The following is a short history of the 20th century corset, which I have wanted to write as a record of my continuing fascination with the use of corsetry as a means of altering the natural shape of the body. The corset is a particularly interesting garment, as it has symbolism and power over and above the merely utilitarian aspect of modifying the bodies contour. From one perspective the corset can be viewed as being a symbol of male dominance over women, as in the past the dictates of male dominated fashion have often required women to wear constricting and uncomfortable garments, to force them to adopt a shape dictated by society rather than a natural one. It has always fascinated me why women would have been prepared to endure such discomfort, which as well as causing physical problems in extreme cases, must by its very nature have been debilitating over a period of time.
However, to argue that the corset is purely a symbol of male dominance over women is an over simplification of what is a complex state of affairs, as such garments can be used for a variety of purposes both by those dictating such garments be worn, and for the wearer of such garments themselves. In addition to its role in molding the shape of the female figure to fashions ideal, the corset can also be viewed as a way of disciplining the body, and thus its use can have sado-masochistic connotations, as well as its purely functional role. In addition wearing a corset can also be auto-erotic, as such garments compress the genital organs and make the wearer continually aware of their own body.
Thus, it may be said that corset wearing took place for a number of reasons, as a dictate of fashion, a mechanism of satisfying sado-masochiostic tendencies, and as a tool for auto-eroticism. In addition historically wearing a corset has also symbolised morality within society, with the wearing of such garments as a social obligation, and making a statement about the morality of its wearer. The term "straight laced" is a good example of this attitude, and the corset has been viewed as a restraining force, standing for social order and accepted morality
|Girdles in the 1950's|
|Girdles in the 1960's|
|Girdles in the 1970's|
|Girdles in the 1980's and beyond|
|More about the history of corsetry/ useful links|
Corsets have existed for centuries and can be traced back to Greek and Minoan times. However, when the subject of corsetry is mentioned many people immediately think of the tight lacing that is associated with the Victorian era, and the horror stories of practices that took place at that time in order for women's shapes to be molded to the accepted norm. Stories abound of daughters being forced into tight laced corsets, in order for them to have a slim waist, and of the severe corseting that took place. Examples include girls having to lie on the floor whilst their mothers tightened their corsets, and of corset lacing breaking under such pressure. Stories of figure training have been reported, with girls being laced into tighter and tighter corsets in order to achieve the figure that was demanded by society. Anecdotal stories abound of women being so tightly laced that they fainted, and in addition there are stories of women having ribs removed surgically so that their corsets could be fastened even tighter. I have also read that the rule of thumb was that a girls waist measurements before she was married and had children should be the same as her age in years.
Whether these stories are true is unclear, and many of them are probably the result of male sadomasochistic fantasies that were associated with this period. This hypothesis is supported by the finding that the garments found in costume museums rarely have waists less than 20 inches. Tight lacing is in itself difficult to define, but a working definition appears to be any distortion of the natural waist over two inches.
Whether tight lacing was commonly practiced is unclear even though there are photographs that clearly show the practice did take place on occasion. These extremes were probably very rare and and there is some evidence that the practice has also been exaggerated. Extreme tight lacing e.g. reducing the waist to less than eighteen inches was probably practiced by very few people and was not as common as the fetish oriented literature from that time would suggest.
However what is certainly true is the observation that the corset was viewed as an essential garment for women to wear, and teenage (and even younger girls) were also forced to wear such garments as a matter of propriety. In some cases women were expected to wear these garments at all times, and the concept of figure training discussed earlier, could mean that a girl would sleep in her corsets, to have them tightened the following day and into the desired figure was obtained.
Even without extreme tight lacing corset wearing was probably very uncomfortable, as there was a lack of any anthropometric studies into body dimensions. Thus it is probably fair so say that many women's corsets were ill fitting unless they had been made to measure, and it may well have been good advice to suggest to women that they obtain a garment that fitted them at the waist and then used padding to ensure the hips and breasts also then fitted.
This was the The Edwardian era was also highlighted by a taste for tight corsetry in women, the famous S shaped bend on the Gibson girls being achieved by a tight corset with a very firm busk at the front, that forced the breasts up, and the hips back.
This gave a characteristic shape which was both unnatural and uncomfortable for the wearer, and was probably more uncomfortable to wear than the earlier Victorian garments. Clothing for women was heavy and cumbersome, and tight skirts coupled with long corsets restrained women.
All all this changed in the early years of the 20th century, which in part was probably due to the changing role of women brought about by emancipation, and perhaps just as significantly the first world war. In the first world war women increasingly took on male roles in factory work, and this also dictated a change in the garments that women traditionally wore. The corset became much lighter than previously, but was still considered essential, and in fact was believed to be necessary to support women performing factory work. However, the garments themselves were somewhat lighter and benefited to some extent by the use of elastic material to support, as well as the more traditional cloth and steel supports. Suspenders also became an integral part of corset design to assist in holding up stockings, and instead of the solid shelf that had characterised the appearance of women's breasts, the breasts became separated, in what was to become the forerunner of the modern brassiere.
In the 20's and 30's the boyish figure became popular, and for those women lucky enough not to be well endowed, no corsetry was needed. However, for the majority the corset was still required, and garments were produced which flattened the breasts and gave the required tubular shape to the figure. Elastic was used more and more in such garments, but owing to technical limitations it was heavy and only stretched in one direction. Thus in order to avoid garments riding up in wear the use of steel supports was required, as well as the garment itself being close fitting. The corset was viewed as being an essential garment for well groomed women and the product was marketed heavily by special promotion weeks in shops. Women were encouraged to seek specialist advice in the fitting of such garments and the trained corset fitter was to be found in almost every apartment store. The corset was also renamed in this period, with the name girdle being used to describe the less heavy corset that relied on elastic rather than lacing for a good fit. As an alternative to the traditional back lacing corset, the hook fastening wrap around was introduced, and for the more traditional women front lacing styles which were easier to put on by oneself were also introduced.
All in one garments also became popular as a way of achieving the figure dictated by fashion ,and women were encouraged by the supplier Berlei to "Fit their foundations before their frocks". Restricting underwear was worn under sleek or tight fitting dresses, and as at that time the corset was worn over underskirts it is likely that a particularly harsh outline was obtained. Certainly it is possible to see in may older photographs of women the distinctive marks where their suspenders break the line of their garments, as at that time suspenders had particularly heavy buckles which were difficult to hide under a close fitting dress.
The all in one corset was almost tubular in construction, flattening the breasts and giving the boyish look demanded by the fashions of that day. Such garments were heavily boned with spiral steel and often consisted of a corset or corselette with a controlling underbelt as well. As well as older women wearing such garments, younger girls were also often fitted with them, again this being associated with morality, and being the required garment to wear as much as with figure control per se. It is difficult to imagine the everyday discomfort that women must have endured, but some anecdotal evidence is that it must have been considerable. One woman described how as a schoolgirl she had been fitted with a corset, which made breathing difficult in class. She would ask to go to the toilet, and then remove some of the corsets steels (having bitten the top off the holders for them). She would then hide them in her desk, to replace them at the end of the day before going home.
Corsets were fairly expensive garments even then i.e. two or three pounds, and clearly was a large industry. Many of the companies of that time have now gone out of business, but some still remain even now in the 1990's. The corset was heavily promoted as being essential to fashion, and many companies promoted their products in the national press. Corset weeks were popular, with manufacturers promoting their products in shops, and providing advise on the fitting and wearing of their garments. Manufacturers often had a wide range of products in their catalogues, ranging from the more traditional back or front lacing corsets to all in one garments (corselettes), hook fastening girdles, busk fastening girdles, and suspender belts. The use of rubber for corset materials became more common to allow some degree of freedom to the wearer, but these were still very heavy and controlling garments. The panty brief or panty girdle also made its first appearance in the 1930's , but was not the most common form of corsetry for women to wear. In the 1930's an all rubber corset was also produced which was a reasonably successful product. This garment was made out of perforated rubber to allow the body to sweat, but must have metered out a sticky sentence to any woman who had to wear it. In addition, there was hazard associated with wearing such garments, as if the wearer warmed themselves too much by the fire, there was a danger that their corset would melt!.
For all its advertising the corset was a very personal article of clothing, and advertising was predominantly geared towards the end user and the strictly functional aspects of the garments. They were heavy, unfeminine garments, so much so that women often kept them on a special stool at the end of their beds when not being worn, which were covered up so that their husbands would not see them. Such garments had little to do with eroticism, and in fact women at that time did not wear attractive underwear. The corset was worn over panties and a slip, and so produced a fussy, unsmooth appearance with the slip coming out of the bottom of the corset. The corset could not be worn next to the skin because it was too uncomfortable, and owing to the heavy materials used the corset was difficult to wash. Thus the corset was kept clean by not being in direct contact with the skin.
In the 1930s the zip also became available as a means of fastening such garments, but it was a heavy construction, and had to be heavily taped. However man made fibres became increasingly available, which meant that newer and lighter materials could be incorporated into corset design. Nylon started to be used for panels for such garments in the 1950's, and a period of lighter and more attractive underwear was just round the corner. However, during the 1930's corsetry was usually heavily constructed, with tea rose or salmon pink being the normal colour obtainable.
The late 1930s brought the 2nd world war, and in this period fashion was put into a permanent hold due to shortages of materials. It was difficult for women to obtain good corsetry and they were encouraged to "make do and mend" repairing their garments with elastic thread. Limited ranges of such garments were manufactured under the utility scheme (nicknamed futility), but these were generally not high quality garments. In addition, stockings were difficult to obtain, and so women had to resort to painting their legs, often with amusing results. In one case a women used gravy browning on her legs, only to have it licked off by a hungry dog ! Without stockings to hold down the corset, there was a tendency for it to ride up in wear, and so in this period many women went without wearing corsetry, and wore very simple underwear. All sorts of materials were used to make underwear, including cotton rice bags and parachute silk . Corselettes were often made out of all elastic materials, and some even zipped up the back. They must have been very difficult to get in and out of by oneself!
The most revolutionary changes in women's fashion came just after the war, with the new look created by Christian Dior. This was a return to the sharply differentiated female form, with wide shoulders being matched with very tiny waists and fully fitted skirts. In order to achieve this look many women had to wear very tight corsets to pull in the waist, and these were usually very short garments ( e.g. about eight inches long), which restricted the waist but left the hips free. Tight lacing was needed to get the look required, and the garments must have been agony to wear. It was common for these to be worn with a more conventional girdle underneath, but even so it is likely that only the very fashionable squeezed themselves into such restricting garments regularly. The new look came in 1947, but even then England was still recovering form the shortages imposed by the war, and so such elaborate fashions must have been restricted to the chosen few.
In addition to corsetry being sold in many department stores and specialty shops there was also a large made to measure market for such products, where professional fitters would visit the customer in the comfort of their own homes. In addition to the convenience of such a service, customers could also pay for these expensive garments by weekly installments. Companies such as Spirella and Spencer specialised in such made to measure services, providing tailor made support to even their most demanding customers.
A common theme of such advertising was the benefits that a made to measure corset or girdle would provide for health and fitness compared to an off the shelf product. It was common to show before and after images of the woman wearing an ordinary corset and the made to measure item.
Before she is fitted for her new girdle the woman is looking tired and miserable, but with her new girdle she also gets a new lease of life!
The 1950's showed a boom in consumerism and the fashion industry. The well groomed look became the fashion norm, with women having formal suits with matching accessories. The girdle came into its own in this period, with controlling girdles being obligatory for all well dressed women to wear. The girdle was constructed out of nylon and latex rubber, and provided the firm outline required by fashion. These garments were miracles of modern engineering with strategic panels being placed in order to smooth the stomach to give a flat line and also flatten the bottom. Advanced in manufacturing also meant that the elastic material used could stretch in more than one direction, making it easier to produce garments which were well fitting without heavy boning. The breast were the erogenous zone most favoured by fashion at that time, and circular stitched bras gave a distinctive pointed look to breasts. The sweater girl look as portrayed by Jane Mansfield was popular, and the girdle was used to give a smooth flat figure which highlighted the contrast between the breasts and the rest of the figure. The bottom was considered vulgar to show, and thus girdles flattened the bottom to give a solid line. These garments were often boned in the same way that traditional corset had been, but for the younger women a more flexible all elastic garment was preferred.
However, the girdle was worn almost universally irrespective of a women's size, and it was almost a legal requirement to wear such garments. Women were warned of the dangers of discarding corsetry after childbirth, and the wearing of such garments had strong moral overtones. As an example the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murderer has the situation where a woman has been sexually assaulted which leads to her husband killing her assailant. The morals of the woman are in question, and her husbands lawyer is concerned he will be convicted. He tells the wife to appear more demure in court, and instructs her to dress in a more subdued way and especially to wear a girdle. There are also erotic overtones to this in the film, as although she complies for the courtroom, after her husbands acquittal she gives the garment to the lawyer as a memento! Thus corsetry had a moral as well as a purely functional role at that time, and every self respecting woman was expected to wear such garments in public even if they were dancing or performing other sports or exercise.
The girdle was heavily advertised, and products started to be manufactured which as well as having a functional role, were also designed to be more attractive. Nylon was used more and more in such garments, which often had frosted front panels complete with lace decoration for a pretty effect. Two way stretch fabrics became more common, and these rubber garments often were without bones. Whether they were much more comfortable than their earlier counterparts is unclear, as they were still restrictive garments. The use of two way stretch elastic that could be woven into large sections revolutionised ladies underwear however, as a problem in the past had been to ensure that garments did not ride up in wear. Normally this had to be achieved by firm boning and the use of tight garments, though in the 1930's some novel approaches to the problem were tried. Perhaps the most interesting , that was still being used in the 1950's was the NuBack, which was effectively a panel that moved as the body changed position. Thus the body was encased in two overlapping sections, that moved as the person bent and changed body position.
In addition to the use of nylon and two way stretch material conventional lacing was largely done away with, and women either zipped themselves into their garments(step ins), tugged themselves into all elastic girdles (role ons), or fastened the garment using hooks and eyes (wrap arounds).
However, this is not to say that the conventional corset was redundant, as there was still a market for the formidable body armor worn by older women, who had become accustomed to controlling corsets and did not see the need for change. In fact such garments can still be bought today, which is a reflection of the slowly changing fashions in underwear compared to the outer garment. Women in the 1950's were trussed up into constricting garments, which could not have been comfortable, particularly when sitting down, but for most women there was no alternative. These controlling garments gave a harsh, still outline which now looks artificial, and over corseted, but at the time was the epitome of style.
In the 1950's a women not wearing a girdle was considered improperly dressed, and women were encouraged to purchase a corsetry wardrobe with different styles to suit different occasions. At this time there was a renewed interest in the correct sizing of corsetry, though earlier in the 1920's the Berlei company of Australia had conducted the first anthropometric survey of women's sizes. The results indicated that all women fitted into one of five basic figure types, and from this a system of sizing was developed. However this system does not appear to have been widely adopted, and women often complained that their ill fitting corsets and girdles were killing them. The importance of garments being properly fitted was again stressed in the 1950's, and a new measurement was used to size garments. Corsetry of this period was often described in terms of its hip spring, which was the difference between the waist and hip measurements of the garments wearer. Thus a woman with a waist of 30 inches and hips of 42 would have a hip spring of 12 inches.
The traditional corset was still produced, but younger women wore all elastic garments which provided the control that was still needed. In addition the hated word corset was largely done away with for the alternative girdle or foundation garment. It was in this period that the girdle was heavily marketed in the UK using American advertising techniques, and slogans such as 'You ought to be hugged not squeezed", and 'You look so naughty feel so nice' were developed to promote corsetry products. This replaced the more practical advertising of earlier days which tended to concentrate on the hard wearing or functional nature of the product. The first company to heavily promote corsetry in the UK was Silhouette, who marketed their all elastic little X girdle in 1958 This proved to be an incredibly successful campaign, and did much to promote the wearing of such softer garments by younger women. Women were encouraged to seek professional advice regarding their figures, and large stores still all had their professional fitters. In addition in the late 1950's promotional campaigns were set up nationally , with national corsetry weeks taking place. Thus the product had a high visibility, as well as being worn almost universally by women.
In addition to the products being heavily promoted, there were developments in the materials used for the construction of such garments. Perhaps the most significant was the development of a new fabric in 1958 by Du Pont initially given the name fibre K. This was later called Spandex and then Lycra. As a synthetic rubber this was lighter for an equivalent strength and was also more resistant to perspiration and lotions than its natural counterpart. The development of materials in the 1950's also meant that for the first time controlling garments could be worn comfortably against the skin without the need for a slip underneath. In addition such garments were much easier to wash than their older counterparts which meant that for the first time white became a popular colour for corsetry.
The early 1960's saw little changes in the corsetry wearing habits of women, though later in the decade some changes did take place. Corsetry was heavily advertised on television, and many garments were given exotic names such as Sasha, and Sarongster.
The latter were advertised on television by the bizarre image of chorus girls dancing in the garments, to the caption of "Sarongster girdles let you move and keep you smooth".
Thus in the late fifties and 1960's advertising emphasised the slimming value of girdles, but also needed to emphasis that the wearer was free to engage in whatever activities they desired. A Berlei television advert from the mid sixties shows a shop girl rushing to put a girdle in a shop window display, with the assumption that she herself is wearing one under her slacks.
The caption was "Secret slimming action from Berlei", with range of garments being given the now rather camp name of Gay Slant.
Interestingly enough almost identical garments could still be bought in the 1990's with very little change in style or materials. This again reflects the slow changing world of woman's underwear, where products thirty years old were still sold, albeit in smaller quantities.The open girdle style of corsetry was still the predominant style in the 1960's in the UK, though this began to change as women wore more trousers and slacks instead of skirts. However the long legged panty girdle never really became that popular in the UK and short styles were worn instead . This may have been due to mini skirts being more common in the UK than the USA, but this is speculation.
In the 1960's women were still encourages to wear corsetry in order to be well dressed, and now even more extensive corsetry wardrobes were recommended, for evening and day wear, as well as wearing under trousers. However the materials used were much lighter due to the use of Lycra rather than rubber in the construction of the garments. American girdles were seen as being the best, and an advantage was perceived in the fact that many of these were fitted with three rather than two suspenders per leg. This was believed to reduce the risk of the stocking twisting. The girdle was worn to give a flat line to the stomach (tummy in girdle advertising language), and in addition the garment was designed to give a flat bottom. Women wore girdles under trousers to give this cushioned look, as it was considered vulgar to emphasis that part of the body.
Panty styles became more and more popular in the late 60's, and could be used to cover up a variety of figure defects. The panty corselette also became more popular for older women, as it gave a much smoother line to the wearer. A problem with the separate garments was that if the woman had a full figure(i.e. was overweight), there could be a distressing bulge between bra and girdle top. The solution was the all in one garment, though another was the use of a long line bra.
Girdles were largely made out of Lycra, but natural rubber was still used in some cases. Playtex produced a range of garments made out of rubber, which was perforated, and lined with cotton for comfort. These were heavily advertised as "living Girdles" in the 1950's and early sixties, which as well as being comfortable were designed to "Make you look and feel five pounds thinner" This was achieved by what were called fingertip panels, which were advertised as holding the wearer in just like a pair of hands. However for all its advertising the garment did probably not sell well, as it must have been very sticky in wear once its flabby adhesiveness had been overcome in getting it on. All elastic girdles had been tried in the 1930's with some success, but never became popular again after the second world war. As late as the 1970's all rubber "Reducing Corsets" could be obtained from specialist companies in the UK e.g. Alston's, the garments being made to measure and being sold as potential aids to slimming. In addition the Playtex 18 hour girdle that sold consistently in the UK for over 30 years was also made out of a unique rubberised material called Spanette.
It has been argued that the mini skirt and the development of tights in the late sixties sounded the death knoll for traditional corsetry, as no traditional girdle could be worn with a mini skirt. Thus panty styles came into fashion, but it was not until the mid l970's that most corset suppliers in the UK stopped including removable suspenders from their garment ranges. The suspender had also developed since the second world war, and had become a much lighter mechanism, with the benefit of also being self adjusting.Towards the end of the end of the 1960's girdles became available in a variety of colours and patterned girdle fabric also became available.
Women of all ages were expected to wear girdles and during this period there was a development of more attractive garments produced in a wide range of colours. Whilst white was the most common colour black was also fairly common when worn under an evening dress, and Merry Widow type corselettes were also available to give a long smooth line to such clothes. As the sixties progressed trousers became more popular for women but still needed firm girdles underneath them to give the smooth shaping fashion demanded.
Corsetry sales slumped in the 1970's, and in America the drops in sales amounted to something like 10% per annum. In 1975 a major study was commissioned to find out 'Whatever happened to the Girdle ", the results being depressing for the industry. The survey revealed that 54% of women under the age of 35 rejected corsetry outright, arguing that they had always resented the discomfort and restriction imposed by such garments. I addition they felt that the girdle was a dictate of arbitrary male dominated fashion. They felt that the girdle was a result of male chauvinistic attitudes to women, and asked how men would feel if asked by women to wear such garments themselves.
The word girdle itself conjured up old fashioned ideas of control and restraint, and women felt that the harsh still outline resulting from the older style of garment made them look and feel old. They preferred to diet rather than wear such garments, and many women resented the angry red marks that wearing such garments left on the skin. In addition there was concern that wearing girdles was bad for health, as muscles did not do the work they were supposed to do. Thus the girdle seemed doomed for extinction, and in spite of advertising campaigns the numbers of sales of such garments dwindled. The Playtex company continued to advertise on British television during the 70's and 80's, and designed a range of garment emphasising comfort as well as control. The 18 hour range was still sold and one of its adverts included as woman going out for a meal with her boyfriend\husband, and being shocked to discover that she is not wearing her girdle, until she realises that she is wearing it after all. The 18 hour girdle range is still being sold today, and is unique to the best of my knowledge by its use of a woven rubber fabric (Spanette), rather than in its use of Elastane (The EEC name for Lycra).
During this period the company also produced a range of girdles made out of Lycra advertised as the "I can't believe its a girdle girdle", and further refinements took place in the way in which girdle materials were manufactured. This included the development of much finer elastic meshes such as Tweave and Satin Stitch, that provided a high degree of control coupled with light weight materials. During this time a wider range of colours and patterns were also available, and in addition heat molding was used in some cases to provide more contoured garments. However in the mid 1970's the girdle had a generally poor name with the fashion conscious, and it was mainly older women who still continued to wear such garments or younger women who wanted to look slimmer for a special occasion such as a wedding. Corsetry was still advertised within mail order catalogues (as it is today), and so older women could still get the controlling garments they required. Attitudes to the girdle amongst the baby boomer generation were negative however, and did not fit in with the more relaxed attitudes to dress of those times. Women suppressed to some extent the highly feminine image, and the slender child like image portrayed by such models as Twiggy became a role model for younger women in the late sixties and early seventies. References to the girdle still occasionally occurred in the media, but they were more often as a source of amusement rather than anything else. I remember two cartoon produced in the Gambols comic strip that reflects the attitudes towards corsetry at that time. In one cartoon a lady is trying on a girdle and decides to buy it, the punch line being that she had to buy it as she could not get it off. In another she is buying a girdle and is asked by the assistant if it is comfortable. The punch line is that when she says it is the assistant complains that it must be the wrong size.
Thus the cartoon expresses the conviction that girdles are uncomfortable to wear, and that once one are difficult to remove. This may be pushing the analysis to some extent but this may reflect the attitude that corsetry is akin to some form of bondage, where the victim is helpless to do anything about the fact that they are being constrained in this way. Girdles are uncomfortable to wear, but in addition to the discomfort of being held in place by elastic and boned garments, there is some erotic potential in the fact that movement is constrained to some extent and the wearer is always aware of the garment being there. It has also been argued that girdles rub up against the genitals, and women wearing such garments (particularly in conjunction with high heels) are continually being aroused by the sensations produced. I find this difficult to believe, but conversely also find it hard to understand why women were prepared to put up with such obvious discomfort. The advertising for such products did sometimes suggest erotic overtones, and perhaps on occasion elements of bondage were included. In the early 1970's one range of garments called Contraband was promoted with an eastern promise theme, in which a girl in a desert tent, was wearing her girdle along with her veil. The girdle was almost being put into the role of fantasy lover, as it was being promoted as holding and caressed the body. The Fantasie company marketed its products with the slogan "Every Woman Should Have Her Fantasie", and "New Fantasie Foundations Don't Just Caress You" again suggesting some degree of eroticism.
In the late 70's and early 1980's the corset was completely out of favour and only more elderly women were reputed to be wearing such garments, and this was probably out of habit than anything else. Manufacturers tried to promote their products in a number of ways, and garments were renamed with what were considered more attractive names. The word girdle gave way to a whole range of alternatives, which included skin enhancers, foundation garments, pants smoothers, etc. However books on fashion largely decried the use of such garments, and they became less popular. However, some books on beauty did advise the older woman (i.e. over 35) to wear a girdle if she needed figure control for special occasions, and panty style fittings were recommended. Advertising for traditional girdles could still be found in magazines targeted at the older reader, but it became much rarer during this period.
Women were advised not to use the older "girdle girdle" styles with suspenders and heavy panelling, but rather but the minimum they needed to hide their particular figure defect. Girdles which separated and emphasised the buttocks were particularly recommended, as fashion now decreed that the bottom should be emphasised. No longer was it acceptable for the bottom to be a flattened cushion, but rather it should be visibly in two halves. Thus girdles were produced which had seams down the back to emphasise the buttocks, and technology meant that these could also be pre molded to give the wearer a smooth firm appearance.
At the same time the long legged panty girdle (used to smooth the thighs) was only recommended in extreme cases, and instead of all in one garments it was advised that women wear body stockings or support tights. Younger women and teenagers were advised to exercise rather than wear girdles to conceal "puppy fat", as it was believed that a young woman would be better off exercising rather than using girdles to replace the use of muscles.
Corsetry seemed doomed for extinction in this period, and many well established companies ceased producing such garments in these times. Gossard for example concentrated on top half garments, and some well established companies went out of business altogether. One of these Spirella, lamented that the kind of women who used to wear their garments had seemed to have fallen off the edge of the world. Thus there was little demand for firmly boned traditional corsetry at that time.
Some manufacturers also tried different approaches to selling their products, one example being a range of corselettes that were used as part of a slimming program, the idea being that the garment controlled you less as you lost weight. Another range of garments (still manufactured) concentrated on health issues, and produced girdles which purported to massage their wearer.
Girdles in the 1980's and beyond
In the 1980's, the corset appeared to be as extinct as the dinosaur, relegated to the dustbin or jumble sale, though as indicated earlier there were probably many older women used to wearing such garments (having grown up in them), who still bought and wore such products. Even in these times however, there were specialist companies still producing such products. Some traditional corsetry was produced for women still wanting firm control in their underwear, and other companies manufactured garments explicitly for sex games e.g. rubber corsetry and Edwardian corsets. Specialist corsetiers such as Rigby and Pellier still provided a made to measure service for their well endowed and wealthy clients, but the mass market was very much based on lighter and less functional underwear.
However, this changes to some extent in the late 1980s, as fashion became oriented towards emphasising the female form yet again. Thus uplift bras started to become popular again, and there was a move to emphasising feminine curves. Underwear as outerwear even was promoted by such designers as Gaultier and Westwood. In this climate there has been a move towards body sculpturing once again, though using lighter fabrics than traditional corsetry design. America has led the UK in this area, with a new range of controlling garments being produced which are clearly marketed at the younger women, who requires a little bit of support beneath a clinging skirt or trousers. True Form are producing a range of garments, from a long legged panty girdle, through to controlling slips, with built in pants. They are marketed as being needed when normal underwear "just won't do", and are argued to eliminate any visible panty line underneath close fitting clothes. The garments are designed to be attractive a possible manufactured in black Lycra with stretch lace trimming. Gone are the suspenders which characterised older designs, and instead of metal bones for supports modern silicon rubber is used instead. Control garments were given new names such as body contourers, with control pants, slip and control waist slip being used to replaced the hated "g" word.
Madonna is also credited with making support garments fashionable as outerwear, by appearing on stages and television in bullet bra's, controlling girdles and corsets. During this time there was an increased awareness of the fetish aspects of clothing, and these also became fashion statements in their own right. The more extreme aspects of corset wearing also appears to be coming back into fashion with some women, and appears to be being used as a stimulus for sexual as well as visual pleasure. Extremes appear to still take place, with some women wearing corsets 24 hours a day, only removing them to wash. Extremes of corset usage still exists, with some women achieving 14 inch waists as a result of using such garments. However, it is argued that most modern usage of corsetry is erotic rather than fetishistic, though extremes still exist. Severe tight lacing can be used to reduce the waist by up to 6-8 inches, but such reduction is not easy to achieve. Pearl a New York corset designer achieves this by three successive fittings for his clients, where the internal organs gradually become reorganised so that the corset can be pulled tighter. It is difficult to imagine that such suffering does nor have sadomasochistic elements, as it is difficult to believe that simple vanity would lead to such extremes. When women are using tight corsets to achieve an 18 inch waist, are sleeping in corsets with a steel waistband and even exercising in their corsets, then their motives must be suspect. Whilst such extremes are unlikely to be adopted by the majority of women, it is perhaps interesting that the corset in a modern for appears to be making some comeback in fashion. Whether this is a short term fad is unclear, because at the end of the day advertisers must convince women brought up without wearing constrictive garments that the girdle is an acceptable way of achieving the look they desire. Arguments for such garments are that they allow women freedom from the continuing need to exercise and diet, and that therefore instead of them being a symbol of restraint and control, may actually give women freedom from the need to have a perfect figure. Only time will tell what will happen to the corsetry in the future, but the indications are that in some form corsetry will be with us for a while to come. Interestingly it is the word girdle that probably conjured such negative imagery in the minds of women during the 70's and 80's. In the early 1990' girdles or shapers became topics of discussion and articles appeared in women's magazines and newspaper articles. The following article by Jeannette Kupfermann is taken from the Daily Mail, May 16, 1991 and is entitled ' Take a deep breath-the girdle is back'.
'For the last 30 years girdle has been a dirty word, derided by both feminists and the fashion world alike. Now, suddenly, it’s safe to utter the g-word again because the girdle, it would seem, is coming back. Not only the fun, flaunt-it-on-the-outside type garment that Madonna stripped down to in Cannes earlier this I week, but a multitude of pull-in,flatten-out, hold-up, under-wired undergarments. During New York Lingerie Week recently, the place was awash with apparel not seen since the feminine Fifties, when they had names like The Merry Widow, The Waspie or the All In One. These were mainly uncomfortable rubberised garments that any sell-respecting female had to wear even if she was a size eight-if for no other reason than to hide her lumpy suspenders.This, remember, was before the days of tights. The girdle,along with the under-wired bra, got dumped in the late Sixties after the clarion call of feminists to burn bras and anything else that constricted Women’s movement. Why, then, are we going back to the despised garment? Corsetry has a habit of coming and going: it almost disappeared in the Twenties after Victorians were laced into stays which made them permanently faint, and Edwardian women were almost crippled Into S-bend shapes with knee-length corsets. It came back with a vengeance in the patriarchal Fifties when male and female clothes were sharply differentiated and they continued to be worn, even under trousers (toreador pants and shorts, until the sixties.
Now it seems that the Seventies and Eighties only provided a temporary respite for women and, ironically, whereas freedom In the Sixties freedom meant being able to throw away one’s girdle, freedom today may mean being able to choose to wear one. Many reasons have been put forward for the resurgence of the girdle. First there are the fashion and technical factors: today’s undergarments are made of light, comfortable Lycra that moves and breathes with the body and doesn’t restrict in the same way as the heavier latex of the Sixties, which left angry red marks and gave a harsh still outline. Todays girdles are kinder: they go with the numerous fashionable tight fitting skirts and skimpy dresses that require the kind of figure even Jane Fonda might find impossible through diet and exercise alone. The girdle is a convenient way to achieve the effect without the effort. The dieting and slimming Industry, paradoxically emerged at the same time as the Women’s Movement when there and there was all kinds of pressure on women to eliminate the ‘womanly’ -any sign of her ‘biological destiny’ -and for her to look more boyish. Maternity was associated with biological determinism and sexism: the anorexic figure - no hips or boobs-was the ideal. Getting rid of one’s girdle was a way of proving you were your own woman.Out went the false eye lashes,built up hair-dos, heavy make up and anything that spelt artifice and male defined glamour. In came naturalness symbolising bodily freedom that went hand-in-hand with contraception, work and a woman’s role generally.
The sense of relief for those brought up in the conservative Fifties was enormous, and men weren’t complaining either. For the men in the Fifties, touching a woman meant coming up against a rock hard carapace. And even as late as the Sixties there was a moral virtue attached to the wearing of corsets: women were still warned of all kinds of medical hazards that could befall them if they discarded them after having children. What we all overlooked, of course, was that as women freed themselves from one form of constraint, we inherited another - the guilt and responsibility for keeping in shape without the aid of elastic. Obesity, or even a few extra pounds became the new sin. To Fifties baby boomers, now reaching the age when they need something to counter the effects of gravity, the girdle represents not restriction, but freedom from the constant pressure to diet.‘This is obviously not the only reason for the return of the girdle. American consumer psychologist Michael Solomon suggests it's because we’re returning to a more polarised view of men and women and because of a new emphasis on fertility which always makes fashion accentuate the feminine silhouette. Along side this are other sociological factors like marrying later and fitting families around careers which have in some respects made it harder for women to achieve the families they want. So there’s a new premium on fertility just when it’s becoming harder to achieve (It’s probably no coincidence the sexually flamboyant Madonna spends so much time bemoaning the fact she cannot achieve the baby she’d like). On another level, the fact that women have their babies later means their bodies do not spring back into shape the way they would with younger women. Whether you see the return of the girdle as just another subtle form of control intent on handicapping a woman in competition with men, or as a confidence booster for all those who prefer not to live the life of ascetics and still have a responsible shape, it remains to be seen if the manufacturers can persuade women like myself who have painful memories of angry red marks. Frankly I think I'd rather give up chocolate than squeeze myself into the new girdles.
This trend continued well into the 1990s, as this article entitled "Smalls with Staying Power" from1995 demonstrates (Charlie Harrington and Marion Hume, Fashion Page of The Independent of 17th February 1995).
It's amazing what comes around if you wait long enough. Only yesterday, a colleague - who is just old enough to remember how "free" the "No Bra Bra" first felt after the constricting underwear that preceded it - asked us whether it was really true that structured underwear was making a return. "But why?" she moaned on learning it was. "It was awful! The worst was when one of your stays burst through and wore your skin raw" The pat response would be: "But things have changed." And it is true. The new structured underwear does not have stays that ping and nasty protuberances that rub frail flesh. The new structured underwear lifts, pulls in and supports by way of hi-tech elastane fibres. However, the current trend is not just about new underwear. Vintage underwear, such as that purveyed by Agent Provocateur, is being snapped up by those too young to know the fierce snap of a stay breaking free. After seasons of androgynous-looking underwear, inspired by flat chested waifs, supportive underwear is back. It appeals to a new generation until now unfamiliar with body contouring, and to those who have found that barely-there underwear does barely a thing for the female form, unless it is of the skinny, no-curves variety.
Girdles, pointy bras and serious big knickers are replacing briefs, tangas and singlets as the underwear of fashion, Wonderbra has paved the way. Even those who do not want their breasts molded into two huge, high orbs with barely the space to slip a credit card between are starting to think of more structured underwear once more. And some men are reportedly rather pleased. "My girlfriends have always worn those vest-type bras. Fiddling with a bra clasp is new to me, and I must say is rather fun," said a New Man, who then wondered if he had been grossly sexist. Of course not. Underwear is not just about support, after all. The point of the renewed taste for undergarments with hooks and eyes, with clasps and structured seaming is that these garments look sexy. Also, this spring's fashions dictate :hat one pays attention to what shows underneath. There is no point in spending more than £1,000 on a curvy Fifties-style Galliano suit unless your underwear helps you to achieve the required hourglass silhouette. Purists will go to Agent Provocateur for saucy originals found by Joseph Corre, Vivienne Westwood's son.
The truly brave will go to Joseph's mum, not just for her famous corsets but also for big knickers that incorporate a bendy metal cage to give the effect of an amazing derriere. Most people, however, will head to trusted independent stores country-wide or to chain stores such as John Lewis, long the unsung source of serious lingerie, and to the patron saint of British underwear, St Michael, whose underwear fuses sauciness with modern comfort. Carolyn Wagstaff senior lingerie buyer at Marks & Spencer, says:
"This new wave corsetry is for people who do not know about real corsetry; the look is achieved through products in modem fabrics, with the emphasis on comfort and control rather than a strangulation of the female form." Likewise Cath Petchy, lingerie buyer for Selfridges, has noticed a renewed interest in old-fashioned underwear from younger clientele. "I think before these recent catwalk looks with their emphasis on the pinched-in waist, there was a stigma about the more supportive garments. Now we are selling mini-slips with built-in briefs from Lejaby, which give a very smooth look over the hips, and waist nippers, elasticated, boned belts from Truform retailing at £14.99, which can pull in the waist by about two inches. These garments confirm the trend for the smooth, curvy line under clothes." It seems that underwear companies, too, are becoming more concerned with the look of the garment under clothes. Bras and knickers used to be promoted via the figures of scantily clad women. Now the packaging for Berlei's Ultra Shaper briefs doesn't show the product; instead, the smooth line of a skirt worn over Ultra Shapers is emphasised. Even the Wonderbra is going underground. A recent trade fashion show for the bra demonstrated how it works when worn under fashionable clothes. Heather Davis, area sales manager for Harrods says "This started with the Wonderbra. Women saw what it could do for them. I also feel lingerie looks are beginning to dictate what people wear on top. Buying underwear is no longer an after-thought. Our lingerie department has become a fashion department."
In many respects support garments are more acceptable now than they have been for years with the younger woman and a whole new generation of women are prepared to wear 'shapers' for special occasions. Even the hated "g" word is being used again as this 1999 advertisement shows.
There are a wide variety of sources of information about the subject of corsetry and any good library should be able to help . One interesting source in the UK is the museum at Snibson Discovery Park in Coalville Leicestershire, which has a large section on Corsetry. The museum holds the collection of the Symington Corsetry company that flourished in Market Harborough until the 1980's. In addition there is another small museum at Market Harborough dedicated to this company.
The WWW is also a useful source of information . The following sites are particularly worth looking at.