Oh, my darlings, let me wax poetic about a topic near and dear to my heart: lingerie. Not just that silky, lacy nothing that one wears for about as long as it takes to get to the bed, but the underthings a proper lady or even a wild woman would wear under her dresses in times gone past.
Oh, sure, we have close approximations today, if you think “wonder materials” like Spandex and lycra can ever recreate the good old “feel” of such undergarments. We’ve gotten lax in recent years, we’ve associated anything form fitting with binding, anything that molds the frame as constrictive and uncomfortable. Modern women look back in time at corsets and wonder just /what/ those ladies were thinking, harming their bodies in such a way! Then they look into the nearer past, and scoff at the rubber and elastic and metal contraptions their grandmothers and great grandmothers stuffed themselves into. The tediousness of hand washing silk stockings, the frustration of runs and tears, the “battle armor” of girdles and waist cinchers, the modern woman would be crazy not to look down on these barbaric items clearly designed to appeal to the male gaze.
But, here’s the thing: a woman’s natural curves were considered beautiful and healthy, not to mention the fashion at the time was distinctly set up to showcase a full bust, a narrow waist, and softly curving hips. The long line of a stocking-clad leg completed what many have stated was the most romantic and sensual look since the corset. As I will show, modern convenience has nothing on vintage determination and drive for the perfect silhouette.
What in blazes is a girdle?
The key to any successful feminine hourglass frame is a sturdy and well made girdle. A girdle is a garment similar in look to a slip, but with built in elastic and rubber panels to smooth out lumps and bumps of the tummy, hips and thighs, while compressing the whole thing into a pleasing shape. They come in many colors, patterns, from utilitarian white stretch (pictured) to lace and satin, even embroidered and beaded! Many come with attached garter clips to hook up one’s stockings to, though some have loops where one could remove the garter tabs if they weren’t needed. A properly fitted girdle doesn’t bind or pinch anywhere, nor does the flesh bulge outside the edges of the garment like at the thigh or bust. A woman was considered loose and extremely inappropriate if she left her home without shimmying into this lovely piece of lace, elastic, and zippers. The modern equivalent, I suppose, is a woman going to her white-collar job or her conservative church sans bra. (Fun historical fact? Girdles have been around in one form or another for centuries. They began as waist cinchers or large belts, and were long associated with virginity and innocence. Many fables and tales have included a girdle that would subdue a wild beast, or that a maiden was tricked after the villain stole her girdle. The “girdle=innocence” trope became so widespread that it became the custom for grooms to remove the girdle of his wife post-wedding. In historical France circa 1800’s prostitutes were forbidden from wearing girdles, since they obviously had no virtue to guard and were not innocent in any respect one soever)
There are a few kinds of girdles. The height of a girdle varies, but either hits a woman just below the navel, at the natural waist, or up to 4 inches above the natural waist, what’s called a “long line” girdle. There is an “open bottom” girdle, which, just as the name suggests, ends in an open circle of hemmed fabric, leaving the crotch area free. This is one of the more popular kinds of girdles, for a few reasons. It allows one easier access for restroom breaks, doesn’t compress the often sensitive region, and of course, if one were to plan a secret tryst or rendezvous… Companies sold what were called “tap pants” to women who chose open bottom girdles. These were high-waisted, silky shorts that came up very high on the hip. They gave ample room for the garters and edge of the girdle, while being inconspicuous under clothing. These offered women a bit of coverage, and lent to some warmth during cold seasons. There is nothing quite so upsetting as putting your barely clothed bum on a freezing cold seat!
There is also what is called a panty girdle, which as you might imagine is the same as the above, but ends in a more recognizable “panty”, with leg holes and a closed crotch. Women might choose this model for the sake of modesty, or, since the cut was wider in the back end, women with an abundance of derriere found that panty girdles better covered and corralled their back assets. Almost always, the crotch was equipped with snaps or hooks, so that bathroom breaks were easier. I personally find these models binding and irritating to my tender flesh, but to each their own! There are even long-line “panty” girdles that end in fully fashioned shorts, for the added benefit of total thigh control. Men who cross dress are fond of these styles, as it easily gives them a more feminine figure without having to add padding. Some of these “panty” girdles even have cut outs or round pads at the rear, to lift and project one’s rear end to form a very distinct “bubble butt”. This long-legged style is what I have seen in most contemporary shapewear collections. In reinforced lycra and spandex, usually black or toupe in color. What is so odd to me is most of THESE don’t have the handy quick-release between the legs. I’ve seen many with attached suspender-like additions, meant to corral one’s breasts with or without a modern bra. If one were to wear that contraption under a dress or other outfits, how exactly did one gracefully get out of it? Score one for vintage ingenuity!
The “all-in-one” girdle (or “body briefer” as they are sometimes called) is my favorite. It’s one piece that incorporates the bust, waist, hips and bum of the wearer, and looks more like a traditional slip, if a slip could compress the hips and whittle the waist to perfection! The cups of the built in bra molded the breasts into a natural, conical shape while lifting them high on the chest. The contemporary cleavage enhancements and rounded, half globe shapes today’s bras offer would never have worked in the ’50’s. The famous “bullet bra” is an extreme example of the breast shape popular at the time. Again, the emphasis here is a more natural, womanly shape, and natural breasts are perky, sit evenly and high on the chest, and form a vaguely conical shape. Lest you think that every woman looked like an extra in a Madonna video, the softer cups were much more prevalent than they spiral-stitched, padding-enhanced bullet bras one sees now adays. With this garment under one of my wiggle dresses I am smooth and trim from bust to thigh, and what’s even better is that the attached garters are engineered to lie flat to my flesh, leaving no unsightly bumps under even the tightest of dresses. With my trusty all-in-one, my sexy behind is tight and lifted, my breasts are prominent, and best of all, my waist is easily 10 inches smaller than the widest point of my hips!
But WHY wear them?
You may be scratching your head at this moment. No matter how much I claim the garments are comfortable, you may be thinking that anything that constricts is going to be binding. No matter how much I insist that a natural bust line is the epitome of womanhood, you still drool over the tightly pressed together cleavage a Wonder Bra gives. You may understand the erotic appeal of back-seamed stockings with garters, but aren’t pantyhose more efficient and less expensive?
Most of these queries have merit. Sure, they make pantyhose that double as a tummy-tamer, and stockings and garter belts ARE expensive. But, I always go back to this: if one is to wear proper vintage attire, one MUST have proper vintage undergarments on as a foundation. The strength, the symmetry, and the look of these foundation garments are unparalleled. Just as inferior cooking tools can scald and burn and smoke, so, too, can contemporary and cheaper “base” shapewear give out and not hold up to what the clothing demands. It’s also a sense of nostalgia, for at least a part. The glamour of the Hollywood starlets, the impish seduction of pin-up girls, the obsession with a felled stocking or exposed crinoline, all of these things factor into my love of vintage lingerie. There simply isn’t any romance or allure to modern day’s answer to underwear. And so, to my dying day, I will be seen in nothing but the best vintage garments:
- an open-bottom high-waisted girdle
- silk back-seam stockings
- a lacy and supportive bullet bra
- a full-body slip
- the biggest smile on the block.