The fall of the corset and rise of the girdle


“The twentieth-century “fashion revolution” consisted of two phases.  In the first, Directoire period, the old, corseted look developed into a straight but sinuous silhouette, with an easy and often raised waistline and a narrow skirt that in 1911 became the notorious “hobble skirt.”  In the second (but related) phase, Orientalism was in fashion.  The 1909 Paris debut of the Ballets Russes with its costumes

by Leon Bakst contributed to both the infamous jupes-culottes (known also as trouser-skirts and harem-skirts) and the so-called “lamp-shade tunic” (a short tunic-crinoline worn over a long, narrow skirt), as well as the use of brilliant colours and richly textured fabrics, turbans, aigrettes, beads and tassels.” Vallerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 1985


1910 - the “New Figure” – From as early as 1892 fashion houses in Paris were beginning to launch the New Figure on an unsuspecting world, but it took time to make the break with traditional Victorian Values.  The uncomfortable extremes of the “S” Bend corset combined with high stiff collars created a fashion climate ready for some relief from Victorian styles.  Relief came in the form of the “Harem Look.” Couturier Paul Poiret’s Orientalism stormed Paris successfully using the latest sales pitch, the catwalk show.  Meanwhile the Russian Ballet’s costumes, designed by Leon Bakst, were a triumph in the theatre and so introduced Eastern harem influences that the West could live with.


Most would attribute the fall of the corset directly to Paul Poiret’s fashion designs (others additionally site Chanel or Vionnet), reminiscent of the Directoire period (Regency or Empire look), which appealed to a youthful public looking for a change from the matronly Edwardian look.  Having been trained at the best couture houses in Paris, those of Worth and Doucet, Poiret saw the need for a break from the past prudishness of the Victorians and introduced dresses styled on the exotic Far East.


 Ballet had never been so popular in Europe, not since 1830, and this was widely reflected in the work of painters like Degas.  The Ballets Russes employed a painter named Leon Bakst to create costumes for exotic, lavish productions like “Scheherazade”, “Cleopatre” and “Tamar” displaying bright colours in romantic settings.  The time was right for the public to be exposed to something new and to abandon the pastels and frou frou of the old guard.  (fig. 43)  Such was the overwhelming acceptance of the sets and costumes of the touring Ballet Russes; interior designers, dressmakers and artists and the public were inspired and impressed.  In addition, stage stars like the dancer Isadora Duncan took the new aesthetic to heart and happily presented herself in public without a corset, thus introducing the audience to something shocking and exciting.  It must be said, though, the aristocracy and the nobility continued to maintain the use of corsetry through out the 20th century as a sign of good breeding, thought to set them apart from the lower orders.


Poiret was possibly the first designer to see the value of shock tactics when presenting his work and can be compared today with advant garde catwalk displays.  Poiret’s designs were so colourful, draped and tubular, they eventually influenced fashion for the masses as they “trickled down” to the High Street shop.  His harem skirt and the hobble skirt, a floor length pencil skirt with no pleats or slits, would only have been worn by very few women at first but it’s impact on the rest of society was lasting with mass production and added pleating, side panels and slits.  Such narrow skirts were adapted by many designers and the corset industry had to progress along with them in creating long narrow corsets with less accent on the waist and more on the hip and upper thigh areas. (fig. 44)  Corsetry design and development must move alongside fashion trends in order to survive.


In an even more youthful market, the use of “stay bands” for children, to protect them against the cold, had remained standard practice for about 2 hundred years.  “A flannel binder should be worn round the stomach and abdomen next to the skin; it should be sufficiently wide to cover the whole of the belly from hips to chest, and long enough to go twice round the body.” Dr D.E. Lock, Medical Officer of Health for the Uxbridge Urban District Council 1906.


The use of stay bands and other forms of stiffened or corded vests would continue until the 1920’s but in 1908 Symingtons revolutionised children’s underwear by developing the “Liberty Bodice.”  It was an instant success as a soft, lightweight, warm knitted cotton vest top which had front buttons for ease of dressing and tied fabric bands or “tapes” round it for support.  No longer would children be required to use a boned garment or tight bindings, freedom or “liberty” of movement was the healthy way.  Over 3 million bodices were produced and sold each year, eventually replacing children’s stay bands completely.  The Liberty Bodice remained in use in England until the 1960’s (fig. 46) Even an adult version was introduced which can still be obtained in an orthopaedic form for the elderly.


1914-1918, the Great War, not only sped up the decline of the empire of the corset it also became the mother invention when materials for corsetry began to dwindle.  Up to 75% of the metal components for corsetry manufacture were imported into the U.K. in addition to the vast amounts of fabrics from France and Belgium.  The war forced the U.K. to rethink its manufacturing and export industry.  Upgrading and expansion schemes were implemented to improve the financial gains to be made from a world wide export market, starting with the British Commonwealth.


It is interesting to note here that during the war, when raw materials like cotton and steel became scarce, the Germans resourcefully made use of pressed paper and twine products for undergarments!  Recycling of materials was popular everywhere.  Even old whalebone was taken out of umbrellas and strong pressed paper “Fibrone” was developed and used alternately with steel boning in corsets.  When the supply of raw rubber from British plantations within the Empire became cut off, research surged forward into alternative man-made fabrics like rayon and new forms of elasticised fabrics.  


As the war pressed on, being fashionable was not considered important when your country needed you and so the progressive development of lingerie in the form of basic utilitarian undergarments was hastened.  The brassier and short elastic girdle was by far more practical than any form of tight-lacing corset.  The corsolette, which first made its appearance in America in 1919, combined the two. 


“The Warner Corselette combines a bandeau, an abdominal confiner, and four hose supporters in such a way to give you an unbroken line from shoulder to knee.  As a corset house, we know, and as corset wearers, you know that no figure can long dispense with a corset and keep its lines.  Yet there are figures and there are occasions which require less corsetry than others.  We have developed for such occasions the Warner Corselette.”  Contemporary magazine Novenber 1921


The joining of a long-line bra and high waisted girdle, with very light boning and elastic panels, was an instant success and has been worn by generations of “full figured gals” ever since. (fig. 47)  In her book The History of the Corset, Emily Yooll explains, “Some schools of thought contend that all the control that is necessary can be exerted by means of a skilful cut, by stitching and reinforcement.  Boning however, is the most popular method of control.  This certainly applies so far as rigid corsetry is concerned.  Elastic corsetry comes into another category, in which the varying degrees and direction of stretch in a cloth give greater or lesser control.”  Emily Yooll was also the editor of the industry trade magazine Corsetry and Underwear Journal from 1935 to 1975.


Speaking about the disappearance of the corset after the French Revolution and again after the Great War, the fashion historian James Laver points out that, “both epochs were periods of feminine emancipation, so that it almost looks as if the throwing away of the corset was a kind of symbolic gesture and that is precisely what it was.  But while the women of 1800 wore no corsets at all, the women of the post-war period merely extracted the bones  - that is, they wore a foundation garment which by previous standards would not have been considered a corset at all.”


The Shape of Things to Come


After “The War to End All Wars, ”the New Figure and new lifestyles constantly required new corset designs.  Vulcanised rubber cloth was first used in 1911 to create a sports corset with less boning and in 1913 a dance corset (called “the tango”) claimed to prevent muscle fatigue.  In peace time, between the two World Wars, dresses, corsets and undergarments became quite flimsy once more, in a shameless display of the natural body and glorification of youth culture much as during the Regency period.   By 1923 sheets of rubber fabric were first used to create girdle foundations with exotic or vampish names like the  “Madame X,” a sort of tube corset or “roll-on” girdle which no longer served to sculpt the figure, rather control it, as a slimming aid.   This ideal did not really take off until the health and weight loss craze of the 1930’s but even today we still see ads in the back of magazine for such weight control garments which haven’t changed a bit. (fig. 45)


Inevitably, during the 1920’s, traditional rigid corsetry fell out of favour with the youth market.  The fashionable figure just did not demand it.  The accent was on youth and freedom and this meant “roll-on” and “step-in” girdles, made in the latest perforated rubber sheeting and elastic fabrics offering a modern image of comfort and convenience.  (fig. 48)  The new short, girdle-like garments were little more than glorified garter belts doing not much more than holding the stockings up, but in the 1930’s something a little more substantial was required and the corselet came into its own as only it could produce a figure worthy of the new, slinky figure hugging Jean Harlow style dresses. (fig. 49) A smooth unbroken line was the look, like Art Deco styling, sleek and modern.  Corsetry now had to be sold to women without really being called corsetry.  One did not wish to wear what one’s mother wore!  Anything considered to be “old-fashioned” would not stand a chance in a young, health conscious market.  Although still known in the trade as corsetry, this term generally referred to girdles, corselettes and brassieres.  So-called real or rigid corsetry referred to garments that laced up with boning and a steel busk.  They would also have to be made out of strong rigid fabric as opposed to the now well established elastic fabrics like Eclast, Wondastretch, Lustercale, Gripknit, Wondernet and Lastex.  Advertising of these new elastic foundations called for names reflecting a youthful, modern active woman.  Names like; Formfit, Radiante, Unda-fit, Sta-up-top, Fitu, Supacut and Flexees, calling to mind the control offered by these “miracle fabrics” with improved designs depending on the cut and shape for figure control.


The word corset was not in the vocabulary of the young who lived in the age of the zipper.  During the 20’s freedom and the excesses of youth took a toll on the feminine figure, as women were now able to eat and drink without the restriction of a rigid corset.  The decadence of the 1920’s, lead directly to the 1930’s national craze for healthy pursuits, regular exercise and fashionable suntans.  There was now an urgency to develop “healthy” designs for bras, girdles and corselettes, frantically trying to keep up with the mass market.  New elastics could also be combined with hook and eye tape, zippers or, occasionally, lacing and a short busk to create garments with “comfort, not constriction,” gently moulding the figure and not the old push and pull treatment.  Aiming at the health conscious market, surgical support was an ideal and successful sales tactic.  Suggested reasons for use were; general wear, figure control, support of thin women, breast support, control for larger women, muscular or posture weakness, abdominal up lift, prescription cases, post-operative, visceroptosis (prolapsed abdomen), hernia and orthopaedic.   Many sales assistants were experts in fitting garments and some companies even trained assistants in physiology and anatomy to reassure customers.  The main surgical supplier in Great Britain and America was Camp.  They also preached the importance of maternity corsetry for use in the support of the abdominal wall and protection of the foetus during pregnancy.  It is quite true, however, that the use of maternity corsetry can improve posture and alleviate backache.  Yet another corset would then be fitted for the postnatal period, to bring back the figure. (fig.50)


As the craze for health gained momentum, brands like Slimtex and Vita-flex promoted their rubber reducing girdles made in lightweight, perforated rubber sheeting, guaranteed not to split, peel or crack.  In 1937 Corsets Silhouette Company in Great Britain advertised the “Silhouette Radiante” corset range for about a year.  These foundation ads claimed that they were made with fabric “impregnated with radio-active elements – uranium, thorium and radium” and were said to “give a feeling of energy and fitness and a resistance to chills.” 


The rigid lacing corset, known for the past three centuries, was almost extinct thanks to the popularity of the naturally slim waist, a healthy figure and loose fitting garments.  Despite all this, society still considered it to be indecent for a lady to appear in public without a foundation garment of some sort.  The slightest hint of a “cheek cleft” under a slim fitting dress would be classified as indecent exposure!


In 1939 there was indeed a resurgence in back lacing corsetry caused by a brief fashion swing towards the “nipped-in waist” thanks in particular to the Mainbocher corset.  The “Waltz Waist” was a pale pink, back-lacing corset designed by couturier Mainbocher and was beautifully photographed in a neo classical pose. (fig.51)  This photo was the shot heard round the fashion world and many designers took the lead to return to small waists (the new “figure of eight” silhouette) in their Fall collections of 1939.  But as early as March 1938 the return of Victorian styling was announced.  The “New Silhouette” or the fashionable “New Woman,” again encouraged a 21-inch waist with nostalgic, old-fashioned styled corsetry like the Bon Ton “little laced waist corset” from the USA.  This trend may have lasted for quite a while if it had not been for the war and the manufacturing industry’s opinion that it was only an extreme fashion trend and merely a novelty.


Designers like Worth, Molyneux, Balanciaga, and to a certain extent Schiaparelli, were using genuine influences from the Victorian era to create boned, tailored suites and evening gowns with bustles, waist cinchers and even hoops and crinolines in their designs.  The new silhouette dictated by fashion produced a demand for some Edwardian styles to be brought back into production, but this time made predominantly in elastic with side zip fasteners.  Designers saw a fresh market for their product by designing foundation garments specifically to be worn with their own gowns and suits.  Mainbocher, the first, went on to produce a stylish collection of foundation garments with Warners in America in 1940.  Dior did the same with Lily of France in the 1950’s and Schiaparelli produced her own through out the 1940’s & 50’s.  War soon put an end to all of this frivolity….