Helene Pons – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

I have three passions in life – Music, beer and lingerie. I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t a huge part of my life – I grew up with a fanatical Bowie fan for a mother – but I remember exactly when I discovered my love of lingerie. I grew up on the outskirts of London, right at the end of the Metropolitan Line “where the underground runs out”. As soon as I was old enough, I spent near enough every weekend getting the tube into London, and one weekend I went in for a shopping trip with some friends. We headed straight for Oxford Street, where Primark had recently opened, around the time of my 15th birthday. Whilst my girlfriends were headed for cotton superhero pants, sold as a multipack, I was drawn to the colourful lace and satin. Everything I bought matched, and from that day on, I’ve worn nothing but matching sets.

A friend and I, aged 15 on a Metropolitan Line train, heading home after a lingerie
shopping trip.

I am not interested in the latest fashion trends, handbags, or shoes. Instead, it’s lingerie that I obsess over and keep up to date with. Through my fascination with lingerie, I discovered a blog – The Lingerie Addict – run by Cora Harrington, one of the most knowledgeable women in lingerie. It was Cora that first alerted me to Helene Pons – the inventor of the underwire – who is largely uncredited for this in publications both modern and historic. Helene Pons invented the underwire in 1931, “an idealised breast root – the curve on the body where the breast tissue attaches to the torso…providing shaping and support from the bottom of the bra” (Harrington, C. 2018). I find it fitting that the underwire was created by a woman, for women, and as a functional invention for a very real issue. This aligns with my view that lingerie is primarily for me, to make me happy, as well as comfortable – contradictory to how it is often portrayed in media and advertising.

Pons was a notable artist and craftswoman, most famous for creating Broadway costumes from 1926 to 1965. Pons was born in Georgia in 1898, but spent her life moving around until she fled to Europe in 1918, during the revolution. This was somewhat an act of rebellion – her journey from Russia to Istanbul involved her being looked down on by other passengers, as it was not seen as acceptable for a young woman to travel alone. Pons risked arrest, but arrived in Paris in 1920 and supported herself painting ceramics. By 1928, she had her own studio in New York where she created costumes for Broadway, and it was here that she really made a name for herself. “Helene at first is a timid apprentice, but little by little – thanks to her inordinate talent, will power and personal charm – she assumes the dominant role in the business.” (Pons, G. & Marziale, A, 2011).

Pons designed costumes like sculptures, dressing the actors with foundations that hid physical features such as small hips or busts, which were considered physical imperfections, and draping fabric over this sculpted foundation. One such example of this sculpting technique was Pons’ original design of the underwire, which she patented in 1931. Pons “envisioned an element that would be comfortable, fitting various wearers and improving the “natural” appearance of the breast” (Farrell-Beck, J & Gau, C. 2002). Prior to this, the closest piece of intimate apparel that women had access to for breast support was a metal breastplate with shoulder straps, designed by Marie Tucek as a modification to the then-popular corset.

Helene Pons’ unique designs extended to using pastel colours for men’s clothes for the first time on Broadway in 1936, and in 1941 she was approached by Bloomingdales’ buyer to produce one hundred dozen aprons for the department store (Pons, G. & Marziale, A, 2011). It is clear from Pons’ rich biography that she was a pioneer, both through her use of colours and fabrics, as well as her creation of the underwire. Despite this, in her NY Times obituary, there is no mention of the latter, however, and instead Helene Pons is credited as “a leading costume designer”, though this publication does give some insight into her personality which was as colourful as her costumes – “She was said to have once screamed at an assistant, in one breath, ”You go to hell and be sure to get back here by 4:30!’’” (Nemy, E. 1990).

In researching Helene Pons for this blog, I gained a new found respect for not only the creator of such an inspiring piece of engineering, but also a woman who survived a dangerous and difficult journey, poor health and two World Wars to shape both the history of lingerie, and billions of breasts the world over. It strikes me that a woman who achieved so much – she was a published author, as well as talented artist and craftswoman – is not as widely known as she deserves to be, though she has truly left a legacy in the lingerie world.

Written by Lexie Newlands (she/her) from High Wycombe, Bucks, UK. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


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