How did 1950s models get such tiny waists? The low down on waist training

I’ve often marvelled at the different body shapes which have been in fashion over the decades: from the skinny boyish figure of the 1920s and 1960s to the fabulous hourglass figures of the 1950s. It also got me wondering why people don’t look like that today.

Betty Brosmer and her tiny waist

Above: 1950s model and pinup Betty Brosmer. Image courtesy of BettyBrosmer.com

It was quite a revelation to discover the practice of waist training. Of course I’d heard about corsets but I hadn’t realized the body-modifying effects they had on models and the part they played in creating those amazing tiny waists.

It was even more of a surprise to find that this practice is still widely used by models, pin up girls and burlesque performers today.

I was determined to find out exactly what was involved, so when I met Ben Gallivan and discovered that he was an expert on corseting and waist training it was a great opportunity to get the low down on this secretive art …

Here’s what he had to say:

Training corsets can be used for different reasons but ultimately the same end product; body modification. The two main reasons that they are used are no doubt obvious to most; many are used for medical reasons for instance to correct curvature of the spine or suchlike but also they are used more and more often for cosmetic reasons. We’ll be concentrating on the latter here.

Firstly it’s important to know the jargon. Waist training can also be known as corset training, waist cinching and waist reduction; it is more than likely that you’ll hear these phrases or variations on them at some point but essentially they mean exactly the same thing. It is also important to understand that you can’t just pick up any old corset online or in-store and expect it to work wonders on your figure – some are merely fashion corsets and will have no effect at all in shrinking that waist down.

This is where we need to start talking about boning (no laughing at the back, this is serious!). The boning of a corset is what keeps everything in place, and waist training corsets generally have a steel boned structure. Even when the corset is tightly laced up, the steel boning prevents anything sticking out (so no unsightly bulges!) or anything sticking into you. If you find exactly the right corset for waist training it is more than likely that you could eventually take 4 or 5 inches off your current waist size, they really are that effective.

If the whole idea appeals to you, then there are a few things to consider before you get your credit card out and order one from the first site that you come across. Firstly, it is very important that you seek medical advice before going down the waist training road. This isn’t meant to put you off, but it is essential that you get plenty of advice and do your own research into it before taking the final step.

The phrase ‘steel boned corset’ doesn’t exactly conjure up images of beautiful, floral pieces of clothing but that’s just your mind playing tricks with you. Steel boned corsets don’t only come with a choice of gorgeous patterns and strong, sturdy fabrics, but also a choice of underbust or overbust.

Waist Training Corset

Quite self-explanatory, the underbust corset concentrates on solely that – anything under the bust. The breasts won’t be any more supported as with any other clothing, this is purely all about the waist. Therefore, you might want to wear something underneath the corset should you be venturing out in public. The overbust corset not only pulls the waist in (more comfortable than it sounds!), but also supports and accentuates the breasts and they can be worn alone – providing of course you’ve got something on below the belt.

This may all make it a little more confusing and difficult a decision than you were expecting when you first started reading, I’m sure; but if you speak to the right people and look in all the right places then you could be getting that hourglass figure that you’ve always dreamed of in next to not time, and with only the smallest expense.

Ben Gallivan is a dedicated follower of vintage fashions. He writes for Corset-Story, an online corset and accessories store which specialises in waist training corsets as well as those in the fashion and burlesque style.

You might also like: Waist training: a visual history of corsetry

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  • Annie

    Yuk! I don’t like it that women strap themselves into waist cinchers to fit clothing. Better to tailor the body than the clothing and that comes with good diet and fitness training. I still have my 18 year old physique and waistline at 61 years because I exercise and eat well. With a good body you can look good in a gunny sack as my husband says I do. Also, what do we have to conform to fashion for? Better to be ourselves in all our natural beauty whether large or small; we don’t need cinched waists.

    • http://weheartvintage.co We Heart Vintage

      I must admit, I’m not sure it’s something I would choose to do either Annie, but I’m kind of relieved to discover that the tiny waists you saw in 1950s fashion photos weren’t natural!
      In the same way we all know that modern fashion images in magazines are photoshopped and manipulated (right or wrong), those 1950s models didn’t spring into this world looking like that either!

      • http://victoriablack4.wordpress.com Ava Strange

        Corsets are not intended to cheat your way to being in great shape. It’s a completely different look. It has to do with small waists, sometimes to an unnatural degree (on purpose) and curves. Different methods for different results. Don’t confuse them.

        • vilvintage

          Hi Ava
          Thanks for your comments, do you have experience of tight-lacing yourself? :)

          • http://victoriablack4.wordpress.com Ava Strange

            I do! I’ve been tightlacing for 7 years and since before that I’ve been reading absolutely anything about it I can get my hands on. I write about corsets a fair bit on my blog, and have been posting my best friend’s tightlacing journal too :) http://avastrange.com/category/underwear/corsets-underwear/ I also strongly recommend checking out Lucy’s Corsetry, she has the largest and most well-informed pile of info I have ever seen.

          • vilvintage

            Thanks Ava, I’d be interested to find out more, I’ll check out those links :)

          • Betty Cooper

            We can wear girdles and corsets today if we wish – and many do!
            However, we have not been brought up to the 1950s idea that a small waist and completely flat stomach were ideals of beauty. I caught the end of this period and can remember that girdles were “absolutely” necessary once you arrived at the age of 14 or so. At that time it was normal / usual / accepted that your best clothes would be a little (or a lot!) uncomfortable. Therefore women accepted that they needed an ordinary girdle for everyday wear, and a firm control girdle for best wear.
            ….and that’s not saying anything about those adorable / hated long line bras….oh boy!
            It was the same in the Victorian age, except the corsets were tighter, stiffer and longer.
            Betty

    • Treasure

      No you don’t. You do not have the body of an 18 year old.

      If you are 61; you were obviously a dirty hippy who just doesn’t understand.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ruthann.castillo.9 Ruth Ann Castillo

        Why do you attack Annie so angrily? You essentially are calling her a liar, and a “dirty hippy”. What gives you the right, you do not know her at all. If she has worked at it, she could very well have the same measurements as when she was young. I have seen it many times. She obviously advocates exercise and healthy eating as an alternative to unhealthy corseting. She also believes in self love and tolerance of others rather than conforming to these corporate money making images of perfect women that are thrown at us at every turn. You are the one that doesn’t understand. Until you do, keep your name calling to yourself.

        • Andi

          Although I don’t agree with Treasures name calling, i sure don’t agree with Annie or you making great assumptions and judgments either. We don’t corset for other people, or to fit into some ideal of beauty (which, recently has been stick thin, not the curves that the corset creates… so already there’s a problem with that argument) we do it because we enjoy it. No one is forcing us to do it. Some of us like the curves it creates (for women who feel they have a very straight or boyish figure), some of us like the “hug” feeling, and I personally like having that little extra back support while I’m at work on my feet for 8 hours a day. Waist training takes serious dedication, and anyone who thinks we do that for anyone but ourselves is sadly mistaken. Corsetting may not be for you, but don’t judge us because we do it.

    • Corazon

      A lot of women had a ruptured liver in these days, because of the thight corsets.

      • http://weheartvintage.co Mary, We Heart Vintage

        Ouch!

      • http://victoriablack4.wordpress.com Ava Strange

        Proof?

    • croatia

      if you have your 18yr old body at 61…that is great. (hard to believe but great)
      but it looks like you have your 18yr old mind as well!
      what’s the point in judging others for their choices like this…obviously your era worshiped the sun and other such mind blindingly stupid things…so live and let live…

    • http://www.facebook.com/moka.nojed Moka Nojed

      This isnt about be a skinny stick figure like you and lots of people were at 18 years old. its about having WOMANLY Curves not a GIRLISH Figure. I was a bartender at a club/ lounge for years and we were required to wear corsets and it kept my waist slim I got complements all the time on how curvy I was ..

  • http://idthornell.wordpress.com Inga

    From skull binding to foot binding to tattooing, we humans have apparently been modifying and ornamenting ourselves since we have been human. My two favorite books on the cultural ubiquity of body modification are The Unfashionable Human Body and Body Packaging. >^..^<

    • http://weheartvintage.co We Heart Vintage

      oh my goodness, I’d never even heard of skull binding. Don’t like the sound of that very much! Yikes!

  • Chipper

    My grandmothers and great-grandmothers practiced this and discovered a horrible side effect –fallen uterus. So although I’m intrigued by the look and love pin-up girls, I won’t be trying this at home.

    • http://victoriablack4.wordpress.com Ava Strange

      Prolapsed uterus will NOT result from responsible tightlacing unless it’s from the aggravation of a pre-existing issue.

  • http://dearhelenhartman.blogspot.com Dear Helen Hartman

    Ouch. Really. Seriously. OUUUUUCCHHH! I can’t breathe just reading about it.

  • Amii ScarletPout

    What a fantastic article! I myself use corsets as a means of reducing my waist size, after.four years I’m down to 25″ roughly, laced up. If you like, take a peek at my blog scarletpout.blogspot.com/, I document my waist training in amongst alternative fashion posts :)

    • http://weheartvintage.co Mary, We Heart Vintage

      Hi Amii
      Thanks for your comment, it’s good to hear from someone who actually does waist training – I’ll definitely check out your blog!

  • contrarian

    I am a maker of custom corsets. I’m here to tell you that a basic principle of waist training also pertains to tight clothing of any kind, particularly those that are so commonly referred to as “muffin top”-making garments. Wear enough of these styles on a daily cycle and you will gradually notice a displacement of soft body tissue (OK, fat deposits) in the places where there is no restriction, often the back, arms and stomach.

    Exploding livers? Wow. I’ll have to look into that…

  • http://www.facebook.com/XinhV Xinh Vo Trong

    As much as I love the esthetic beauty of corsets and small waists, it’s not a healthy thing to do to one’s body. Unfortunately I saw a documentary of the use of corsets in the old days, and what most people who do this forget is, your waist and your internal organs are quite soft.
    If you do the waist training on long terms, apparently you’re internal organs (stomach, intestins, liver; etc.) move up to the chest area, since they need space in the body as well, they simply cannot function in an unnaturally small waist. And the “fallen uterus”, yes it is very possible that it will happen too.
    There’s a reason why we were born with the body proportions we have :)

    • http://ellelaurelrose.com/ Elle Laurel Rose

      I like fashion corsets, and they seem to be good for my posture. I don’t wear them just chillaxing around though. :)

  • http://gravatar.com/s0then1quitthatj0b s0then1quitthatj0b

    I just wanted to mention… I stumbled on to your page while looking at photos of Playboy Bunnies on Pinterest, I assume somewhere in here I’ll find them… I was looking because a friend told me she’d found herself pinned on the page of a stranger. I’ve noticed that many people refer to the bunny costume as a sort of corset. Let me just be clear that we did not use them as such; although they contained boning that was to keep them in place. Each costume was made to fit the individual who wore it and of hundred of former bunnies I know through the internet, none of them ever felt it was in the least uncomfortable. Many feel it was the most comfortable piece of clothing they ever wore (and some of them are in their 70s now). We were all very thin when hired, and the cleavage, not the waist, was where the illusion came in; most of us stuffed the cups. See explayboybunnies.com (I am not affiliated) for confirmation of this.

  • amylynnburch

    I very much appreciate and enjoyed your article regarding waist training. I far prefer maintaining my feminine curves and appreciate the aid of corsets. I once had a naturally small waist but childbearing has altered the natural proportions of my body. I am so very thankful for the resurgence of corsets to help me gain back what was once mine naturally.

    • vilvintage

      That’s good to hear, I’m a bit apple shaped after having a baby so perhaps a corset is what I need!

  • Kassandra

    I would not try waist training but I also think many of the 50s women had natural hourglass figures that nature no longer replicates. The average 50s woman was 37-27-39. Those are my exact measurements and I have never waist trained in my life, and I actually had 3 kids. I am half cuban and I do see many cuban and brazilian women with similar shape so I think its genetic so its not always fake. Also, many women today lose too much weight and so their hourglass figures cannot show. This is particularly common among caucasian women. I am 150 pounds of beautiful hourglass so I guess its a combination of luck, exercise and not starving myself.

    • vilvintage

      What a refreshing comment Kassandra! Sadly when I put on weight it goes straight round my middle making me barrel-shaped ;) I’m probably the perfect candidate for a corset but just don’t fancy it much…

      • Kassandra

        I wouldnt either. It sounds uncomfortable. If i was your shape id simply lose a bit of weight and show off my legs instead of waist. I have hourglass but I dont have long thin legs. I dont wear mini skirts and theres some cellulite on upper thighs. I will never have thin thighs. Its all about showing off what you do have instead of mutating your body lol.

        • vilvintage

          absolutely! I’m loving sixties-style shift dresses, I don’t have to suck my tummy in then ;)

    • http://ellelaurelrose.com/ Elle Laurel Rose

      Those are similar to my measurements (although I get confused about bust measurements and what counts for this purpose, not bra sizing). I am really petite too. When I gained weight while stressed (before I learned about cortisol) I gained tummy fat but kept the little waist ratio / front visual, which I still have after dropping weight. I think I am more of a pear than other types – but I’m me, curvy and hot regardless. :)

  • Heather

    I’ve always had a hugely dramatic small waist to large hips and chest – naturally. Unfortunately it got me nothing but abuse at school as I was not straight up and down – I wish more people would learn to appreciate this body shape which can be natural.

    • vilvintage

      wow, lucky you! The first place I put weight on is around my tummy so my waist is always the first thing to go! All body types can be wonderful can’t they :)

    • Seek

      Believe it, I appreciate it. From me, you’d get full attention, zero abuse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cathy.creswell.3 Cathy Creswell

    I have pectus excavatum, a disorder that I was born with. My sternum isn’t flat, it dips into my body, the area between by breasts looks like a bowl!! As a result, my ribcage flares at the bottom and my chest contents bulge out into my waist area. I have always had a large waist even when I was 16, at 96 lbs., and 32 -28- 32. No curves at all, I wanted a smaller waist to make things look proportional. I still do!! I bought a tight lacing underbust corset maybe 5 years ago, but the thing is so tricky to put on!! Plus, even though it makes my waist smaller, it pushes my tummy bulge down to my pubic area! Not attractive nor does it feel good. I seriously think I need a different corset, but money is a problem. Plus, I hate feeling hot and sticky and the things require dilligence to put on every day. So, I remain a potato.

    • Shannon Jennifer Knight

      Please write me and I will help you :) measurements 36-25-37 5’7″ 125 lbs. I eat and do moderate exercise and consequently this diet keeps me in remission from stage 4 breast cancer. check out the ketogenic diet from Dr. Mercola. I eat a little more veggies and drink Doc Broc from phmiracalliving . com I beat cancer that had a death sentence without chemotherapy. My tummy more defined than many teenagers. The first thing I kicked out of my life was starch sugar. The holidays are coming up and friends will challenge you. I even have friends say “Your too skinny!” I gnore them because I eat very healthy and I think their just may be a little more to that and I do not think they are genuinely worried about my weight. I am learning to IGNORE FINALLY. Slowly but surely I am listening to my own inner voice and trusting it. It’s not easy but you can do it.

      I also kicked out anything colorful to drink bought in a grocery store. It usually has artificial sweetener or too much sugar. It is scientifically proven that artificial sweeteners are a culprit in adding to the problem of weight gain. Please research it. I do not eat anything that says fat-free or sugar-free. I drink water and if I didn’t make the juice myself which would be juice from one orange at the most and water or raspberries and water (You get what I mean) I just don’t drink it. Exercise is important but you don’t have to go crazy, it can be jump rope or dancing to a WII game (many people have Wii) a few days a week. HAVE FUN GET DANCE ON BROADWAY OR COUNTRY!!!! You must have a CHEAT DAY EVERY 10 days or when you decide. Eat what ever you want that day and then get back on track.

      Keep a journal and you will notice what foods you eat. packaged anything,chips cereal, cookies, crackers all are a no. Remember, I really mean this. People will say stuff to you when you lose weight. It’s crazy how wired most of us are. As you begin to look thinner people will try to get you to eat more, put the food you don’t want in front of you, make comments and you’ll eat it just to pacify them. DON’T. It is okay to do what you want, own it and say”thanks for your opinion I appreciate it, would you like me to tell you what I think about your weight next?????

  • stephanie

    I wish I could wear corsets, but I’m 140 pounds and I’d look weird and fat as heck :(

    • vilvintage

      LOL since when is 140 pounds fat..?? Besides, nipping in your waist is about creating a contrast between your waist and hips/bum/boobs, it has nothing to do with your size :)

      • http://ellelaurelrose.com/ Elle Laurel Rose

        Depends on height. I think it’s near-obese for someone just a bit under 5’0″.

    • Kay

      It depends on body type, not weight. Im 5’4 150lbs but my waist is only 27 inches so I dont look fat, just voluptuous in the right spots. But if I carried weight on my stomach or arms, then 150 would look too heavy.

      • vilvintage

        I’m 140lbs and 5’5″ and I think I’m just fine the way I am :)

        • stephanie

          I’m around 140 and only 5′, but I’m 16 so I’d have to wait a few years before I can start can’t imagine my mother would like me training.

          • Andi

            Give yourself a few years and you may find your body reshapes itself and becomes a little more what you like… I’m 5’2, 175 lbs and have a pretty curvy figure before i put my corset on, but in highschool I was pretty much a tube!!

      • frank jackson

        So basically it really depends on the ‘distribution’.

    • akynos

      lol 140lbs? ok. anyway, anyone can wear a corset and train their waist.

    • Lassie

      Weight has absolutely nothing to do with it.
      In fact, curvier women are able to waist train to a more dramatic difference. I weigh 196lbs and i’m in a 30″ steel boned under-bust and my natural waist is 37″. Also, you said below that you are only 16, maybe 17 now, your body as a female can change into your early twenties. Eat clean, lift, and try corsets when your body is more settled into its final shape. : )

  • http://bettycooperfield.wordpress.com bettycooperfield

    The human body comes in all shapes and sizes. Movies and fashion magazines select the shapes that are fashionable at the time. There are women today with small waists, but that is not ultra fashionable today. In the 1950s you would have been more attractive in the selection process.

    A bit sad really?
    Betty

    • violetsilver13

      It may not be fashionable, but men still prefer a slim, curvy pin-up figure to the sleek & chic modern one.

      • AerisCollette

        Not all men have the same tastes.

        • violetsilver13

          Sorry. That should be most men.

          • Viola Surveh

            Not even most.
            Useless to generalize.

          • http://mixerrreviews.blogspot.com Michael Mixerr

            Not all men have the same tastes. Curvy pinup figures are better. Also it not all about weight. It depends on distribution of mass and height I believe.

  • GoodStew

    I have a theory about women today and waist size….

    Today’s fit woman works her abs to death. Muscles in the mid torso are increased all the way around (front and sides) When you look at a female bodybuilder (my daughter is in physique contests all the time) all those competitive women are hard core muscular in the midsection and have no hips. Hips are the rounded fat deposits above the butt. In the 50’s men loved hips on a woman and women took pride in their rounded hips — that’s what gave them the hour-glass figure. Todays fit woman is not curvy, she’s muscular and pretty straight in a frontal view.

  • Glenn

    I have stretchy, front fastening waist trimmers, but the trouble is, they cause a bulge under my arms! I’m not even fat, but the excess has to go somewhere!

  • nessa

    I’ve wanted to waist train but how do I conceal the fat bludge I get from the top of my back with those trainers and corsets. It doesn’t look flattering at all under my clothes.

  • swas

    Drink 5 glasses of green tea a day….
    Trust me, it brought me down to 22 inches in just 3 months…..
    ”Miracle drink”

  • http://ellelaurelrose.com/ Elle Laurel Rose

    BTW, the model is leaning forward, thus creating an optical illusion. And it appears she has a hip-padded swimsuit, which I’m for, cute! Why not?! ;) (Well, maybe not for swimming, but under/in other clothes.)

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