From the Corset to the Girdle – 1920-1950
From the Corset to the Girdle…
After the end of World War One, women became “emancipated” in life and also in their clothing. A very boyish figure for girls and women became fashionable, and girls who were thin and smaller-breasted needed to wear no corsetry at all. The majority of women, however, still needed to wear shaping undergarments, and corsetry at this time was designed to flatten the breast and give the torso a tubular shape.
Elastic was used in these corsets, but at that time it was very heavy, tough and stretched in only one direction. The garment was very tight and had steel supports built in. This newer type of corset was renamed the “girdle”. No lacing was required as the elastic gave a good fit. Hook fastening was used, though for more “traditional” ladies a front lacing option was available.
The all-in-one girdle became popular by the late 1920s, with women being encouraged by manufacturer Berlei to “fit foundations before frocks”. Very restrictive underwear was worn under sleek, tight fitting dresses. Suspenders were built into the girdle, and at this time still had heavy buckles which could often be seen under the line of the dress. The all in one girdle was heavily boned with spiral steel and often had a controlling underbelt as well. These garments were very uncomfortable to wear. Not only was their wear necessary for fashionable reasons, but they were considered necessary for morality.
Rubber began to be used as a girdle material in the 1930s. An all-rubber, perforated undergarment offered a little more flexibility (the perforations were to allow the body to sweat), but must have been very unpleasant to wear in hot weather. In cold weather, women had to be careful they not sit too close to their fireplaces lest the girdle melt.
These undergarments were functional and not made to look attractive. The early girdle was worn over panties and a slip – it was too uncomfortable to wear against the skin, and was so heavy as to be difficult to wash. Corsetry was still very heavily constructed in the 1930s, and most of these were available in either tea rose or salmon pink colours.
By 1939 the era of the boyish “Flapper” was over and Paris designers attempted to reintroduce a rounder figure with a waspish thin waist. The coming of World War 2 stopped the advance of this fashion trend due to material shortages and other concerns. Women repaired their clothing instead of buying new, and often went without a girdle at all, favouring a slip and panties alone.
After the war ended, Christian Dior revolutionised women’s fashion with his “New Look” in 1947: again the very feminine female form was celebrated, with wide shoulders, tiny waists, and very full skirts. Tight corsets were worn to achieve the tiny waist; these were usually very short, leaving the hips free. Tight lacing was again required to get this look; a conventional girdle was even worn underneath. As many were still recovering economically from the war, this was a fashion reserved for the wealthy few.
Made to measure corsets and girdles became popular and most department stores employed dedicated, specialist corset fitters…
Next week: Girdles in the 1950s and beyond…