A Brief History of Black Lace
Charting the racy rise of lingerie from funereal undergarment to erotic blockbuster.
By Laura McLaws Helms
Reading time 6 Minutes
Staged as a shocking exposé of contemporary lesbianism, the 1965 sexploitation film Chained Girls provides a revealing study of lesbian dress codes of the era. Within the first few minutes the narrator describes the two major ‘types’ of lesbians: the dyke or butch, and the femme or doll. He goes on to say that, “the majority of lesbians, though they might slightly modify their dress or hairdo, are indistinguishable from the majority of women with which one would naturally associate”, and for the most part the costuming supports this – the femmes wear rather drab skirts and blouses, while the dykes are clad in more masculine pants and shirts. Other than the more overtly butch ensembles, the looks are unexceptional and reinforce the movie’s message that lesbians are deviously blending in all around us. For all the studied anti-fashion of their clothing choices, there is one significant sign of their supposedly dissolute sexual practices – all of them wear black lingerie. If, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath”, then Chained Girls uses black lace bras and knickers to prove the butch and femme’s deeper erotic natures.
Traditionally undergarments have been white cotton, linen or silk, or made of unbleached linen or muslin. Based on the virginal symbolism of the colour white, this mono-colour palette was so common that mass-produced women’s undergarments were actually termed ‘white goods’ in the early 20th century. Contrarily, black was associated with death and solely worn for mourning dress at that time. It made its first appearance in undergarments as part of special mourning sets – black top petticoats and black ribbon trimmed chemises and drawers were worn by Victorian widows and would have symbolised to them their new status as “sexually experienced, yet unavailable”. For historian Jill Fields, mourning undergarments were the first to “link black intimate apparel with forbidden, transgressive – and therefore heightened – sexuality”.
The rise of black to the height of fashion in the late 1910s and 1920s (owing much to Coco Chanel’s ‘little black dress’) brought with it an increasing interest and need (in the case of fashionable sheer black chiffon dresses) for matching black lingerie. Black clothing was seen to reflect a level of adulthood and experience, yet black undergarments quickly became associated with ‘fast women’ due to their heavy use in erotic and pornographic images after 1920. Even in the early days of film black lingerie was used to symbolise a certain type of disreputable sexuality: in Laurel and Hardy’s 1929 silent short Double Whoopie, Jean Harlow is attired in a black silk camisole, black lace step-in drawers, black garter belt and black stockings; while in Hell’s Angels (1930) she appears in a figure-hugging black negligee. With sultry screen role models like that, is it any surprise that young women flocked to stores searching out black bras, knickers and garters that would help them become equally as self-possessed and desired?
While industry reports discussed the practicality of black foundation garments, advertisements in the 1930s and 1940s instead focused on themes like black magic as well as the idea that black lingerie was a way for respectable women to bring a little naughtiness into their marriages. The frisson of excitement of knowing that underneath one’s clothes was something unconventional, illicit, ‘fast’ not only reactivated dull matrimonial beds, but also instilled sexual confidence into husband-hunting single girls. The choice of black lingerie was purposeful – it was impossible to purchase without knowing the connotations and accepting them as a new yet hidden aspect of self. For the lesbians of Chained Girls, wearing black lingerie shows their acceptance of their erotic desires. One revealing scene shows a dyke making over a baby femme who is about to be introduced to the group. Prior to her initiation she is stripped of her matronly white bra, which is replaced with a lacy black version; by changing her bra she is aligning herself with the other lesbians and marking her transition into their world. Black lace shows their independence from traditional sexual mores (a point reinforced throughout the film by their sensationalist actions).
Considering most bras and knickers can now be bought in every colour of the rainbow, black lace is still woven through with danger and mystery. Madonna might have chosen a white lace basque to subvert traditional sexuality and thrash around onstage to Like a Virgin at MTV’s Awards in 1984, but it has been black lace that she has armoured herself in for the last 35 years of breaking erotic boundaries. A favourite of taboo-busting photographer Helmut Newton, black lace reveals as much skin as it covers – subtly alluding to illicit pleasures hidden beneath, the inherent sensation of risk is still part of the appeal of black lace lingerie.
Laura McLaws Helms is a fashion/cultural historian, design consultant and writer based in New York. She curated the exhibition Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London, and wrote an accompanying monograph, Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic (V&A Publications). Laura is the co-founder of Lady, an arts and fashion publication and website (ladyworld.tv), for whom she hosts the Lady's After Hours podcast.