A History of Foundation Garments

Jun 29


Patrick Bergert

Patrick Bergert

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It's sometimes said that people just aren't as put together as they used to be. Some say that society went to hell when men stopped wearing hats and w...

It's sometimes said that people just aren't as put together as they used to be. Some say that society went to hell when men stopped wearing hats and women threw away their girdles. Well,A History of Foundation Garments Articles that's debatable, but it is true that today, most people in the U.S. value comfort over formality in their day-to-day wardrobe. This has had a dramatic effect, for better or worse on how people look in their clothes and the image that they project out into the world. Men abandoned hats as a staple of their daily wardrobe, beginning in the late 1960s and women tossed their girdles away around the same time, preferring a more natural and comfortable look. That was revolutionary 50 years ago, but foundation garments for women never really disappeared. They just changed, and then changed again. It really shouldn't be too surprising, for as long as women seek to shape and enhance their figures, there will be foundation garments.

What are foundation garments?

Foundation garments are garments which are worn underneath outer dress clothes and may, but not always reshape the wearer's body. All of the usual suspects, including panties, brassieres, corsets, bustiers, slips, girdles and control top pantyhose are foundation garments. Changing fashions and social pressures have always been a driving force for the evolution of foundation garments and historically, as hemlines changed, values changed and a different silhouette became the new ideal, foundation garments changed too.

Foundation garments of the past:

Throughout the 19th century, women who had money and time to concern themselves with fashion, all wore corsets. A corset is a very restrictive, shape altering garment with rigid boning and panels that constricts the body to create an hourglass shape. These were designed to emphasize a tiny waist, below which flowed petticoats and elaborate skirts. The short corset circled the torso and ran up from the hips to the top of the waist. Overbust corsets were longer and pushed up the breasts to create a high busom and a longer waist. This was considered the proper foundation garment for any "lady" of the day, with doctors touting numerous health benefits of wearing them.

Things started to change around the turn of the 20th century as women fought for their equal place in society. Women began to do more, and with this freedom looked towards newer less restrictive fashions for daily activities. The corset was soon replaced by the corselet, or corselette. It was a derivation of the old corset but lacked the rigid boning that went into  corsets. There was still a lot of shaping that went on with these, but because they lacked the boning, they allowed for a freer range of movement. Early corselettes consisted of cloth panels which were laced together to fit. Later these fabric panels were blended with rubber, creating a more stretch-to-fit construction like we see in so many foundation garments today. The cloth panels were much more flexible which made the corselet far more comfortable to wear than a corset. Almost without exception, corselettes had garters on the bottom to attach to stocking tops. At the time, it wasn't considered in good taste to go bare legged, so women always wore the hosiery of the day, stockings.

The corselette was a staple foundation garment for a few decades and continued to evolve. Starting with the 1930s, thanks to women such as Katharine Hepburn, it became popular for women to wear pants in more casual settings instead of dresses. This of course was quite a change for society, and for the corselette, as garters were obviously not needed with pants. Since upper body shaping was still desirable, the torsolette was drawn from the corselette. A torsolette is a shorter corselette which covers the bust but stops at the top of the waist and doesn't have any garters. This design is still in use today and is often called a body slimmer.

Bust uplift cups were then introduced in 1943, setting forth the fashion of a prominent uplifted bust and an iconic look which lasted through the 1950s. Around this time, separate top and bottom foundation pieces became popular and started a shift towards the prominence of girdles.


Fashion historians credit French fashion designer Paul Poiret with inventing the girdle in 1910 and popularizing it. So, what is a girdle? It is a figure slimming open bottom garment, worn around the mid-section extending from the upper waist (bottom of the ribs) down over the thighs. Various leg lengths were popular throughout its 60 year history and were cleverly marketed as having their figure enhancing virtues. Until 1910, the corset was the principle women's foundation garment and dictated how the female form would be emphasized with clothing. Poiret's new fashion designs began to deemphasize the waist which was such a focal point during the corset era (1830-1910) and began to emphasize smooth hips and derriere.
The girdle pulls the derriere together and creates a very smooth and firm silhouette. On women of all shapes and sizes, there would be smooth curves and lines with no jiggling of the tummy and behind! Girdles, like all foundation garments impart a level of rigid figure control, and affected the posture and way in which women moved in their clothes. This aspect, without a doubt contributed to the glamour and grace of those eras. Simply put, the clothes and the glamour of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s would not have been possible without the girdle.

What happened to the girdle?

Girdles were an essential part of fashion between the 1910s and 1970, quickly going out of style thereafter. Western culture, as we all know changed dramatically in the late 1960s. The emphasis in women's fashion was put on a more natural and unrestricted body form. Driven by a new, younger generation in the late 1960s, social structures and norms were turned upside down. This change affected just about everything, including fashion and clothing. Girdles and stockings were regarded as unnatural and unnecessary by a whole generation of young women. Tastes rapidly changed, and young women preferred to wear foundation garments that did not constrict movement or reshape the body much at all. In fact many chose not to wear any foundation garments at all! Add into this, the popularity of very short skirt lengths, bare legs and the popularity of denim jeans, and the girdle was very quickly on its way out.

Foundation garments today

The desire to shape and contour the female body never really went away though. Time goes by, tastes change, and the pendulum swings back to past fashions and a desire to shape the body. Foundation garments are once again very popular, only they have taken on new names and shapes. Today, foundation garments include not only underwear and brassieres, but also shapewear. Shapewear is a newer term to describe the myriad foundation garments sold today which reshape and enhance the body. The materials and styles may have changed from the old days, but their purpose is still the same. For as long as women and men obsess over the beauty and sexuality of the female form, foundation garments will remain a part of many a woman's wardrobe.