Fifties Shapewear – Instant Sex Appeal

Retro styling – you must have seen that term before! It is applied to everything from clothing to home furnishings. Retro comes from the Latin meaning ‘backwards’. Here we are discussing retro shapewear.

Although most of the comments that follow describe the sleek chic girdles from the fifties and sixties, they can equally apply to today’s girdles that are based on the original designs.

The war years were years of austerity and women on both sides of the channel dressed for comfort, to help the war effort. At the end of the war women wanted to attract their men and fashions reflected this desire. This culminated in Christian Dior fashion, which required a sleek, chic silhouette that only a corselet, corset or girdle could provide. Suddenly all women wore girdles, and not just women either – all the shapewear manufacturers targeted not just women but teens as well. All kinds of ‘girdles for young teens’ were marketed. Probably the teen girdle that gained the maximum coverage, in more than one sense, was the panty girdle – a tight-fitting cross between a girdle that held the tummy in and one that protected the wearer from advances, whether unwelcome of otherwise!

The girdle had several functions – to give that sleek chic silhouette to the wearer and to hold up the nylon stockings. Girdles generally had a minimum of two pairs of garter clips. There are two at the front and two garter clips, usually slightly offset from the rear. The garters are offset so that when the girdle wearer sits down they do not have to sit directly on the clips! The open bottom girdles usually have the garter clips on elastic straps, which is useful in keeping the nylon stockings taught as the wearer moves about, sitting and standing. The nylon stockings from the fifties did not have spandex or lycra and were non-stretch; without the elastic of the garter strap the stocking would ‘bag’ as the wearer stood up.

The panty girdle, and particularly the long-leg panty girdle often has the garter tab attached directly to the girdle itself. The leg part of the long-leg panty girdle usually completely covers the welt of the stocking, losing the gap of bare thigh above the stocking top. Men usually find the flash of bare thigh and garter strap exciting; however, a long leg panty girdle, although practical, hides all this and has consequently been described (along with pantyhose) as a “passion killer”.

Girdle materials Modern and retro girdles usually feature spandex or Lycra for elasticity, but the original girdles dating from around the 1930s usually used rubber to give stretch. The introduction of rubber was a major step in corsetry – the ultra-rigid corset had suddenly become more flexible. In parallel with its introduction the terms associated with such items of clothing also metamorphosed: from the original corset, the term roll-on came into vogue, particularly in the USA, then came the step-in and the corselette, often known as the ‘all in one’.

Indeed for a while Playtex marketed a girdle molded from pure latex – these have become quite the collectors item these days, partly because of rarity value. Pure latex deteriorates over time and the garment then perishes, so few remain in good condition. It is interesting to know whether the common latex allergy affected wearers, but whatever the reason, these girdles are no longer manufactured by Playtex.

Retro shapewear share the same objective as vintage shapewear did, namely to sculpt the shape of the body. Elasticity can help to hold and control figures but for more rigid control a variety of ‘bones’ have been used over the years. The original whalebone corset did actually use whale baleen – which are the cartilage-like “teeth” which whales use to filter plankton. Each baleen is enormous, around ten inches wide and ten to twelve feet long. It proved an ideal material for corset makers because it consisted of parallel fibres that could be relatively easily split into thin strips; these strips could be shaped by heating them over steam and when they cooled they held their shape. As whales decreased supply became critical. Fortunately other alternatives proved suitable – manmade plastics like celluloid, and even flattened steel springs!

Historic background to the corset The forerunner of the girdle was the corset, and that had its origins further back still in ladies stays. Indeed there is archaelogical evidence going back to 3000BC showing women with waists cinched in tightly by a garment that appears ribbed. It was around the fourteenth century that women started wearing a stiffened linen undergarment garment, laced in at the front or back, and by the fifteenth century these ‘stays’ were relatively common; the probable derivation of the English corset from bodice (‘bodies’) to the French translation of this ‘corps’ which transmuted back to corset. The original corsets were made by stitching together two layers of linen with a paste in the middle of the ‘sandwich’ to provide stiffening. By the 16th century corset makers had turned to using whalebone (actually more correctly called baleen) to offer the stiffening. This provided more rigidity than the earlier paste corsets.

The corset gave way to the girdle by 1940, on both sides of the Atlantic, teamed with a bra.

After the fifties came the swinging sixties, when women were exhorted to burn their bras and stop wearing such restrictive underwear. But as with all fashion, girdle wearing has now gone full circle. Burlesque artists have made the ‘art of tease’ in which girdles, basques and corsets are on show, into popular entertainment. Wonderbra have enticed the burlesque star Dita von Teese to design, model and market a range of retro girdles and bras based on fifties designs.

The burlesque art form is now burgeoning and the esteemed Royal Festival Hall held the worlds largest burlesque lesson in January 2009, evidencing how mainstream this art has become. Original fifties girdles, corsets and basques are found in specialist online lingerie boutiques or vintage stores, but to satisfy the demand all sorts of outlets have now sprung up to satisfy the demands of burlesque. These shops and online stores invariably turn to the forties and fifties for styling inspiration for their retro shapewear – and the biggest item that seems to be in demand is the corset. Fashion really has returned to its roots.

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