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Retro girdles and corsets - shapewear is back


									Retro styling - these days the term is being applied to everything from clothing to
furnishing the home. The name retro comes from the Latin meaning 'backwards'. This
article is concerned with retro lingerie, or to be more specific retro shapewear.

Although most of the comments that follow describe the sleek chic girdles from the
fifties and sixties, they can equally apply to today's girdles that are based on the
original designs.

The war years were years of austerity and women on both sides of the channel dressed
for comfort, to help the war effort. At the end of the war women wanted to attract
their men and fashions reflected this desire. This culminated in Christian Dior fashion,
which required a sleek, chic silhouette that only a corselet, corset or girdle could
provide. Suddenly all women wore girdles, and not just women either - all the
shapewear manufacturers targeted not just women but teens as well. All kinds of
'girdles for young teens' were marketed. Probably the teen girdle that gained the
maximum coverage, in more than one sense, was the panty girdle - a tight-fitting cross
between a girdle that held the tummy in and one that protected the wearer from
advances, whether unwelcome of otherwise!

The girdle had several functions - to give that sleek chic silhouette to the wearer and
to hold up the nylon stockings. Girdles generally had a minimum of two pairs of
garter clips. There are two at the front and two garter clips, usually slightly offset
from the rear. The garters are offset so that when the girdle wearer sits down they do
not have to sit directly on the clips! The open bottom girdles usually have the garter
clips on elastic straps, which is useful in keeping the nylon stockings taught as the
wearer moves about, sitting and standing. The nylon stockings from the fifties did not
have spandex or lycra and were non-stretch; without the elastic of the garter strap the
stocking would 'bag' as the wearer stood up.

The panty girdle, and particularly the long-leg panty girdle often has the garter tab
attached directly to the girdle itself. The leg part of the long-leg panty girdle usually
completely covers the welt of the stocking, losing the gap of bare thigh above the
stocking top. Many men find the garter strap and the flash of bare thigh very exciting
and the long leg panty girdle, although practical, has often been described (along with
pantyhose) as a "passion killer".

Girdle materials Modern and retro girdles usually feature spandex or Lycra for
elasticity, but the original girdles dating from around the 1930s usually used rubber to
give stretch. The introduction of rubber was a major step in corsetry - the ultra-rigid
corset had suddenly become more flexible. In parallel with its introduction the terms
associated with such items of clothing also metamorphosed: from the original corset,
the term roll-on came into vogue, particularly in the USA, then came the step-in and
the corselette, often known as the 'all in one'.
Indeed for a while Playtex marketed a girdle molded from pure latex - these have
become quite the collectors item these days, partly because of rarity value. Pure latex
deteriorates over time and the garment then perishes, so few remain in good condition.
It is interesting to know whether the common latex allergy affected wearers, but
whatever the reason, these girdles are no longer manufactured by Playtex.

Retro shapewear share the same objective as vintage shapewear did, namely to sculpt
the shape of the body. Elasticity can help to hold and control figures but for more
rigid control a variety of 'bones' have been used over the years. The original
whalebone corset did actually use whale baleen - which are the cartilage-like "teeth"
which whales use to filter plankton. Each baleen is enormous, around ten inches wide
and ten to twelve feet long. It proved an ideal material for corset makers because it
consisted of parallel fibres that could be relatively easily split into thin strips; these
strips could be shaped by heating them over steam and when they cooled they held
their shape. Of course the demise of the whale population led to the supply becoming
an issue. Fortunately other alternatives proved suitable - manmade plastics like
celluloid, and even flattened steel springs!

Historic background to the corset The forerunner of the girdle was the corset, and that
had its origins further back still in ladies stays. Indeed there is archaelogical evidence
going back to 3000BC showing women with waists cinched in tightly by a garment
that appears ribbed. It was around the fourteenth century that women started wearing
a stiffened linen undergarment garment, laced in at the front or back, and by the
fifteenth century these 'stays' were relatively common; the probable derivation of the
English corset from bodice ('bodies') to the French translation of this 'corps' which
transmuted back to corset. The original corsets were made by stitching together two
layers of linen with a paste in the middle of the 'sandwich' to provide stiffening.
However, from the sixteenth century corset makers had turned to using whale baleen
(known incorrectly as whalebone) to provide the stiffening, and this provided far
more rigidity than the earlier paste corsets.

By 1940, in both America and Europe, the corset had given way to the girdle, worn in
conjunction with a bra.

After the fifties came the swinging sixties, when women were exhorted to burn their
bras and stop wearing such restrictive underwear. But as with all fashion, girdle
wearing has now gone full circle. Burlesque artists have made the 'art of tease' in
which girdles, basques and corsets are on show, into popular entertainment.
Wonderbra have enticed the burlesque star Dita von Teese to design, model and
market a range of retro girdles and bras based on fifties designs.

The burlesque art form is now burgeoning and the esteemed Royal Festival Hall held
the worlds largest burlesque lesson in January 2009, evidencing how mainstream this
art has become. Original fifties girdles, corsets and basques are found in specialist
online lingerie boutiques or vintage stores, but to satisfy the demand all sorts of
outlets have now sprung up to satisfy the demands of burlesque. These shops and
online stores invariably turn to the forties and fifties for styling inspiration for their
retro shapewear - and the biggest item that seems to be in demand is the corset.
Fashion really has returned to its roots.

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