Quick, close your eyes and picture an underwear model. Like us, your head is likely filled with images of busty bombshells with cascading beach waves posing seductively in push-up bras or strutting down runways in oversized wings. While that’s certainly an accurate mental picture, things weren’t always so brazen when it came to hawking unmentionables.
The practice of selling skivvies isn’t new: Brands have been pushing underwear since the 1920s, but the ads mirrored the general social landscape of the decades.
For example, throughout the 1950s, women were typically housewives, homemakers, and all-around Betty Crocker types, and the decade’s bra ads reflected that. Maidenform released its now-iconic ‘I Dreamed” campaign, which featured sketches of women dreaming about doing all sorts of daring and fabulous things wearing her pointy Chansonette bra and little else. By the 1980s, women were fully liberated and the brand had tweaked its thinking: It no longer featured the Maidenform woman dreaming of doing fabulous things, but instead they were actually doing them.
In the 1970s, underwear ads often featured three women at a time, no doubt a nod to the decade’s newfound sexual freedom (and obsession with things like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company”) and they showcased “sexy” Fredericks of Hollywood-type ensembles (marabou robes, kittenish mules, slinky negliges) that are considered campy by today’s standards.
By the 90s, brands like Victoria’s Secret managed to put underwear at the forefront of pop culture, tapping a revolving clique of “It”models to form the label’s “Angel” clique, a marketing idea that launched the careers of supermodels such as Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Miranda Kerr, and Gisele Bundchen.
Of course, this is all just a brief rundown on underwear models through the decades, so click through the gallery and see 25 pictures and ads from the 1940s to the present!
Many underwear ads throughout the '40s were sketched, likely because it was thought to be too scandalous to use real-life images of women in their skivvies.
This 1950s ad seemed to be a push for modernism, but it's considered highly sexist by today's standards.
Girdles were advertised heavily throughout the '40s and '50s.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Maidenform launched the now-iconic "I Dreamed" campaign, which featured buxom women dreaming of doing all sorts of daring and fabulous things wearing her Maidenform bra and little else. The campaign was originated by advertising exec Harry Trenner—whose client was Maidenform—and his wife Florence Shapiro Trenner while sitting around the kitchen table.
Another "I Dreamed" ad (note those handcuffs!) The Dream campaign proved successful, as Maidenform's pointy Chansonette bra became the label's best-seller during its 30-year run.
Pointy bras were all the rage in the 1950s and '60s as evidenced by this 1958 Warner's ad.
Another pointy-bra Warner's ad, but this time it's 10 years later and the model appears more suggestive, younger, sexier, and freer than the model in the previous ad (it was the '60s.)
Yes, an actual Nipple Bra existed in the 1970s. Believe it or not, hard nipples were a huge trend during the decade, one that's obviously waned over time.
Many underwear ads throughout the 1970s featured threesomes of women—likely playing up men's fantasies and a nod to the decade's obsession with things like "Charlie's Angels." This image is from a 1979 Victoria's Secret catalog.
Another shot from Victoria's Secret 1979 catalogue.
Another campy '70s ad featuring three women.
These women—posing for a 1979 Victoria's Secret catalog—look like they're refugees from the Playboy mansion.
In the 1980s, Maidenform took a new approach. Like the "I Dreamed" campaign, The Maidenform Woman" was placed in wild scenarios ("you never know where she'll turn up" was the tag line) but this time, the women didn't dream, they did.
This catalog ad from the '80s keeps with the three women mold, but the style has shifted to embody the tawdry "Flashdance" nature of the decade.
Apparently, the marketing people at Lycra didn't think this threesome was creepy in 1991.
A 1991 Jockey ad featured a "real" professional woman in its campaign.
Even underwear followed the high-waisted trend of the '80s and early '90s, as seen in this 1991 ad for Lou lingerie.
Model Eva Herzigova fronted Wonderbra's now-iconic campaign in 1994, sparking a revolution and prompting women everywhere to buy the breast-enhancing bra.
The Advertising Archives/The Advertising Archives
Tyra Banks leds the new Victoria's Secret Angels pack in the 1990s. When compared to today's Angels, these ladies definitely have smaller busts and flatter hair.
The 1990s were also a time when Calvin Klein popularized the "skinny" underwear model, as opposed to curvy bombshells. Christy Turlington fronted the campaign throughout the decade, and again in 2013.
In the '90s, new model Adriana Lima paved the way for current models like Miranda Kerr to pose wearing nothing but a pair of boots.
By the mid-2000s, the Victoria's Secret Angel "dream team" was in place, arguably responsible for its firm place in pop culture. The bringing together of models Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima, and Alessandra Ambrosio brought the brand seemingly endless publicity and popularity.
Today, Victoria's Secret Angels are a key part of pop culture, with plenty of high-fashion models becoming part of the brand's repertoire.
Karlie Kloss (pictured), Gisele Bundchen, Chanel Iman, Karolina Kurkove, and Miranda Kerr are a few of the "real" fashion models who've stripped down for Victoria's Secret and rocked "wings" in the brand's hot-ticket fashion shows.