Since ancient days, women have been preoccupied with attaining what is considered the perfect figure for their respective time period. Oftentimes, with the exception of the 1910s and ’20s, this centered around a small waist. You were expected to have a tiny midsection, whether it was natural or aided by fashion. Here is where shapewear enters our world.
From corsets to girdles, to fajas and waist trainers, women have been using shapewear to help sculpt their figure and make clothes fit and look better. In the ’90s they made the transition to stylish and daring outer clothing, and today, it seems like every celeb and influencer is in on the fajas and waist trainer fad. It’s always good to learn about the history of a garment, how it’s been worn, and what it has represented over the years. So, we are taking a trip back through the years for a historic look at our beloved shapewear.
Ancient Greece and Rome
Shapewear isn’t something that started with the tight corsets of the 1800s. In fact, it’s been around since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. In Crete, women would wear leather or metal belts, at times with metal corsets, all worn on the outside. The look is modeled by a Minoan statue of the Snake Goddess, dating back to 1600-1580 B.C. In ancient Rome, the breasts were bound by a strophium, which resembles today’s bandeau bra.
The 1500s and 1600s
Before the corset, there was the cotte. The French garment made its appearance during the 14th century and looked like a corset with a square neckline, wide-set straps, and no bust coverage. During the 16th century, Catherine de Medici, who was Queen of France, introduced the corset to the French court and demanded that all women wear them (with her ideal being 13 inches). The shape of corsets, known then as stays, was conical, pointed in the front, and made with things such as linen, iron, glue, wire, whalebone, reeds, and wood. The 17th century also saw the introduction of a busk, a long narrow piece of wood or whalebone added to the front of a corset to give it strength.
An interesting thing to note is that during the 1700s, and before, children often wore corsets. Girls and boys wore stays from an early age in order to perfect their posture and development. Girls continued to wear corsets into adulthood, with the conical shape remaining to be in style during the 18th century.
Corsets come back after a brief falling out following the French Revolution, and with it a curvier silhouette became popular. There was a time when the corset was much shorter (starting in the late 1700s), ending right under the bust, keeping in style with the on-trend empire waistline. But they were back to a longer length in the 1830s, to make the waist look tiny compared to the trending big sleeves and big skirts of the time. During the time, there also was a trend of men wearing corsets to make their waist smaller and chest look bigger.
Victorian Era (1837-1901)
During the Victorian era, women of every age and every class wore corsets. An improvement was made on this constricting undergarment with the invention of the steel busk, which allowed women to take corsets on and off by themselves, and metal eyelets and back lacing, so that women could tighten their own corsets. There were even corsets created for physical activities like bike riding.
Edwardian Era (1901-1910, give or take a few years)
The S-Bend shape, a la Gibson Girl, was in vogue during the Edwardian era. Corsets helped pull in the waist to achieve this dramatic, curvy look. It also curved out below the waist to add to curves.
The silhouette of the woman changed during the 1910s. The emphasis was on the bust, not the waist, and skirts were slimmer and column-like. Women wanted to smooth and slim their waist and hips together, as one, to create a more straight figure. Corsets now went down as far down as the thighs to achieve this. The first brassieres and elastic girdles also become fashionable during this time.
The flappers of the 1920s rejected constricting corsets and exaggerated curves for a totally different look. A straight up and down, boyish figure was in style, and girdles and bandeau bras were used to slim down the hips and flatten the bust.
Shapewear continued to change and evolve in the 1930s. While slim hips were still the ideal, a slightly more defined waist than what we see during the 1920s is desired. Corsets started including bras and Lastex offered more movement and stretch.
During WWII, fabric and metal had to be rationed, which affected women’s undergarments, and fashion in general. After the war, there was a return to femininity, and Christian Dior introduced his New Look, which was all about a tiny waist, and very full skirt. This meant more shapewear that focuses on bringing in the midsection, made more comfortable and wearable by the new man-made fibers that replaced whalebones.
The va-va-va-voom only increased in the 1950s, when most women wore falsies in their bullet bras, and corselets that came even came equipped with these faux breasts. Girdles remained in style and women would hook on stocking garters for a very feminine undergarment look.
Lycra was introduced in 1959 commercially which revolutionizes shapewear. With it, corsets and other shapewear will stretch but go back to their original shape, and everything will be held in, without having to use clasps and hooks. During the ’60s, there was a rebellion against corsets, especially during the Women’s/Feminist Movement, with fashionable ladies opting for bodysuits, and firm control briefs, while embracing a natural body shape.
Starting in the late 1960s, pantyhose started to replace the girdle as the preferred shapewear option. With these, you didn’t need a girdle to hold stockings up and by the late 1970s, those who wanted a shapewear effect could opt for control top pantyhose.
During the 1980s and ’90s, corsetry was brought back into style. Designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood created corsets that were worn on the outside of clothes. Madonna famously wore Gaultier’s corsets during her Blonde Ambition Tour. Instead of being seen as restrictive, corsets during the ’80s and ’90s were seen as sexy and empowering. The ’90s is also the decade where we see businesses, like Vedette Shapewear, importing fajas into the United States. These compression garments were first utilized in Colombia for healing after liposuction, but since then have become a go-to for women everywhere.
In 2000, something major happened in the world of shapewear. It was the year that Sara Blakely created the phenomenon Spanx. She cut the feet off of pantyhose and wore them under white pants, soon realizing that they shaped her without the bulk. Blakely ran with the idea, and turned her $5000 initial investment into $1billion.
In the 2010s, and so far in the 2020s, waist trainers, fajas, and Spanx reign supreme as the latest and greatest shapewear. Seen on celebs and influencers everywhere, there’s a version of this type of undergarment for everyone, from a simple piece that just wraps around the waist, to a full bodysuit with sleeves and shorts or pants. Corsets themselves are even seeing a resurgence, although they never fully ever went away.