Girdles, like red lipstick and fad diets, never really go out of style. While we have come a long way from bone crushing tight laced corsets, the modern woman continues to strive for an aesthetic of beauty which often requires foundation garments lifting and molding our bodies to a "more perfect" shape. The girdle is one such item, and tracing its history from the early 20th century to the current era gives us an understanding of the technical advances and evolutions in fashion that have transpired in the last hundred years.
The girdle as we know and understand it today appeared on the scene towards the end of World War One. As the old world of the Kaiser and Czar slipped into the annals of history the whale boned corset went along with it. While women in the US and Europe adopted more active lifestyles, joining the war efforts and taking on responsibilities at home previously born by men, their fashions began to change. The stiff and structured styles of the Edwardian era were not compatible with the modern woman's life and she abandoned the crinolines, corsets and petticoats in favor of soft chemises, bandeau bras and narrow girdles. These garments were lighter and more conducive to the shorter hemlines and boyish silhouettes that gained popularity in the 1920s. Not to mention the need for steel; women donated their corsets to the war effort and the recycled steel was converted to munitions!
It was at this time that the full corset was reduced to a more supple girdle fitting from the waist to the groin rather than confining the entire bust and abdomen. The new design allowed for freer movement of the upper body, which, along with giving women more range of motion, opened a window of opportunity for the invention of the bra. See the blogs about the Kestos Bra and Mary Phelps Jacob for more information on the history of the bra.
A girdle advertisement from 1923
Like its corset predecessor, the girdle of the late 10s and 20s featured a metal busk at the front and lacing typically along the front or at the sides. Before the invention of Lycra in the 60s elastic materials were hard to come by. Stretch fibers were made by pouring latex into large sheets, allowing it to cool and then cutting narrow strips to be used as threads. The process was difficult and costly and made it impossible to produce threads of significant length. As a result girdles usually were constructed with small elastic inserts providing slight stretch, along with lace-up panels to allow for a customized fit.
Models flaunt the short girdle garter belt worn over cami-knickers. Loose drawers allowed for easy bathroom breaks!
The short girdle was designed to slim the hips and flatten the stomach creating a straight waistline, and was typically worn over a chemise or all in one style commonly known as the "cami-knicker" or "envelope chemise" due to the fact that the crotch piece had a button flap similar to the flap on an envelope. The fashion was traditionally made from a pink or peach brocade and doubled as a garter belt with anywhere from four to six straps supporting cotton, silk, or rayon stockings and titillating men's imaginations.
Towards the end of the 20s the girdle fell out of fashion again. The Flapper Girl opted for individual leg garters worn just above the knee, with the stocking welt rolled over these narrow elastics which were basically covered rubber bands. This bare-leg method was especially enticing for artists who depicted women in various situations, bending to pet a dog, stepping out of a car, getting caught in a gust of wind, in which the bare part of her leg was depicted. This fashion proved to be a brief trend and by the end of the decade the girdle had made a comeback.
A woman skips her girdle in favor of roll on leg garters.
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The evolution of the girdle continues next week in Part II of a four part history series. Coming up next Wednesday: the use of tubular knit rubber core threads for that all importan streeeetch factor!