A girdle is an elastic garment designed to shape and smooth a woman’s figure from the waist to the thighs.
Most fashion historians agree that it was invented around 1910 by the French designer Paul Poiret, to be worn with the clothing he was designing. Compared to the fashions of the period 1830-1910, Poiret’s revolutionary designs placed much less emphasis on the waist, and fit much closer to the body at the hips and derriere. Poiret’s revolution became permanent in the 20th century. His new understanding of the way in which women’s bodies should interact with their clothing and his invention of the girdle were major reasons why the corset, which had determined the shape of women’s clothing for most of the previous five centuries, went out of fashion.
Girdles were worn by most women throughout the period 1920-70. They were an important part of the fashion aesthetic of these decades. A woman needed to be smooth and sleek if she were to look her best in most of the fashions of this period.
Although girdles became the subject of jokes and the object of resentment when they went out of style in the 1970’s, it is important to remember how much they were a part of the allure of the glamorous aesthetic of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60’s. Watching the films of this period, observing the way women wore their clothes and moved through space, one can see the effect of the ubiquitous girdle. The elegance of Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe (the list could go on forever) was due in part to this garment, worn universally by western women.
A glance at fashion magazines spanning these time periods also offers perspective on the way the girdle was represented as a glamorous garment. While the agenda of ads and articles in fashion magazines was, of course, to promote the wearing of the girdle, the extravagant glamour in the imagery suggests that women found it plausible to associate girdles with perfumes, lipstick, slips, stockings, and all of the other accoutrements of femininity and beauty. Imagine New York nightclubs, and Paris in the springtime.
Most contemporary girdles are made from interwoven nylon and Lycra spandex. Those made from this blend are the most comfortable that have ever been made. And although they are light and easy to wear, they contour and shape the body as well as the significantly heavier and stiffer girdles that were worn before Lycra was developed in the early ’60s. Today’s girdles are generally classified as “light control”, “medium control”, or “firm-control”. The difference in the degree of control usually indicates the weight or thickness of the girdle material, or the degree to which a girdle is paneled. That is, a firm-control girdle will have a greater number of panels in which the fabric has been doubled or tripled for a design that has more contour or “control” power. Although most are relatively light-weight pull-on garments, it is still possible to find girdles that contain boning, or which must be hooked and/or zipped. Many styles also incorporate materials like rayon, cotton, or satin.
Girdle nomenclature can be confusing because over the years manufacturers and retailers have come up with a myriad of descriptive terms to avoid the negative associations many people have with the word “girdle.” Ads will use terms such as shaper, control bottom, shapesuit, sports brief, body-briefer, long-line slimmer, hip slip, and even bike pant.
However, no matter what they’re called, four basic styles account for the majority of figure- shaping garments worn in the last fifty years. In the U.S., these are most commonly referred to as the long-leg panty girdle, the open-bottom girdle, the control brief, and the all-in-one.
Though the panty girdle was most popular in the 1960s, it can easily be found in stores today. It is an excellent choice for all-around smoothing. The open-bottom girdle, garment of choice in the 40s and 50s, is harder to find. Nearly always worn with gartered stockings, it lends the figure an air of retro elegance.
The control brief is the most popular shaping garment worn today. Light-control styles are less likely to have the high waist and garters. The all-in-one, or corsolette, combines girdle and bra. They may be brief-style, or have long legs, or an open bottom. Light-control versions are often sold under the term bodysuits or body-briefers.
Setting the Record Straight
All sorts of variations on these basic themes are possilbe. Girdles may come with high cuff-tops for control above the waistline. They may come with or without garters, zippers, or reinforced panels to provide extra control at a particular spot. It is even possible to buy girdles with lacing reminiscent of nineteenth-century corsets.
A few additional points:
A panty girdle with short legs is sometimes referred to as a boy-leg girdle, after the recently popularized “boy-leg briefs” which are modeled on men’s vintage wool swim trunks and modern knit “boxer briefs.”
A waist cincher is essentially an elastic band extending from the bottom of the rib cage to mid-abdomen. As its name implies, it is intended strictly for waist and stomach control, and does not extend to cover the hips. It usually closes with hook-and-eye fasteners.
A Merry Widow is much like a waist-cincher, but extends upwards into cups to support the breasts.
The pantsliner, designed to be worn with pants, extends all the way to the ankles. They were never common, and are quite rare today.
A recent marketing innovation is the so-called hip slip. This is simply a lightweight, garterless open-bottomed girdle, usually trimmed with lace and made to resemble a half-slip.
Women wear girdles to make their clothes fit better, to support their backs and stomachs, and to correct what exercise and diet cannot. And there are other reasons to wear girdles. They can be very seductive and even lovely garments. Having been worn by so many glamorous women in the most glamorous years of the twentieth century, they are certainly as worthy of a place in the pantheon of lingerie as garter belts, slips, and teddies.
I Thought Girdles Went Out Years Ago!
Not only are girdles still made and sold, they are even enjoying something of a revival.
As a retailer wrote recently, “The owner of my corset shop says the girdle business is the best it’s been in decades, and growing. For years she did well enough with bras for the under-forty set, but now it’s both bras and girdles. The owner thinks Madonna is the woman of the hour because she introduced the young to the girdle as a fashion statement. It’s no longer such a dirty word! Apparently a lot of very young ladies of all sizes are getting into real boned and zippered girdles.” Body Briefer , or Corsolette
Corset shop owners are on the front lines of this issue. They report that the girdle business is booming and younger women are returning to them for a variety of reasons: they want to look nice, they’ve had a baby, they’ve gained a little weight, they have back problems, there’s a return to dressing up, retro is in vogue and in all the fashion magazines, and so on. Retailers are convinced that the girdle is back big time. It’s hard to say whether this is marketing-speak, but it is true that shapewear like the hipslip are popular with younger women.
Aren’t Girdles Awfully Uncomfortable?
If you have never worn a girdle before, you will find that it feels “different,” the first time, or first few times, you wear one. If you are serious about giving girdles a try, expect to exercise some patience in deciding whether you like wearing one after a few tries, rather than deciding on the first occasion.
A girdle must fit correctly. A girdle that is too tight in the thighs and waist, in particular, can cause severe discomfort in the course of a day. On the other hand, once you’ve grown accustomed to a properly fitted garment, you can comfortably wear a well-fitting girdle all day. There is a kind of “Zen of Girdling” that sets in after a few minutes or a few hours, depending on your mood, the girdle, and the weather. If you’re in the mood to be dressed up, if the girdle is not a real killer, and if the heat is not intolerable, being girdled is easy… and depending on your shape and build, you may develop a preference for girdling as you would for a bra or panty style.
Finally–and this may surprise some–many women find wearing a girdle to be a very pleasant experience. The held-in, held-together feeling of wearing a girdle makes many women feel more organized, more alert, more authoritative, and more attractive. Some find that girdles make them feel more feminine and more graceful; even a very comfortable girdle will improve a woman’s posture, helping her to stand and sit straighter (this may account, to some extent, for reports of improved alertness). A woman wearing a girdle will walk and sit with a charming, careful grace that is distinctly different from that of ungirdled informality. Aside from all the other reasons for wearing a girdle, some women enjoy the “vintage” feeling of a girdle–dressing and moving like a classic Hollywood starlet.