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Vintage shapewear examples of 1930s Girdles

Unveiling the Timeless Appeal of Vintage Lingerie Part 1: Shapewear

Lingerie and shapewear have long been an integral part of a woman's wardrobe, serving as the foundation upon which her outer garments are built. The term "foundation garments" was coined precisely to describe the pieces that would provide this essential support for a woman's clothing. Dating back centuries, these undergarments have evolved alongside the changing lifestyles of those who wore them.


18th century corset

18th Century Corset (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vintage lingerie and shapewear were often used as tools to promote the societal ideal of the female form. In time, women became convinced that they needed to conform to this unrealistic ideal. Let's take a glimpse into the evolution of women's undergarments and see if anything has really changed! This is a speed course in shapewear, because I don't want to go on and on, so I won't cover every little detail, but hopefully, you'll get the idea!

1890 Corset Advertisement
1890 Corset Advertisement
Corsets have a rich history that dates back to the early16th century, and they have undergone numerous shape and material evolutions over the years. The earliest corsets were handcrafted from iron and then they were crafted from whalebone. Corsets went through many shape changes, including V shaped, while the Victorian era brought about machine-made corsets in more of an hourglass form, constructed with fabric and metal instead of bone. Corsets became a ubiquitous undergarment for women, shaping the female silhouette to conform to the clothing they wore and to societal ideals of beauty and femininity.
1920 boned corset ad
1920's "boned" corset ad

Once a fashion staple, now a relic of a bygone era, corsets were starting to be seen as more trouble than they were worth. Sure, they cinched in the waist and gave you that coveted hourglass shape, but at what cost? Health risks were a major concern, and let's not forget about the moral panic that ensued, mainly by men, of course. Some religious men thought that corsets were downright scandalous, promoting promiscuity and who knows what else? Aileen Ribeiro notes in Dress and Morality (1986) that corsets were “the results of male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating them in slave psychology.” 


Corsets began to decline in popularity following World War I due to a lack of materials after the war. This was also when fashion styles for women became looser and simpler. This eliminated the need for the type of corset that had been so popular among women for the past 400 years. With the popularity of the suffrage movement, women started to feel more empowered. They demanded more comfortable clothing and wanted more freedom of movement. Removing corsets was seen as a threat to those who feared women gaining more freedom in both their personal and professional lives. Who knew that a simple piece of lingerie could cause such a fuss?


1930s girdle ad
1930's girdle advertisement
In the late 1920's, a revolutionary material called lastex was invented. This new elastic fiber created a comfortable two-way stretch that women instantly loved.  With the development of rayon in the 1930s, lingerie makers could now offer lingerie in beautiful fabrics with a luxe sheen to the masses. Although the women of the 1930's called these undergarments "girdles" they still had some fastenings similar to corsetry. 
1940s shapewear
1940's Shaper Ads
In 1947, Christian Dior presented his first collection, introducing the now iconic "new look" that would capture the creative designs of the fashion industry for the next decade. Once again, wasp waists and full hips were in vogue.
fashion changes in shape
The New Look 1947
1950s girdle
1950's "Figure Trimmer" advertisement
Luckily, with the introduction of Lycra in the late 1950's, girdles started to be made without the complicated fastenings all together and become a lot more like the shapewear that we know today.
Vintage shapewear advertisement
1960's German corselet Ad

During the 1960's, there was a bit of a generational split among women when it came to shapewear. Though some women still wore the traditional girdle with fasteners for stockings, women now had more options. With the introduction of shift dresses and boxy style jackets, many women gravitated towards the newer, more modern styles, now made in a variety of colors. With the invention of "pantyhose" in 1959, 1960's women could opt to stop wearing stockings with girdles.

60s shapewear
1960's modern shapewear
The 1970's ushered in entirely new fashion silhouettes and with them came new attitudes about shapewear. With many younger women going braless and wearing long, flowing dresses, maxi skirts, and jeans, they no longer felt confined to the shapes that seemed to demand girdles of any kind.Though there was a Victorian renaissance in fashion, the Victorian ideals of a woman's body were nowhere to be found.
1970's lingerie ad
1970's lingerie advertisements
In many ways, the 1970's was like the 1920's. Women were burning their bras and demanding to be treated equally. They no longer wanted to wear constricting clothing or be slaves to their undergarments. Though girdles still existed, most women were wearing bikini underwear instead of shapewear. But another thing was happening with lingerie - it was being associated with sex. No longer seen as foundation pieces or body shaping, lingerie was seen as a tool of seduction. Frederick's of Hollywood was one of the first companies to capitalize on that idea, and then, in 1977 came Victoria's Secret. 
vintage catalogue lingerie
1970's Victoria's Secret Catalogue

Prior to Victoria's Secret's emergence, lingerie catalogs were typically filled with shapewear garments designed to enhance the wearer's figure under their clothing.

However, Victoria's Secret took a decidedly different approach. Their catalogues featured sheer teddies, garters, bras, and other lingerie pieces designed to be worn on their own, as opposed to being hidden under clothing. This shift in focus from functional shapewear to sensual lingerie was a groundbreaking change in the industry.


Corseted Fashion

1980's Corseted Fashion from Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler

In stark contrast to the 1970's, the 1980's saw structure return with a vengeance. Along with extreme shoulder pads and exaggerated shapes, designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler incorporated corsetry into their designs. Jean Paul Gaultier created the corset cone bra that Madonna made famous and Mugler was well known for his love affair with corsets. Mugler's corsets were designed with the help of the master corset maker, Mr. Pearl, who wears a corset himself night and day. Though controversial and the time, both designers maintained the opinion that their corsets were the opposite of those that constricted and suppressed women. They argued that they promoted empowerment and strength on a female super hero level. The models they used were often strong, powerful women as well.


skinny models

1990's "Heroin Chic" models

In the 1990's, the world of fashion saw a stark contrast between two distinct types of models: the athletic built runway models and the "heroin chic" models.

On one hand, the athletic built runway models were celebrated for their toned physiques and curves. They were able to showcase clothing in a way that emphasized the physicality of the garments and how they moved on the body. These models had a healthy look to them and represented a more natural beauty standard.

On the other hand, the "heroin chic" models had sunken, dark eyes and looked emaciated. This look was achieved through extreme dieting, drug use, and an overall disregard for one's health. The media glorified this look, and it became a popular trend in the fashion industry. However, it promoted an unhealthy and dangerous body image, which could lead to eating disorders and other mental and physical health issues.

It's important to note that no shapewear or exercise routine could help a woman achieve the look that these "heroin chic" models advertised. The only way to achieve that look was through extreme and dangerous methods that could lead to serious health problems.

Today, it's concerning to hear that the bone protruding look is making a comeback. It's crucial for young women and girls to understand that this type of modeling promotes an unrealistic and dangerous body image. As a society, we must prioritize health and promote a more inclusive and diverse beauty standard in the fashion industry.


spanx package


The 2000's were a good decade for SPANX founder Sara Blakely. She turned an emergency craft project in the late 1990's into a 1.2 billion dollar company. The story goes that she was getting ready for a party and realized she didn’t have the right thing to wear under white pants that would provide a smooth look. She grabbed a pair of control top pantyhose and cut of the feet.. and the rest is history! Spanx has evolved into a huge shapewear company with solutions for just about every part of the body.  


shapewear 2000's

Modern Shapewear from, Shapellx, Skims, Kurvwear and Yitty


SPANX pretty much owned the shapewear market until Kim Kardashian started a shapewear line called Skims in 2019. Most recently, just to name a few, Shapellx entered the market, Lizzo started her own shapewear line, called Yitty, and Aalysha Athrea started Kurvwear. 

Shapewear brands claim that they are champions of body positivity and inclusivity. While this is a step in the right direction, as usual, I have some concerns.

Even though the brands may not be promoting getting thinner or smaller, they still encourage specific silhouettes. For instance, some brands may use language like "creating the illusion of wider hips, a larger butt, and a smaller waistline" to describe their products. This language can suggest that there is an ideal body type that one should strive to achieve, which contradicts the message of body positivity.

It's essential to understand that shapewear can be an empowering tool for those who choose to wear it. However, brands must be careful with their messaging and ensure that they are not reinforcing harmful beauty standards. Brands that genuinely support body positivity should focus on creating products that make individuals feel comfortable and confident, regardless of their body type or size. This way, individuals can feel empowered to embrace their bodies and make choices about their appearance that are rooted in self-love and acceptance rather than societal pressures.

So how far have we come from corsets and girdles? In some ways, miles and in some ways.. inches. It doesn't seem like the global shapewear market is slowing down anytime either, as it is expected to reach $3.3 billion in sales by 2027. What we can learn from the decades of trying to re-shape women's body into cultural ideals of the day, is that there is no ideal body shape. Shapewear brands need to be mindful of the messaging surrounding their products to ensure that they are not reinforcing harmful beauty standards or promoting a specific body type. By prioritizing the empowerment and comfort of individuals, these brands can create a more positive and inclusive experience for everyone.




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