The frame of women’s bodies have repeatedly been distorted and re-sculpted over the centuries by various body shapers, beginning with the corset. There is no one person defined as the inventor of this garment but historians have noted references of it as far back as the 1600s. In the French court, ladies in waiting were demanded to cinch their waists to an incredible thirteen inches! Modern healthy women have waists that measure between 20 and 30 inches. Popular actresses of the early 1900s measured in at:
23” - 24” Marilyn Monroe.
20” Audrey Hepburn
24” Sophia Loren
During the Victorian era these numbers would never have been acceptable, especially for the upper classes. Corsets grew tighter and tighter as a woman climbed the higher rungs of the social ladder.
While corsets today are considered lingerie and often used as costumes, things were different in Victorian times. There were everyday corsets and those for special dress, which utilized boning to define the body in a sharper way. They were the least comfortable to wear. Everyday corsets were worn almost exclusively by women of lower social ranking. They were the ones scrubbing floors and doing the laundry, jobs which would have come to a halt if they had been required to wear immobilizing corsets.
How often do you hear about women fainting today? It’s pretty rare. But throughout early history it was epidemic and you could count on at least one women fainting at every social event. It was once believed that fainting was due to the frail female nature. But fainting had nothing to do with the delicate state of woman. Tightly cinched corsets prevented the wearer from taking in enough oxygen causing them to faint. Besides the oxygen issue, when you severely compress the midsection from the outside, the internal organs have to shift and find new space inside. Sometimes they crowded upwards to the heart and lungs, and other times downward squashing the kidney and bowels. Shall we even talk about restricted blood flow? It seems even back then, women thought it was better to look good than to feel good. It’s no coincidence that fainting went out of fashion about the same time corsets did.
When the hourglass figure was state of the art, a corset did its job and created a tiny waist. As if the tiny waist weren’t enough of a distortion, voluminous skirts draped over layers of stiff crinoline and bustles, served to exaggerate and deform the natural, female architecture.
Corsets were not a garment to be purchased off the rack. They were custom made for the individual woman allowing the styling to work with the lady’s attributes and achieve the specific result she desired. Some corsets incorporated brassieres and others did not. The bottom edge of the corset usually ended just below the waistline. With the girth of yardage devoted to skirts, there was little need to conceal the shape of territory below the waist. It may be surprising to learn that corsets were also worn by very lean women. Reasons given included everything from - "delicate women were so frail they needed corsets to prop them up", or "corsets were a statement of modesty".
There has long been a fascination with corsets. Many of today’s brides wear them to fit into their wedding dress. And corsets are still sold today as intimate apparel in stores like Victoria’s Secret.
Madonna made exterior corsets, or tight bodices popular in the 1980s, drawing a diffused line between underwear and outerwear and putting the garment into vogue. While they may resemble corsets of a bygone era, these versions are rarely the torturous devices of Victorian days.
Actress Keira Knightley in films like, The Duchess, and in Pirates of the Caribbean The Curse of the Black Pearl, was cinched into a corset for these roles. Nearly every time Judi Dench donned a queen’s title and tiara she also wore a corset. Modern actresses like these can relate to the Victorian women they’ve portrayed in films and possibly to the reasons many of the historic women were so ill tempered. Movie costumes are constructed the same way they were in Victorian days. Luckily, costumers understand that an actress can’t deliver her lines without oxygen and corsets are cinched more comfortably. But they are till restricting in other ways. Bending the upper body proves impossible and eating a meal, a challenge. Mia Wasikowska joined the ranks of corset wearers when she played Alice, in Alice and Wonderland. She’ll also be standing very rigidly in the upcoming Jane Eyre film.
If you want more information about the role of corsets in film, check out www.Staylace.com. It offers readers a page that rates movies by their corset visibility. One little red corset icon denotes just a peek of corset. The more icons in the rating, the greater the appearances in the film. Corset lacing is also identified in these listings.
Elastic girdles replaced corsets around the 1930s. They were typically a tube, styled from the waist to upper thighs with an open top and bottom to slip into. Made from elasticized fabric, girdles were popular from the 1930s to 1960s and were worn for modesty, to slim the figure, and to minimize “jiggle”. They were popular and a must to wear with wasp waist fashions created by designers of the era like Dior.
Girdles were invented around 1910 by Paul Poiret a French designer, and often worn by screen legends, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayward, and Marilyn Monroe. The garment was said to add sensuality to the body’s carriage. If you watch footage of women on film in the post corset years, you’ll notice an interesting illusion - actresses appeared to float across the screen. Just as a leg brace would change a person’s stride, this on-screen illusion was a byproduct of the body-hugging girdle’s restrictions. The grace with which a lady lowered herself into a seat was also impacted by how flexible a girdle she wore. Today girdles are no longer the catalyst for the jokes they were in the 60s. For some women a sense of glamour and allure is experienced by wearing a girdle.
Traditional girdles are enjoying a revival as younger women take on the bulge battle of their ancestors and aspire to a sleeker profile. A move toward retro fashion styling in magazines also keeps the girdle in the forefront of popular body shapers.
Before garter belts, many slender women wore girdles for the sole purpose of holding up stockings, as most styles came with garters attached. Then pantyhose came into fashion in the 1960s eliminating the need for these cumbersome stocking holders. For those needing only stomach flattening, the girdle could be replaced by control top pantyhose.
While we recognize girdles as garments that compress areas of the body, the original meaning of the word was “belt” and for men, girdles were often worn to hold weapons. America’s toughest athletes, football players, wear a type of girdle under their pants that keep pads for hips, thighs, and tailbones from shifting as they squeeze into their uniforms. Pockets are built into the girdle to hold the protective pads.
Girdles have never really gone out of style. Although the 1920s Flapper era changed the shape of women’s silhouette’s with loose clothing that could easily camouflage a less than slender form, body shapers were still popular among the heavier female population and necessary to complement the Flapper styles.
New technologies and materials have added yet another line of flatten-the-fat products to today’s fashion-conscious women. With $5,000, Florida entrepreneur Sara Blakely started her company Spanx in 2000 and has watched it grow steadily since. Originally designed as pantyhose to specifically eliminate panty lines, additional products were added to address other issues. Headquartered in Atlanta, GA, the company now makes everything from simple pantyhose to body suits. The Spanx products differ greatly from corsets and girdles of other eras in one very important way – they are lightweight and comfortable to wear. Seams are nearly invisible and styling for products like their camisoles are appealingly contemporary. The best selling point about the products? You won’t find anyone fainting from wearing Spanx!