“Guns or Bones!”


War commenced for Great Britain in September, 1939.  Prices rose by 20% as soon as the war began making it hard for women to afford their usual high quality foundation garments.   By 1941 rationing was in full force.  Its purpose was to distribute limited supplies fairly and discourage hoarding of goods by the “better off.”  During WWII, women from all walks of life were forced into wearing simple “roll-on” girdles or other slightly heavier foundation garments, commonly known as “utility corsets,” rather than their usual corsetry, which by now was in serious limited supply.  Many of the major corsetry manufacturers applied for licenses to produce utility garments, made in a basic form of the original designs, at controlled prices.  Garments that carried the government approved “CC41” label were supposed to guarantee “value for money,” but the disadvantage was that the utility corset’s materials were inferior to the usual high standards.  Prior to 1940 corsetry was expected to last for a year or two before requiring a replacement.  Utility corsets were made with less metal components and poor quality elastic fabrics due to government restrictions, so you were lucky if it lasted a few weeks before losing its support.  Known also as the “futility corset,” it would ride up especially without the scarce stockings needed to anchor it down!  Women, therefore started to wear trousers more and more in the 1940’s with a “pantie gridle”.  It also solved the problem of poor quality open bottom girdles riding up, with out the necessary stockings, as women are forced to go bare legged.  


In 1942 the US. banned the use of rubber in foundation corsetry manufacture and in the UK elastic fabrics were discontinued.  Restrictions in manufacture included; no trimmings or fancy stitching or lace, not more than two pairs of suspenders, no laces exceeding 4 ½ yards in length, the garment must not contain more than ¼ ounce of rubber or 4 ounces of metal (other than in suspender clips).  Women (and the corset industry) believed that at least some form of support was required for the long hours working either in the fields, in the factories or in the services, to maintain vigour and reduce muscle fatigue.  The foundation industry preyed upon women’s vanity at all times, pointing out how important it was to look your best in the air raid shelter in the presence of your husband and other, possibly younger women.  Correct corseting was also part of the wartime uniform for service women.  She not only should look her best, but also be able to do her best to serve King and Country.  Victory was more important than vanity!


Not less in Khaki serge, or blue

She, neatness’ self, steps into view

To captivate the eye anew.

Not the trim garb of war’s alarm

Shall wreak on Julia any harm

While sure foundation holds her charm.  Anonymous 1944


Raw materials required for the production of corsetry were reduced or cut off again when the war went global.  Standards in garment manufacture inevitably dropped.  Metal components were sacrificed in favour of munitions.  It was even suggested to use bamboo instead of steel bones.  The corsetry industry raised its voice in protest, “Guns or bones!” and “S.O.S. - Save Our Suspenders!” Rich or poor, practicality and patriotism reigned. (fig. 52)  Women were requested to save all metal components from old garments for use in new ones, “Save for victory!”  Just think of how many Victorian corsets were destroyed for the cause! 


But rationing saw high grade corset production cut to 50% and quality foundation garments were classified as luxury items.  The industry argued this declaring that quality corsetry helped women face the war with greater courage and confidence against “war nerves.”  A woman’s body could react positively both mentally and physically to the control and support given by a foundation garment.   In 1944 an organised petition was presented to the British government by the Corset Guild of Great Britain, a concerned group made up of manufacturers and retailers of foundation garments.  The Guild stated that women’s nervous and physical energy was under great strain and thus foundations were essential to women’s health and therefore; to Great Britain.  The government in turn classified foundation garments and corsetry under the “Essential Works Order”.  This meant that in the future the standards in manufacture of these garments would be guaranteed and made an “essential” to the working women of Great Britain. “Garments should be of top quality so as to reduce fatigue and maintain the war effort,” said the British government.


Foundation manufacture within Europe suffered many new problems when faced with German occupation in the early stages of the war.  In Vienna most of the hand-made goods producers (about 9,300) shut down if the owners could not prove, by their grandparents’ baptism certificates, that they were “Aryan”.  Others were handed over to new owners who could prove their “Aryanism”.  Still more left Austria and carried on in their work in Switzerland, Great Britain and the United States.  The following is from The Corsetry and Underwear Journal, January 1939, a trade magazine produced monthly in the U.K.; “Under the Nazi influence women seem to be forced to get away from the slim silhouette and to eat more in order to become healthier mothers.  The growing number of Viennese women with well-developed forms has induced Austrian corset producers to include in their collections more foundations closed by lacing.  It remains to be seen whether the dramatic episode [stage act] performed at the Casino de Paris with a German passenger of a sleeping car having multi-coloured swastikas embroidered on his pants, will inspire Viennese corset producers to provide foundations with swastika emblems or with swastika shaped buttons.”


The Synthetic Age


“Civilisation has passed through many stages of development; it has had an “Ice Age,” a “Stone Age,” and many others, and it is possible that future historians will refer to the present the “Synthetic Age,” in which scientific progress has enabled men to replace many natural materials by artificial substituted.”

L. Rowland, Corsetry and Underwear Journal , March 1944


After two World Wars and in a bid to avoid becoming dependent on other nations ever again for resources of raw materials, many countries developed artificially manufactured materials.  Nylon would eventually be put into production by 1940 and used widely in the manufacture of hosiery and lingerie in the U.S.A.  Synthetic rubbers like Neoprene and Buna were developed and experimented with as a suitable replacement for natural rubber products throughout the 1940’s.  Neoprene is a chemical compound derived from coal, limestone, and salt.  When mixed with 25% natural rubber, it produces a suitable substance that can be used in elastic thread that can be woven into cloth.


Living with years of utility (and futility), women looked back to a more romantic time.  “The new woman must be mysterious, alluring and witty… she will be vested, gloved and corsetted… there must be frou-frou and femininity, restraints and rendezvous.” Vogue 1938-39   However, at the other end of the scale, the limited supply of quality foundations and distrust of utility garments made some women turn their backs on corsetry.  A new life of responsibility and toil as a member of the workforce made the use of a brassiere and garter belt far more appealing than the excessive support offered by modern foundations.  Corsetry was seeing renewed signs of abandonment as it had in the 1920’s. 


Dior’s “New Look” in 1947 appealed to a depressed market looking for a “feel good factor”.  Couture designer Christian Dior’s influences were from the 19th century’s most opulent designer, Charles Frederick Worth  (1825-95) and the master of simplicity, Captain Edward Molyneux (1891-1974).  Boned dress bodices and suit jackets with nipped-in waists and full circle skirts prevailed for a whole decade. Fig. 53) Dior delighted in gleaning ideas from the crinoline and bustled gowns of Worth.  He simplified them so as to make women appear like flowers in full bloom.  The New Look was to be a symbol of a return to happier times for Europe.  It lasted ‘till 1957 with each of Dior’s collections featuring crinolines of some sort.   His designs triumphed in America immediately, but they did take some time in Europe to catch on due to restrictions and rationing that applied ‘till 1949.   His vision of a new figure for women brought femininity back into focus on the figure.


“Waspies” were specially developed for the New Look.  They were short corsets, only 6” deep, with small boning and elastic inserts to match.  They even laced at the back so as to achieve the desired hourglass look.  Couture houses in Paris quickly found themselves models capable of displaying the latest foundation craze.  They could easily achieve waists as small as 17” to represent the new ideal.  (fig. 54)


“A figure’s not God-given, grace depends on good exercise and good corseting.  The exercise is up to will power; the corset to wise choice.”  Vogue 1950’s


In the “Age of Good Grooming” the word corset remained out-moded and was substituted more often with “foundation,” “intimate apparel” or as today, “body shaping” or “body sculpting.”  Fashion continued to further the development of synthetics like rayon, nylon and Dacron following the theme of the 1950’s – the future is now.  But Europe was devastated after the war and still suffering under years of rationing, Britain was slow to develop designs using the synthetics to their best advantage.  America on-the-other-hand advanced quickly and stylishly.  The lingerie designs of the 1950’s by companies like Warners were engineering feats of delight in two-way stretch elastic fabrics that are still copied today.   The “Merry Widow,” for one, is a classic design combination of long-line brassiere and waist cinching garter belt.  Named after a popular MGM film of 1952 starring Lana Turner, the advertising slogan proclaimed “You’ll look so naughty - feel so nice!”  (fig.s 55 & 56)


Since the late 1930’s Hollywood was busy producing immensely popular historically themed films which in turn influenced fashion and lingerie, with period perfect frou-frou touches.  Many films featured scenes with the heroine in her drawers and corset being sternly laced in.  Take the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for example.  This lavish musical featured an entire dance number performed by numerous young ladies in a state of undress with their corsets fully laced.  (fig.s 57 & 58)  Some films had specific lingerie tie-ins like department store promotions of foundations for the release of “Gone With the Wind” in the 1940’s featuring “Scarlet O’Hara girdles.”  Additionally the 20th Century Fox film of the life of the Broadway performer Lillian Russell staring Alice Faye in 1940 was specially promoted with the display of a replica of the famous diamond trimmed corset made for Ms Russell.  The original in the 1890’s and it’s 1940 replica were both made by Madame Binner.


 Promotion and advertising of some of the new foundations utilised a danger angle too.  Occasionally stories of women fainting were reported in a sensational manner by the press who still relied upon the fanciful correspondence from the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine for “facts” about the dangers of corseting.  A two-inch reduction was the norm but as much as five was possible with certain heavier-weight garments available “off the peg” to the general public in department stores.


Foundations for all!


An incredible array of foundation garments, more than ever before, were on the market, suiting every lifestyle for young and old.  Girls or “juniors,” once out of their knee socks and liberty bodices, were moved into the world of foundations with the use of lightly elasticated roll-on style girdles.  This was an ideal way to get started and the best way to hold up their knitted cotton stockings.  For the adults, women were also acceptably wearing trousers, and panty girdles became an essential.  Some styles of girdle incorporated a very high elastic waist, providing for that lasting fashion of a narrow waist but without lacing.


Popular designers, by the late 50’s, had had enough of the fuss made over the nipped-in waist.  CoCo Chanel made her triumphant comeback at this time by making a lasting mark on the face of fashion.  Vallerie Steel describes Chanel’s importance in her book Paris Fashion, a Cultural History, “ She is said to have abolished feminine frills, liberated women from the corset, and almost single-handedly introduced sportswear, the “poor boy” look, bobbed hair, the colour beige, designer perfume, suntans and the “little black dress.”  Of course, to take only one example, among the many others who claim to have abolished the corset are Poiret, Vionnet, and the English designer Lucille.  In fact the corset never really disappeared, but rather evolved into other types of foundation garments, such as the elasticised girdle and brassiere (and, more recently, undergarments made of Lycra).”


In the distance, the rumblings of a new revolution were being heard when, in 1959, the development of Elastomerics hit the fashion industry.  The new wonder fabrics developed by DuPont included Lycra and Spandex.  At last, a foundation garment could feel as light as a modern swimsuit, but the final blow to corsetry came with the development of pantyhose or “tights.”  No longer was there a need for a separate garment to hold up the stocking or the need for the stocking to hold down the corset!  Tights with reinforced tummy control panels put an end to the need for a separate foundation garment.  Pantyhose allowed fashion to raise the skirt hems as high as it liked and made the seamed stocking outmoded and out of a job.  Soon enough,  Lycra could provide the support of a girdle in one pair of modern tights, provided the wearer was near her recommended weight.  Fashions in the 1960’s again moved towards the youth market and a boyish look demanding freedom for its followers as in the 1920’s. (fig. 59)


The wheel of fashion had turned yet again.