by Dayna Brownfield
The history of how you get cinched, underwired, and spandexed under your clothes is as storied and varied as those racks on racks of bras that you can stand in the center of at the department store.
And that’s kind of where this first edition of my “Historical Tidbits About Undergarments” begins; with a quick overview of women’s corsets and girdles in the early 1900’s, plus the corset fitters, saleswoman, and their figure formulas.
Corsets have gone in and out of style over the years. And in the early 1900’s, there seemed to be some back-and-forth amongst fashionable women of the era. There was a rise in corsetless dresses, along with some designers – like Paul Poiret – who claimed they wanted to free the abdomen.
Although, don’t give Poiret too much credit for wanting to liberate women’s bodies. He’s notable for creating the “hobble skirt” around 1908. And for those who’re wondering, the “hobble skirt” has a very narrow hemline around the ankles that makes it nearly impossible to walk. Most of these dresses were also constructed so that, in order to wear one, you needed a corset just to fit into it. So remember that Poiret, while claiming he wanted to free the abdomen from the corset, wrote this in his autobiography: “Yes, I freed the bust, but I shackled the legs.”
But back to keeping women in corsets! Manufacturers and retailers needed reasons to keep women buying corsets. And they used tactics such as racist implications about the purity of the white female form, to health, and vanity. There was even an expert (sarcastic emphasis mine) at the time who claimed that the corset was necessary for women because their horizontal to vertical evolution was more difficult; basically when we went from walking on all fours to walking on two feet … women just couldn’t get it. So the corset helped to keep – and remind –women how to be in the proper human form.
Science was also a tool used to keep corsets around. Trade publications at the time would publish articles detailing the not only the benefits of wearing a corset, but would you might have to endure if you didn’t:
- Loss of muscle strength
- Damage to internal organs
Some of these risks where reinforced at Corset Schools – special training courses that were often sponsored by corset manufacturers and retailers for corset saleswomen to attend. At these schools, they’d learn everything from the medical advantages of corsets to selling tactics like figure formulas.
Figure types partially come into play too because as styles changed. There were now several different types of corsets and girdles that you get buy. For example, there’d be corsets for average, slender, or stout women; with different styles offered within those figure types.
By the 1920’s several retailers had very specific figure charts for corsets. One company, Gossard’s, had a standard nine figure chart whereas Australian company Warner’s had five. These figure forms also meant that, while there were acceptable figures for women, there were also figure faults that needed to be avoided or corrected (like through the wearing of a corset!).
Saleswomen, in general, were told not to point out customer’s flaws. But rather fit and flatter them according to the figure form they best fit. There’s a saleswoman guidebook that advised:
the salesgirls should be cautioned never to point out figure faults to a customer. If she had a roll at the waistline and a long girdle is selected to minimize this, the salesgirl should not say, “That terrible roll will not look as bad with this corset.” Instead, she should remark, “What a lovely, smooth waistline this girdle gives you. Your silhouette looks so well in it.”
The notion of selling women on problem parts of their bodies is nothing new to this day and age. We’re constantly advised, through a very similar mask of “these are helpful not harmful” tips, on how to adhere to a specific shape. Just the other day, a Facebook ad kept popping up on my feed asking me if I know what kind of Breast Shape I had: Bell, Tear Drop, East West, Athletic …
What my personal takeaway in all this historical brush over is this: you’ll be told over and over again what to wear and how to wear it. Especially when it comes to underwear – clothing that’s associated tightly with women’s sexuality. And in the end, wear what makes you comfortable and confident. If you want the support of underwire, the lacy feel of a bralette, to live #FreeTheNipple, then do it. In the words of so many: You Do You.
Dayna Brownfield is an editor and writer, with a background in women's niche publications. You can read her musings at www.daynab.com, and check out her monthly Instagram project, Zine It, at @dayna_._b.
- An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007) by Jill Fields
My First 50 Years (1931) by Paul Poiret
“An Anatomical Vindication of the Straight Front Corset,” Current Opinion (March 1914) by Havelock Ellis
“Curriculum for the Corset Salesgirl,” Corsets & Brasseries (July 1941)
- Vintage Image 1: Woman In Undergarments (1921), Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library
- Vintage Image 2: Woman In Undergarments (1922), Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library