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Pre-Code Hollywood Lingerie: Underpinnings from 1929-1934

Our Blushing Brides 1930

Our Blushing Brides 1930. I love this photo because it shows so many lingerie styles from the Pre-Code Era. We see bralettes, robes, tap pants, chemises, all with extraordinary applique and inset detailing. The full lace sleeves and lace hem you see on the robe Joan Crawford wears at the front would be outrageously expensive today.

Pre-Code Hollywood is seen by many critics as one of the greatest eras in American cinema, and while I'm certainly no movie buff, when it comes to fashion and costume design, I'm inclined to agree.

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, "Pre-Code" refers to films made between the introduction of sound and the mandatory enforcement of Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines (known colloquially as the "Hays Code"). Pre-Code films were bawdy, risque and irreverent, exploring everything lesbian relationships to drug use, sex work and extramarital affairs.

While that may seem a bit anachronistic at first, the era of Pre-Code cinema also overlaps with the Jazz Age, the rise of Flappers, increased availability of birth control, and the transition of some women into white collar jobs, which were often located in cities.

Now that the trailing skirts and cinched corsets of the Edwardian Era were no longer in fashion (and never would be again), a new kind of lingerie came into a focus. Looser and more provocative with higher hems and fewer layers, this style of lingerie was scandalously close to naked, replacing the layers of chemises, knickers, corsets, corset covers and petticoats that encompassed lingerie for previous generations.

It's hard to convey just how much of a complete reversal the underfashion aesthetics of the 1920s were to the Edwardian Era. From heavy corsetry that had to be professionally made to simple patterns that were mostly unlined rectangles, these new intimates were a radical departure from established lingerie traditions.

Lilian Harvey during the Pre-Code Era

Lilian Harvey during the Pre-Code Era. While this image isn't from a film (at least one I could find), it's an excellent example of lingerie from this time period. In particular, note the soft cup, unstructured bra which is very similar to contemporary bralettes.

Widespread use of machine-made lace and the development of synthetic fabrics (such as rayon, then known as "artificial silk") also meant the concept of mass-produced luxury was beginning to take off. Beautiful, comfortable lingerie was no longer the sole domain of the very wealthy, and an increase in the number of lingerie colors available - not just black and white, but also peach, mint, and eau de nil - also increased their fashion appeal.

Rompers, chemises, bralettes, and tap pants - all items in the new lingerie wardrobe - did not require a lady's maid to get into or out of, and could be washed, repaired, or even completely made at home. The changing role of women in society is reflected in the underfashion. It's a brilliant example of sartorial trends mirroring cultural shifts.

1920s chemise via Salon of the Dames

1920s chemise via Salon of the Dames. Look at this gorgeous lace. I'm genuinely breathless. And there's so much of it; that beautiful repeating pattern is front and center. You can also easily see that simpler, rectangular silhouette that dominated lingerie fashion post-WWI.

Of course, we all know the Roaring Twenties led to the Great Depression, but instead of being diminished, the escapist, fanciful nature of cinema was amplified, especially in costume. There's an element of over-the-top opulence to many movie costumes from this era, perhaps meant to be a distraction from everyday life.

While many of these pieces would be irreproducible today due to the expense involved, even in their era, they would not have been cheap. Costume design at this time was unfathomably lavish, with many studios having their own in-house costume departments to make everything custom for each individual actor.

Full sleeves, lace applique, fur trim, crystal pleating...these details were incredibly labor and time intensive, requiring dozens of hours per garment. Yet Pre-Code Cinema has some of the most fantastic examples of lingerie artisanship I've ever seen.

As a woman living in the 21st century, it's startling how many pieces from this era would be right at home on the runways and in the lingerie drawers of today. The emphasis on drape, comfort, and a natural silhouette is quite similar to this era's athleisure, bralette and romper trends. In addition, loungewear, especially robes and pajamas, is coming back in a big way. I can't help but wonder if there are similar changes in today's social climate sparking that return to historical forms.

Of course, I don't want to portray the 1920s and 1930s, as either a cinematic or a historical era, as an ideal. I'm in love with the clothes, and that is where my romance begins and ends. The 1920s and 30s were a regularly horrible, traumatic, and even gruesome era for millions of people. No amount of hand-finished stitching or antique lace can change that, and my nostalgia isn't at all for this period in history, but rather for the intricacy in lingerie construction and detailing that's been lost to memory.

I would be wrong to finish this article without mentioning where you can find pieces with a similar spirit today. Betty Blue's, Karolina Laskowska, Shell Belle Couture, Carine Gilson, Dottie's Delights, Evgenia Lingerie, Kiss Me Deadly, Rosamosario, I.D. Sarrieri, Harlow & Fox, and La Perla are all excellent places to start your search. Most of these names are luxury brands, and that's because the techniques and materials they're using (intricate lace appliques, volumes of silk, etc.) are only possible for garments in the 3 and 4 figures. However, ebay and Etsy are always worth a look, especially if you're okay with previously owned items.

I hope you enjoy this trip to the lingerie past as much as I enjoyed compiling it. What's your favorite look from the scenes below?

Hot for Paris, 1929

Hot for Paris, 1929. A perfectly darling all-in-one or step-in (what we call a romper today) that would be completely at home a modern day lingerie drawer. Notice how the sheer lace exposes the leg up past the hip. Utterly scandalous and precursor to the debut of the bodysuit a couple of decades later.

Safety in Numbers, 1930

Safety in Numbers, 1930. The only example of pajamas on this list, pay special attention to the lace pajama pants. Lace pants are more likely to be used as a beach coverup nowadays than loungewear, but leisurewear and beach attire were the only acceptable ways for women to wear pants in the early decades of the 20th century. Eventually, that acceptability migrated out of doors - similar to today's progression of bralettes and yoga pants being acceptable streetwear attire.

The Right to Love, 1930

The Right to Love, 1930. The robe from this film is almost understated compared to the other pieces in this article, but I especially love the fine needlework here. In modern lingerie, this sort of embroidery would be replaced with a print, primarily for cost reasons.

If I Had A Million, 1930

If I Had A Million, 1930. Another brilliant example of how bralettes and bandeau bras aren't a new trend but have been around for the better part of a century. That said, my favorite thing in this photo has to be those feathered garters!

The Bishop Murder Case, 1930

The Bishop Murder Case, 1930. The sleeves on this robe are stunning and remind me of the contemporary label Shell Belle Couture. It takes a number of very small, fine stitches to attach such delicate lace.

The Maltese Falcon, 1931

The Maltese Falcon, 1931. Everything about this photo perfectly encapsulates the luxury lingerie aesthetic of Pre-Code Era cinema. It just oozes lavishness and sensuality. Note in particular the floor length velvet robe with fur trimmed sleeves (likely silk velvet), and the ankle-length gown (probably also silk).

Iron Man, 1931

Iron Man, 1931. There's another reappearance of fur sleeves here, but what I most love most about this image is the sheerness of the fabric. That lightness and airiness combined with hint of nudity feels completely contemporary, and shows better than any other photo in this series just how erotic Pre-Code films could be. From a fashion history perspective, note also the draping of the fabric. There's a shift from the boxier silhouettes of the 1920s to the bias cuts of the 1930s, and you can see that transition here.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Via

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Via It's difficult to see from this screen capture, but there's quite a lot of fabric inset work happening here. I feel almost certain I've seen something similar recently in sheer mesh and lace.

Safe in Hell (1931), Dorothy Mackaill.

Safe in Hell (1931). Full disclosure: this is the photo that made me want to write this article. From the print to the cut, the robe in this image is a perfect example of how modern day lingerie trends overlap a not small amount with what was popular in the 1930s.

Night Nurse, 1931.

Night Nurse, 1931. While not quite as luxe as other example in this article, you can still see the ubiquity of the unstructured, wirefree bralette (underwire bras were still more of a concept at this point; they wouldn't become popular until the 50s). I also like this photo because it shows the back of the bra and what appears to be a button closure instead of a hook and eye.

Clara Bow in Call Her Savage, 1932

Call Her Savage, 1932. Another brilliant example of a romper that wouldn't be out of place today. I immediately thought of the label Mary Green which went out of business two years ago. They just missed the resurgence of all the garments they were most known for.

Professional Sweetheart, 1933

Professional Sweetheart, 1933. While I'd be happy to own almost anything from this article, the one-piece shown here is my favorite. Interestingly, you see the genesis of several lingerie trends within this garment, from provocative side cutouts to the beginnings of what we'd call a teddy. I also love this as an example of 1930s artisanship - note the pleated panel on the side of the leg.

Twentieth Century, 1934

Twentieth Century, 1934. Very often, when I'm looking at vintage photos, I find myself wishing there were pictures of these garments available in color. This is absolutely one of those times. While the lustre and sheen of this vintage jacquard is obvious (and probably also silk), I'd love to have a sense of what the colors were like in person. I'm imagining a gold background with multicolored floral bouquets. What about you?

Twentieth Century, 1934

Twentieth Century, 1934. From the same film above, we get another view of the robe but also of that classic triangle bra silhouette combined with tap pants (very much akin to sleep shorts today).

Born to Be Bad, 1934

Born to Be Bad, 1934. This dressing gown from the mid-1930s features layers of ruffled lace trim, but the silhouette is almost demure compared to some of the pieces from earlier in this article, signaling a decisive end to the Pre-Code Era.












Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

15 Comments on this post

  1. David J says:

    I appreciate lingerie, what can I say, and I do think women of the 1920s and ’30s had a special allure thanks to the designers and styles of the time, and certain actresses interpreted those designs and styles with such gusto in combination with a good script.
    Also interesting for me, though, is how in many ways post-Code could be just as sexy as pre-, down to the ways in which writers and directors circumvented the limitations using the power of innuendo and metaphor. One scene that comes to mind is Lauren Bacall’s “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve?” with Bogart in 1944’s ‘To Have and Have Not’ but of course there are many other great examples. Well-placed props also featured, eg. the myriad ways the humble cigarette was elevated and used as sexual metaphor.
    Staying on-message, though, we’re talking pre-Code and you’ve not only reminded me of one or two of my favourite movies from that era here, but also given me a couple of tips, so that’s this evening’s viewing sorted, thank you. Great blog.

  2. I love all the photos. I’d never heard of thr Pre-Code era. I appreciate the history and seeing that not everything was so innocent in the “good old days”

  3. Thursday says:

    I’m familiar with lingerie designs of this era from other primary sources – catalogues, fashion plates – but have not watched many movies of the time so this was a great selection of images! I have watched more post-code films and you can really tell the difference in terms of how much of the body is permitted to be on show. So many leg shots in this collection!
    Whilst I do love the fine laces, the elaborate robes and delicate bras, I have also developed an appreciation of the pajama designs of the 20’s and 30’s. They combine a loose and comfortable silhouette with such luxe fabrics and some amazing colour combinations! I wish these were available in colour too so I could study the colour combos that still seem fresh yet elegant.

  4. Annmarie says:

    Amazing, thanks!

  5. Jane Mason says:

    Wonderful post. I’m in love with all the photos. More on this era please.

  6. KN says:

    Thank you for such a visually delightful article! Even I, knowing nothing about this sort of craftsmanship, can see how detailed and incredible these pieces are. My favorite piece is that robe from the Maltese Falcon. You’re right, I wish I knew what color it was.
    Also, I keep staring at what I can see of the shoes/slippers. Vintage bedroom slippers FTW!

  7. Tara says:

    Very well-written article, thank you! The pictures were captivating but the writing was also immensely enjoyable. Well done.

  8. Kaaren Bedi says:

    This is why I started Layneau! From the time I was 9 I was collecting lingerie from this era. When my great aunt passes in her trousseau it was icing on the cake.

    It is telling that our next collection is gold on gold and very much inspired by the period! (And anyone who signs up at our website will receive 30% off on a demi-couture order)

    Thank you Cora for shining a brilliant light on this gem of design period.

  9. This article is everything I love, all in one place! These images you found are just beyond swoon-worthy, and it’s great to have some historical context too. Learning and lingerie are the best combination! I think my personal favourite has to be the tap pants and robe from the front Our Blushing Bride image (though would happily make do with just about any of them!) I am also very curious to the colour of the robe in Twentieth Century.. Gold does sound like it would be perfect! I’m also imagining a vibrant turquoise.. Agree with Virago above, I have no idea how you managed to stop yourself endlessly searching for more beautiful pictures!

  10. virago says:

    The research for this post must have been great fun! (How did you manage to *stop*?)

    Anyway, I’m all about the robes in See You in Hell and the Bishop Murder Case, not to mention the lace pajamas in Safety in Numbers. (She says, casting a resigned glance at her years-old baggy Old Navy yoga pants …)

  11. Estelle says:

    I know nothing about vintage cinema or lingerie (well, I know a tad more now!) but I enjoyed just staring at these beautiful designs :) My favourite is the same as yours – that one-piece. The way the bottom half comes up and joins the bra in a point reminds me of various current strappy bodysuits (such as which I really love the shape of.

    Love seeing the various garters on show too, they don’t get much love nowadays except for weddings – makes me want to start wearing them to ‘complete’ my lingerie looks :)

  12. First, I love this compilation idea! We always talk about “vintage inspirations” in lingerie, but sometimes a good ole fashion history lesson can really showcase where some of these “modern” designs came from and what brought the originals into being. I love looking at some of the gorgeous lingerie from this time frame. I sometimes feel like our modern emphasis on “more more more” means we get to enjoy less of truly high quality, beautiful items. All of the looks you showcased from the movies are fabulous. The dressing gowns, in particular, really resonate with me. I love the one from Born to Be Bad with the layers of lace to create a ruffled effect. Simply beautiful! I am looking forward to reading more of these. :)

  13. Oh my goodness! I adore this article! I’m a huge fan of this aesthetic, but I’ve always been nervous of this silhouette because I skew a little more zaftig than the idealized 1920s/30s figure. Now I’m convinced that I need to step outside of my comfort zone! And I agree with Jeanna – this article plus binge-listening to the You Must Remember This podcast has me wanting nothing more than to watch pre-code films.

    My favourite piece of the bunch is tie between the Born to Be Bad dressing gown (those ruffles!) and the black Safety in Numbers outfit.

  14. Sweets says:

    Yessss yes yes yes yes yes. I love this. I too would LOVE to see color photographs of these, or even to see them in person– the workmanship looks staggeringly gorgeous.

  15. This article is everything. I learned a lot, got to see gorgeous lingerie, and am newly inspired to check out pre-code films. (You had me at lesbian relationships but hey – this lingerie is amazing.)

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