Cool Summer Cottons: Early 20th Century Lingerie Dresses | Connecticut Public Radio

Cool Summer Cottons: Early 20th Century Lingerie Dresses

Jul 12, 2013

“The lingerie dress is one of the most vitally important items of the summer outfit” states the April 1909 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. The popularity of lingerie dresses swept western fashion between 1900 and 1920. These dresses were thin, summer-weight dresses of thin cotton, linen, and silk. Lingerie dresses were often made up in white or very light-colored fabric and were embellished with embroidery, cutwork, lace, pin tucks, and even crochet flowers. White and light-colored slips were worn under the dresses and would show through in certain areas.

The term “lingerie” is of French origin meaning linen and often refers to linen goods (the original go-to fiber for undergarments). As the term became associated with undergarments it also grew to mean garments having the qualities of lingerie, such as being light-weight, lacy, and frilly. A combination of these definitions likely explains the origin of the name “lingerie dress.”

The vogue for lingerie dresses in the early 20th century may have been inspired by the Colonial Revival movement and the late 18th and early 19th century popularity of simple, thin, white dresses for all manner of activities. The staying power of the lingerie dress, however, can likely be attributed to its washability. It may be difficult to comprehend how an all-white garment could be considered easy to wash and keep clean, yet in a time of fine silks and intricate embellishments, a seemingly simple white cotton or linen dress allowed the wearer to wash the garment frequently without fear of ruining it.

In many ways, the lingerie dress stood with the shirtwaist  as the most popular style of the early 20th century. The dress became a staple for summer wear for everyone from the shop girls in Hartford to the ladies of leisure in Fenwick. Beautiful but not overly fussy, the lingerie dress was worn throughout Connecticut particularly for events requiring a striking yet simple manner of dress, such as garden parties or small summer weddings.

Interested in learning more about lingerie dresses? Explore the resources of the Research Center at the Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105. For hours and more information go to