Crabtree’s favorite underwear look from Masters — the black bra-and-girdle combo Virginia wears in her hotel encounters with William Masters (Michael Sheen) during Season 2 — reveals another link between then, now, and The Americans era. “It’s a piece that has been worn through the ages; Madonna made them popular in the ’80s, starlets wore them in the ’50s, and we wear them now,” she says. “It’s a classic piece that seems to keep its power.”
As society loosened up, so did the clothing. Moving into the ’70s and ’80s — and entering The Americans era — bra styles grew even more relaxed. The bullet shapes disappeared, replaced by a desire for a more natural silhouette, with some women opting to go completely braless.
Elizabeth Jennings’ (Keri Russell) costumes are a fascinating snapshot of the era’s different trends, because her style changes dramatically based on whether she is performing spy duties — and, from job to job, the kind of cover she is adopting during those mission — or at home in her everyday cover. Her underwear can range from the non-matching ensembles that she wears as Elizabeth when undressing in front of her husband (a conscious choice by costume designer Gering, who thinks coordinated sets feel “so contrived” in moments like these) to the elaborate, purposely “sexy” garb she wears when in full seduction mode.
The triangle-shape bra Elizabeth often favors in vogue once again, something that’s reflected in Gering’s recent collaboration with underwear brand Cosabella. Gering curated a line earlier this year featuring pieces Elizabeth would wear (and did wear in the case of the hotel seduction scene). Cosabella is a company Gering has used to wardrobe Elizabeth from the start of The Americans, explaining that “it was one of the brands I could always go to because it was always so classic.”
But The Americans also uses vintage underwear — some shops on the Lower East Side still have stock — and 90 percent of the costuming on the series does come from this period. But, Gering explains, “They always say you start with the undergarments, [but] that’s a luxury we don’t have because our turnaround is so quick that we get scripts and seven days later we’re shooting that script.” Still, she’s careful to ensure that the silhouette of a costume doesn’t get altered in a way which would look anachronistic — pushup bras aren’t appearing on The Americans just yet — an important detail that is taken into consideration even when a character’s underwear is not going to be seen by the audience.
The Americans is a bridge between period and contemporary fashion — the ’80s don’t feel so long ago — and it helps that The Americans‘ costuming isn’t what you might typically expect from this decade (lurid neons, shoulder pads). The show keeps a toe in the ’70s, and that’s reflected in Elizabeth’s everyday underwear choices.
While a visible bra strap might have been an extremely telling costuming choice even in The Americans‘ era, shows set in the present day are likely to use this detail far more casually. For sitcoms featuring young women — You’re the Worst, Broad City, New Girl,Girls — warmer weather means, “What kind of bra can I wear with this?” dilemmas.
That’s what feels so realistic about Gretchen’s (Aya Cash) fashion choices on You’re the Worst. “She’s badass on top and underneath,” says costume designer Wendy Benbrook on Gretchen’s style. “She’s not ashamed of anything, including her bra straps, nor does she care too much about what people think, unless of course, you are her parents.”
Gretchen possesses body confidence, and it’s evident in how she dresses. “She doesn’t have to try hard to look amazing,” says Benbook. “Gretchen will wear Jimmy’s T-shirt and her underwear, and sometimes she’ll grab a pair of his just to put something on. But she always has outer style, and her bras are always an extension of her. You wouldn’t catch Gretchen in granny panties, but you also wouldn’t catch her wearing lace ones.”
While the ’90s remains the decade pop culture is currently embracing with nostalgic glee, it’s the “me decade” of the ’70s which has been stamped all over the runway this year — meaning, this underwear-style renaissance is keeping in line with the sartorial tastemakers. Gering observes that this is “almost a backlash to the built-up Wonderbra padded underwire shape. And it was a nice change and it still is.” She notes the bralette, another undergarment that works with the current crop-top trend, “can be seen, and it’s a beautiful way to allow [its wearers] to show some cleavage without feeling bare. It gives them more leeway.”
Instead of being restricted by the limited availability of materials or conservative norms around what is considered “decent,” we now have the pleasure of picking and choosing from so many undergarment styles. And these fashionable TV series, which pay extra attention to details as seemingly small as a character’s bra, are helping to popularize looks from a whole range of different periods. Underwear is more diverse than ever, thanks in part to the way television — and nostalgia — influences fashion trends.