Waist Training: a Visual History of Corsetry

I found myself wondering the other day about waist training and just how corsets and girdles have shaped women and fashions over the last century.

The fashion for different body types has definitely changed with the decades, but what underwear was needed to help women achieve this?

I hope we’re getting to an age where people are free to look the way they want to, but all I have to do is open Vogue and look at the photoshoots and I know that’s not really true. The ‘ideal’ body type at the moment seems to be just as unattainable as ever…


Early 20th Century: contort & constrict

At the turn of the 20th century and In the early 1900s the hourglass figure was very popular and this gradually became more and more extreme.

This fashion culminated in contorting underwear such as the S-bend corset (also called the flat-front corset) which pushed the bottom out and the chest up (and must have caused a lot of back pain!).

S bend corset

Above: An S bend or flat fronted corset from 1905.
Source This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.)

Below: an advert from 1900 showing the change in posture between a traditional and a flat fronted corset.
Source: This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Flat fronted corset advert 1900s

1920s: Strap them down ladies!

During the first World War women discarded the more traditional corset in favour softer corsets and the very first bras. By the time the war was over and the 1920s had started the trend had arrived for youthful shapes and more androgynous styles – the era of flappers and ‘bright young things’.

More pliable girdles were introduced to help obtain the fashionable boyish body image, flattening the bust and emphasising the long slender body shape. Large busted girls were also known to strap their bust down to hide it and try to attain a straighter figure.

1920s corset

Above: Boyish shapes were popular in the 1920s.
Source and copyright: This media file is in the public domain.

1930s: Form-fitting glamour

The shapes of the 1930s were influenced by the depression – or rather the escapism from reality offered by Hollywood stars such as Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich.

Fashions at the time were long and form-fitting, clinging to the body, and underwear needed to flatten the tummy, smooth any lumps and bumps and accentuate the bust. Creating a smooth figure was the goal and because of this girdles tended to be very plain without lace so they wouldn’t show through tight-fitting clothing.

1930s underwear

Source and copyright: No known copyright restrictions

1940s: Shaped by necessity

Styles in the 1940s were governed by WW2 and the austerity that war brought with it.

Glamour disappeared and the hourglass figure was popular again with women wearing military uniforms. When Dior launched their New Look in 1947 with its huge skirts and tiny cinched waistlines, it marked a return to fashion and glamour – even if it was unattainable for a lot of people because of post-war fabric rationing.

In the early 1940s elastic and zippers were needed for the war effort so there was also a return to traditional lacing instead of the girdles of the 1930s.

1940s underwear

Above: Backstage at a fashion show, 1947. Source and copyright: No known copyright restrictions

1950s: The hourglass returns

By the 1950s Dior’s New Look (pictured below) had finally taken root in popular culture and the bras and girdles once again helped to reduce waistlines. The hourglass shape was officially back in, but a  more extreme and glamorous version than in the 1940s.

waist training: 1950s pin up girl Betty Brosmer

Above: popular 1950s pin up girl and model: Betty Brosmer who had a tiny waist. Photo source and copyright: BettyBrosmer.com

1960s: an underwear revolution

The sixties weren’t only a time of huge cultural change, underwear changed enormously too – from the kind of elasticated girdle which was still very 50s-inspired to the invention of tights, the rejection of control underwear and bra-burning across the world!  Oh, and of course, Lycra was invented!

To see more, go to our vintage underwear gallery here

11 thoughts on “Waist Training: a Visual History of Corsetry

  1. Augustus

    Dear Mary, regardless of suffering (and limitations) imposed by corset’s use, you must agree that women of past were much more classy and chic. The current life no longer holds such an accessory… Yet one can imagine the old sceneries of more high fashion (aristocratic salons) without them? How the rounds and voluminous skirts could stand out without the famous “wasp waists”?

  2. bettycooperfield

    Lovely pics, thank you.

    I’ve worn mid 19 cent corsets for minor parts in movies, and I’m old enough to have caught the end of the girdle era in the early 1960s. Those firm control girdles could be absolute hell, they were tight and well boned. Somehow the 19 century versions can be laced for the individual, with the girdles you had to be the shape that you bought in the shop. You don’t mention long line bras – they could be formidable too.


    • vilvintage Post author

      Thanks for commenting Betty – it’s really interesting to hear from someone who’s experienced lots of these different kinds of corsets and girdles. I’m lucky enough to have only experienced fashion corsets and spanx :)

    • Corsetiere

      OH dear – without foundations there can be NO fashion” wearing what you do with dresses and skirts only showns your knickers and will not keep tummy flat

    • Corsetiere

      Elastic is unforgiving BUT if you make to the correct FIGURE shape then girdles are wearable (i.e. straight hip average hip and full hip) also make certain they are made with down stretch back panel – rigid satin side panel – rigid satin front – well boned back side and front

  3. Pingback: Corset/Waist Training: Lacing My Corset & Removing it | Catherine Brian

  4. Marlena May

    As a full figured c/d long line boned underwire bras and high waisted boned and satin panel girdle’s are a necessity for me. In addition a padded panty brief underneath provide me that voluptuous look I so desire


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