Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Girdles and corsets and the right shape, oh my

Let’s stay in the same time frame as in the post about fashionable figures, the early 20th century to the 1950’s, but remove the clothes and see what was worn underneath. The origins of corsets or stays are very hazy, the first known examples dates to around 1600, but those are already fully developed garments, two layers of fabric stiffened with reeds or whalebone. A piece of clothing designed to change the female body so it conforms to the ideals of the time. And ideals change- just during the first decades of the 20th century it went from super curvy, to super straight.

But whatever fashion dictates when it comes to body shape, there is one thing that is always demanded: a woman’s body, regardless of shape and size, should never, ever, show bulges. Corsets and girdles were to provide a smooth foundation for the clothes. And even if the modern women don’t wear that sort of clothes anymore, the demand to provide a smooth body is still there. Only now we have to be so fit that there is no surplus of body fat to distort the contours…

Though the corset didn’t completely disappear when the roaring twenties rolled in, their purpose did. Instead of minimizing the waist, it minimized the hips. Combine that with a brassiere that, if it did anything, worked to compress the breasts as much as possible.

And the corset got company of the girdle. Given how restricting a girdle can be, the distinction between a corset and a girdle can be quite blurry, but I think this definition is a very good one:

…a corset, in one dimension, does not stretch and a girdle does. /…/ A true corset at some point in its circumference will have no stretchable material. One could say that a corset can compress the wearer, but the wearer can expand the girdle.

The girdles of the 1930’s were quite similar, even if the breasts weren’t flattened they weren’t much in focus either. The bra was not yet fully developed and you may forego it altogether. My grandmother Greta, for example, didn’t wear a bra during the thirties- actually not at all until my Mum was born in 1946.

The end of the 30’s saw a new interest for the waist and the underwear of the 40’s does pronounce it more.

The corset was not quite forgotten as this article from 1940 show.

There was also more focus on the breasts.

Which all culminated with the New Look in 1947 and the very pronounced hourglass shape was once again propelled into stardom. And don't you just love that Spirella used underwear models in both varying shapes and ages?

The Merry widow was one of the bestsellers of the 1950’s.

And so was the bullet bra.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview. There are lots and lots more to read on the subject. Here are a few online resources:

A Short History of the Corset
Corset, another historical overview.
History of the Elizabethan Corset
18th century stays
An overview of Regency stays/corsets
Everything you EVER wanted to know about girdles.

(Picture sources:


Katrin said...

What a nice read :) I´ve been thinking about the right underwear for some time and I really like the picture of the four women of different sizes and ages. How great they all look!

Nuranar said...

This is an amazing article! I've been into vintage style for several years and this is the most comprehensive overview I've seen yet. I learned quite a few new things myself - your pictures and linked articles are particularly interesting. Thank you!

Isis said...

Katrin. Thank you! I think the right undewear can really make or break an outfit. I think they all look great as well!

Nuranar: Thank you! I'm very glad you liked it. :)

snippa said...

As always, an interesting, contrasting set of photographs. A interesting read, thank you.
I'd like to have a go making a bullet bra sometime.

Samual James said...

I absolutely like your approach to presenting articles. It is clever overall worthy! I've been looking for this info online, and going back with full knowledge. Light you brought shed is greatly appreciated! Thanks for taking the time to put this together, I'll be checking it out. Noticed you have compiled content nicely.
Women Fashion

Isis said...

Snippa: Thank you! I would too, but I feel completely daunted at the thought of making a bra...

samual James: Thank you so much!

Katie said...

Hi! Just discovered your fun blog, and I was curious to know where the graphic is from at the top that shows the shifting heights and lengths of corsets?

Isis said...

Katie: I found the picture at Glamourdaze, you can find the link at the bottom at my post, it's the second link of the Pictures sources. I think I have seen this picture is a costume book somewhere, but I can't recall which one, but possibly Glamourdaze can help you.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is amazing info for me...

Katie Cahill said...

Actually a girdle looks very nice and can be very comfortable once you give yourself time to get used to it. Then a strange thing happens , you actually begin to miss it when it's off!

You must get a girdle that fits you precisely. Then you have to put it on right, leaving it down in the back as you fasten the back suspenders (garters) first and then tug it up in the front before you fasten the front suspenders. And then leave it on, leave it on every day and night until you get used to it. You have to train yourself in a girdle.

Relax in there, let your tummy rest against the front panel, likewise with your rear , let it relax against the girdle too, gradually you will feel the girdle hold you up and do all those wonderful things.

Now look at yourself in the mirror and see that flat front panel where your belly used to be!
Admire the new slim you, that's what a girdle is all about. It becomes a way of life. Enjoy!

Maria Del Carmen said...

I've read there aren't many true girles now adays. Where d you purchase yours?

Anonymous said...

Nice Post A good place to put on your Bellefit is in your bedroom, because you will need to lie down to put it on properly. Begin by sitting down. Step into your girdle and pull the top up to your hips. Next, lie down.
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Anonymous said...

Nice Post A good place to put on your Bellefit is in your bedroom, because you will need to lie down to put it on properly. Begin by sitting down. Step into your girdle and pull the top up to your hips. Next, lie down

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and great underwear, they look great, girdles, corsets always show the female beauty. Fashion goes on and now, more women have some on their closets.
I love that photos, thank you for sharing.

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