Why do “vintage bodies” differ so much from our modern bodies?
It seems like most sources (like this one) will have us believe that what we eat and how much is primarily to blame for the increased size (height, weight, measurements) in modern women, and while I agree, I think we’re missing something else.
Most women of the past didn’t just naturally have wasp waists, just like none of us normal, non-January-Jones-women do today. A common idea is that the shape of clothing – large skirts, or broad shoulders, etc. – gave the illusion of a tiny waist, and while that is true, it doesn’t account for the undressed, tiny-waisted measurements of vintage women.
So what does?
All of you are familiar with the Victorian preoccupation with the tiny waist, and that some women practiced tight lacing for the purpose of narrowing their waists. This displaced organs and deformed the ribcage to such an extent that it caused all kinds of health problems. A recent article on The Pragmatic Costumer’s blog talks about the history of this practice, and points to a couple websites showing rather shocking images of women still practicing tight lacing today. There is even a website offshoot about how to do it. Yikes!
And so, due to all the obvious problems with tight lacing, the corset was cast off….right?
In the mid 20th century, the girdle became the essential underpinning, a garment that nips in the waist. All kinds of girdles were available, from high-waisted briefs, to full body suits. Once again the wasp waist became desirable, and women achieved it by wearing girdles.
|The girdle of the 1950s, and the waist shape it meant to create
It’s more than that, though. The constant use of a corset or a girdle will reshape your body. Women were expected to wear these undergarments every day, from a fairly young age all the way through adulthood. The girdle, while not as extreme as the steel corsets of the prior century, certainly had the same binding and deforming effect to a lesser degree.
|Average measurements of a British woman, 1950
When the clothes came off, the tiny waist remained. We see it in stars like Marilyn Monroe, with measurements of 35-22-35. Could that really be just genetics? (Read more about Marilyn’s body facts and myths in this great article.)
|A girdled Christina Hendricks, as Joan Holloway on “Mad Men.”
This is not to say that many women today do not exhibit enviable hourglass figures, just that for those of us that are more boyish (like me), well … we shouldn’t compare ourselves and think we’re so much different from girls of the past. I have to admit that I was intrigued by the articles on tight lacing Victorian corsets, but the idea of intentionally displacing my internal organs was repulsive. What about the far less extreme, 20th century version? Would wearing a girdle regularly shrink my waist and provide me with a more vintage figure?
|Modcloth’s full body corselet, they call it.
I just bought a full body girdle from ModCloth, to hopefully wear with the few vintage items I have. I don’t know if I can manage to wear it every day, or would want to, but I’m looking forward to seeing the effect it has initially on producing a more hourglass shape. I’ll admit I’m tired of having to add two extra inches onto the waist seams of all my vintage dress patterns, but is that a viable reason for wanting to squeeze my body into submission, or is it better to let the past be the past, and our modern bodies be free and loose?
What do you think?