion (Ad Age). The wealth and capital poured in advertising allowed advertisers to invest in great illustrators to create engaging images for their ads.

Among target audiences, women were greatly appealed to by advertisers as they made up the largest consumer group, making up to 85% of total purchases (Ad Age). The Progressive Movement was also in full force, shifting societal roles and perceptions of the time. While these changes affected all members of society, the role of women progressed the most during this period. Much of advertising followed the culture of progressive female character. It strived to begin showing more and more women in context of their hobbies and even work, despite the fact that women in the workforce were still a small growing population. This message across print media and shared throughout the country began normalizing the idea of the woman in the workforce and encouraged women to pursue their own self discovery. Specifically applied to the undergarment industry, this drastic shift was both reflected and perpetuated in women’s undergarment fashion and the visual language and message of its advertising.

Looking into the undergarment industry, we will focus on mainly hosiery and corsets, two industries that took on major changes entering the 20th century. During the time, corsets and hosiery existed in women’s wardrobe as commonly as the modern day bra. While the bra was in existence by the end of the 19th century, it was not adopted until after 1920 (Bruna, 213). Print advertising for these two industries were well described by the illustrators Coles Phillips and the Reese’s.

At the forefront of the Golden Age of Illustration, Coles Phillips was know for the “fadeaway girl” style. He worked closely with Good Housekeeping to produce many cover pieces. Phillips also worked with brands like Luxite and Holeproof Hosiery as well and auto and silverware companies to produce ads.

Coles Phillips, print ad for Luxite Hosiery

His ads were beautiful and his figures show a certain personality and elegance by gazing towards themselves instead of the reader or a male character. Their loose and flowing clothing indicate the freedom of the female body and his drawn garments compliment the figure’s form.

Coles Phillips, print ad for Holeproof Hosiery

Coles Phillips, print ad for Luxite Hosiery

Coles Phillips, print ad for Holeproof Hosiery (1924)


















Walter and Emily Shaw Reese were also prolific illustrators in the advertising industry. Together, they worked for 20 years in the scene (Dowd). Their work for Wolfhead Undergarments and Spencer corsets indicated an understanding of the social implications of corseting. Because corseting was the norm, many women feared the sagging and aging possibilities of removing the corset, even after health came into discussion. The visual interaction and copy of their advertising interacted smoothly to appeal to the fears and youthful beauty standards in using a corset.

The Reese’s, print ad for Spencer Corsets, Ladies’ Home Journal (1920)

The Reese’s, print ad for Spencer Corsets, Ladies’ Home Journal (1920)

The Reese’s, print ad for Spencer Corsets, Ladies’ Home Journal (1920)

The Reese’s, print ad for Warner Corsetting, Ladies’ Home Journal

The Reese’s, print ad for Wolfhead Undergarments, Ladies’ Home Journal (March 1920)

The Reese’s, print ad for Wolfhead Undergarments

Though concepts of hosiery and corsets had existed since the 16th century, and even earlier, up until the late 19th century these products were mainly made domestically or hand made in home industries (De Haan, 16). In 1898, German immigrants F. Thun and H. Janssen began producing the first American made machinery. Their business, Textile Machine Works, produced their first machine for hosiery in 1903 and went on to produce a total of 100 machines by 1913 (De Haan, 50). From the year 1899 to 1909, hosiery production more than doubled from 29.9 mil to 62.8 mil dozen pairs (De Haan, 19). Manufacturers of the time took advantage of the demand for stock to push their personal brand names. The number of hosiery brands rose from a total of 6 in 1900 to over 250 in the fifties (De Haan, 61). Consumers perpetuated brand success by requesting brand name hosiery to ascertain quality products from those lesser quality hosieries that also flooded the market at this time. Advertising in the hosiery industry could appeal to simply brand recognition and creating a national brand.

While the hosiery industry was booming, the corset industry was experiencing a decline due to changing aesthetics and major health concerns. Consequently, the industry relied heavily on advertising to promote corseting as a safe and essential practice. The form and message of corset manufacturers changed to fit trends of the time. The idea of the corset is heavily based in Victorian culture and dress. This fashion involved accumulation of clothing, where the figure would be completely buried by layers of clothing. As Anne Zazzo describes in Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, the undergarment was “an architectural underpinning of the outfit seen in society” (244). The corset and other undergarments of the time played nothing more than a structural role in the outfit. As the structure was lost due to changing trends, so did the relevance of the corset.

Both physically and metaphorically restricting, the corset experienced a decline due to the less conservative and more mobile lifestyles that were sought by women coming out of Victorian era living. Undergarments of the time strived to shape the body at the time, and corsets shifted from their traditional longer and narrower “S” curve to a straighter, more natural “empire” line. This change indicated a major shift in beauty standard, that would eventually lead societal preference to an overall slender figure (Bruna, 229). Major changes occurred in marketing strategies for corsets as well. In addition to strongly pushing the ideals of youthful beauty standards associated with corsets, corset manufacturers argued the inherent flaw of the female body that requires corset use to remedy (Fields, 47). The strong push for women to find beauty and youth in corsets was translated into visual print advertising. You can say that’s quite a lot under the surface of apparel.


Works Cited

Bruna, Denis, editor. Fashioning the Body : an Intimate History of the Silhouette, Yale University Press, 2015.

De Haan, Johannis Dirk. The full-fashioned hosiery industry in the U.S.A.. The Hague: Mouton, 1957.

Dowd, Douglas B. “The Reeses (Emily and Walter).” D.B.Dowd. 22 May 2017. Accessed. 7 April 2017.

Fields, Jill. An Intimate Affair : Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. University of California Press, 2007. EBSCOhost.

“History: 1910-1920.” Ad Age. N.p., 15 Sept. 2003. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.



This post is part of a series published by students in D. B. Dowd’s Spring 2017 course Special Topics in Visual Culture: The Illustrated Periodical.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.