A precursor to the vintage girdle was the under bust corset. I do not believe there has ever been a more restrictive fashion trend than the forties and fifties wasp-waist silhouette requiring bands of steel and laces be worn around the middle to cinch the waistline and exaggerate the hips and bust line.
But the high bust line, tiny waist, and billowing skirts achieved with under bust corsets have been fashionable ever since Civil War times. Don’t you agree one of the more memorable scenes from “Gone With the Wind” is Scarlett clutching the bedposts while instructing Mammy to pull her corset laces ever tighter?
Corsets remained popular until 1920’s fashion dictated a more androgynous look and women chose to wear only bandeau style bras or camisoles and step in panties under those fabulous flapper dresses.
Coinciding with fuller figured women styles and the introduction of rubberized and synthetic fabrics, thirties foundation garments once again became more structured.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Christian Dior and his “New Look” called for a return to the confines of a corset, corselette, or waspie. Although the less restrictive “waspie” was usually only 6 inches in length, designers were still able to effect the hourglass figure haute couture demanded.
Dior wrote in his autobiography, “I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts.”
A popular American designer, Anne Fogarty’s signature design was a tight fitting bodice with a full skirt worn over a stiffened petticoat. She too favored the narrow waist and advised, “To maintain your figure at its flattering best, depend on foundation garments to control and distribute.” She was a Junior Size 7 and had a 22 inch waist.
The average American woman in the 1950s did not have a 22 inch waist and did not wear haute couture fashions. Yet back then girdles were a fact of life with most women believing them necessary to maintain a smooth fit while wearing the slim fitting suits and pencil dresses so fashionable then.
An open bottom girdle the type of vintage girdle my Grandma wore to work every day. She worked in alterations at a nice department store downtown. She dressed in heels and costume jewelry every morning and wouldn’t dream of going to work without wearing a girdle and stockings. A good girdle was a pretty big investment during the fifties. I remember them hanging from the shower curtain rod in her bathroom after she hand washed them at night. They had a yellow with age look and a chemical or rubber smell. A small flap of fabric hid the zipper in the side.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a panty girdle promised more freedom. The Vassarette panty girdle pictured above promised comfort, lightness, and active control.
Besides providing a smooth silhouette for the slimmer skirts fashionable in the fifties, the purpose of these vintage girdles was to support women’s stockings. All of the ads show the garters suspended from the lower edge of the girdle.
Can you imagine how uncomfortable that must have been? The girdle surely rolled up and the stockings rolled down and I certainly don’t know how they managed to walk with their thighs so tightly anchored together. I am so thankful 21st century fashions do not call for girdles or corsets.