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: http://culturadmoda.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html