US Girdle Sales Statistics,  1960 - 1982

 

by

Roger K

 

 

Table of Contents

 

 

Introduction
   Sales Table
Discussion of Trends
   1. Sales of girdles and garter belts rose each year during the 60’s until 1968.
   2. The transition away from the girdle was not an overnight affair.
   3. Sales of garter belts rose and fell more swiftly than those of girdles.
   4. Sales of zippered girdles declined steadily as a percentage of girdle sales.
   5. Sales of corselets rose by only 2% from 1960 to 1968.
   6. Anomalies (surges and dips) in corselet sales.
   7. Anomaly: sharp drop in sales of laced foundations ("corsets") in 1971.
   8. Sales of torsolettes. 

Postscript on False Claims of the Girdle’s Demise in or by the Sixties

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The common impression that “American women began getting rid of their girdles in large numbers roughly the mid-1960s” is contradicted by the annual sales statistics collected by the Dept. of Commerce and published in their “Current Industrial Reports” pamphlets each year, under the title “Brassieres, Corsets, and Allied Garments.” I don’t have the complete run of these pamphlets, but here are the figures from ones I do have. (Sales were originally given in thousands of dozens; I’ve converted this to thousands. I.e., 60,240 below stands for 60,240,000.)

This periodical is no longer published; it fell victim to David Stockman’s budget-cutting axe in 1983.

 

Sales Table

 

1.      Year;

2.      Girdles. The Census Bureau collected statistics on sales in price ranges for both zippered and roll-on girdles, but unfortunately failed to collect data on two subdivisions of much more interest to fashion historians: Open Bottom Girdles vs. panty-girdles, and High-Waist vs. Normal Waist;

3.      Corselets: These are the swimsuit-like items with open bottoms or legs. The latter are sometimes referred to as all-in-ones (AIOs).

4.      Corsets (the Census Bureau’s outdated term for the mild, 20th century foundations with flexible busks or no busks at all—so a better term would be Laced Foundation or Non-Elastic Foundation);

5.      Total of columns 2–4 (Girdles, Corsets, and Corselets). The items in these three columns were “everyday shapewear,” so they’re more important than the last two items.

6.      Garter Belts: These hardly count as shapewear, except for “deep” garter belts.

7.      Torsolettes. These were special occasion items, worn to dances and parties. They were commonly known as Merry Widows, a trade name that the Census Bureau avoided with the neutral term, “bra-lettes,” defined as “hip-length with garters.” “Torsolettes” would have been a better choice, being the generic term used by other manufacturers. (Note: in 1974 the Census Bureau added the words, “including briefers,” which caused an immediate 80% jump in this category, and began a strong upward trend. That explains a puzzle, because previously “torsolettes” had to have the by-then unpopular garters.)

The figures include imports, which rose from .3% of shipments in 1960 to 14% in 1980. In all cases except 1982 I have used the revised figures that appeared in the next year’s report. E.g., the 1961 figures were taken from the 1962 report.

 

 

Girdles

Corselets

Corsets

TOTAL

Garter belts

Torsolettes

1960

60,240

2,856

900

63,996

6,792

1,728

1961

67,032

3,120

840

70,992

7,452

1,716

1962

70,776

3,072

780

74,628

9,324

1,632

1963

75,624

2,952

756

79,332

9,024

1,176

1964

84,960

3,000

696

88,656

9,804

1,008

1965

88,368

3,012

828

92,208

11,484

924

1966

90,552

2,880

780

94,212

12,828

828

1967

94,080

2,700

780

97,560

12,708

792

1968

94,956

2,916

720

98,592

9,060

636

1969

82,692

3,060

720

86,472

7,032

540

1970

70,884

2,388

636

73,908

4,104

372

1971

63,096

2,184

360

65,640

3,180

324

1972

61,128

2,640

348

64,116

2,436

300

1973

53,256

3,108

312

56,676

1,956

252

1974

45,192

3,336

240

48,768

1,644

456

1975

46,464

2,916

216

49,596

1,500

372

1976

44,532

3,648

120

48,300

1,236

420

1977

46,308

3,864

96

50,268

960

480

1978

44,112

3,492

84

47,688

948

420

1979

43,068

2,736

72

45,876

1,200

660

1980

43,992

2,256

108

46,356

1,320

564

1981

42,492

2,676

72

45,240

1,656

828

1982

37,740

3,636

48

41,424

1,884

648

Table 1: Annual US Foundation Sales in Thousands

 

 

 

 

Discussion of Trends

 

 

1.  Sales of girdles and garter belts rose each year during the 60's until 1968

E.g., girdle sales rose by over 10% from 1960 to 1961, and rose 36% from 1960 to 1968. This increase involved a large number, 24 million additional items, suggesting that more women were wearing a girdle more of the time. (Especially since these girdles were lasting longer, due to their being made of Lycra / Spandex, not latex / rubber.) Sales in 1970 of these longer-lasting girdles were 118% those of 1960, so it’s highly inaccurate to say that the girdle died in the sixties.

 

2  The transition away from the girdle was not an overnight affair

In 1974 girdle sales were still 48% of the high-water mark six years earlier, in 1968. Furthermore, in the next six years girdle sales fell only 3% (by 1980), refuting the common notion that a reified group called “women” trash-canned their girdles en bloc as soon as they could. Only half of them did so. And even that is an overstatement. What the figures more likely suggest is that a minority of women (say 40%) abandoned them for everyday wear, some of them continuing to buy girdles occasionally for special events, others wearing panty-girdles regularly to help hold up saggy early pantyhose.

By 1980 the steep decline resumed, with sales falling in the next two years by 14%, from 43,992 to 37,740 (in thousands). The likely explanation, as one wearer (“SusanQ”) testified, is that “Once they made good control-top pantyhose (1975–80 I’m guessing) I abandoned my girdles.”

The gradual resurgence in light-control garments (control briefs, shapers, and Spanx) that started in the 1990s is likely due to their being more comfortable. (Their use of seamless construction and “microfibers” is the probable explanation.) As evidence, the same wearer added, “Maybe ten years ago [i.e., 1998] I tried a control brief and really liked how it felt, so I kept wearing those, usually with pantyhose also. The advantage of the control brief was that I no longer felt like I needed to wear panties under it.”

 

 

3  Sales of garter belts rose and fell more swiftly than those of girdle, and peaked earlier

The peak year for garter belt sales was 1966; the high year for girdle sales was 1968. Sales of garter belts rose 89% from 1960 to 1966, whereas sales of girdles rose only 50%. On the down-slope, sales of garter belts in 1970 fell by 68% from 1966 levels, whereas sales of girdles at that point fell only 22%. Over the next six years sales of garter belts continued to fall about twice as fast as those of girdles: In 1976, garter belt sales were only 30% of 1970 levels, compared to 63% for girdles.

Taken together, and bearing in mind that garter belts were primarily worn by the young, these figures support the contention that many high school girls switched from wearing knee socks and bobbie socks to garter belts and stockings at the start of the sixties, then started to switch to panty-girdles in the mid-sixties (since pantyhose sales didn’t take off until late 1967), then defected en masse to pantyhose in the late sixties. Probably only two-thirds (??) of women over 35 had abandoned girdles for daily wear by 1980. What women were abandoning, much more than their girdles, which they retained for evening wear, etc., were stockings. Again, this is contrary to the message conveyed by many impressionistic histories of the period.

However, the girdles that were sold in the mid-seventies and after came without garters attached, were rarely open bottom type (because those required stockings), and were rarely zippered (see item 4 below)—and hence were likely less firm on the average than earlier girdles. (There are no Census Bureau statistics on OBG vs. PG sales, because the dumbkopfs there didn’t realize we’d be curious about it.)


 

4. Sales of zippered girdles declined steadily as a percentage of girdle sales from 1962 onwards

Zippered girdles were typically worn by those needing support (older women), This suggests that the surge in girdle wear up to 1968 was primarily due to younger women, especially students, adopting girdles, not to all segments of the girdle-wearing population increasing their girdle wardrobe due to greater prosperity.

It also indicates a trend away from firm girdles and the ultra-fashionable flat-tummy look of the 50s and early 60s in subsequent years. The only departure from the gradual descent was the sharp drop-off from 1970 to 1972, indicating that the high-fashion, grin-and-bear-it ethos lost ground faster than everyday girdling.

(Note: Prior to 1962 it’s not possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison, because prior to 1962 a third category that was subsequently merged with the other two, Latex Girdles, didn’t differentiate between zipped and unzipped items.)

Year:

1962

1964

1966

1968

1970

1972

1974

1976

1978

1980

Percent:

32

31

30

28

28

23

24

22

21

20

Table 2: Zippered girdle sales as a percent of all girdle sales

 

5.  Sales of corselets rose by only 2% from 1960 to 1968

These were typically worn as an alternative to the combination of longline bra and high-waist girdle by those needing support or wanting fashionable smoothness (older women). This further buttresses the proposition that the much larger surge (36%) in girdle wear in that time frame was primarily due to younger women adopting girdles, rather than to all segments of the girdle-wearing population increasing their foundation wardrobe due to greater prosperity.

 

 

6.  Anomalies (surges and dips) in corselet sales

There was a recovery in the sales of corselets in the years 1968 & 1969, which was odd in light of the declining sales of all other foundations in those years. It was followed by a peculiar sharp drop in 1970 (perhaps due to a bankrupt company not reporting sales at the end of the year), and then by a pronounced upward spike in 1972-1978. Probably this was due to a surge in popularity of garterless body briefers. (The suddenness of these jumps and dips may also have been the result of certain manufacturers re-categorizing items in their product lines, or realizing that they had either been failing to record sales in this category, or had been recording sales of corselets as both corselets and girdles.)

Again, since younger women were overwhelmingly the purchasers of these lightweight items, this indicates that there was no complete rejection of figure firming and feminine fripperies per se, although histories of the period sometimes imply or assert that that was the case, based on the attitudes of progressive types. E.g., see Ellen Melinkoff’s What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Women’s Clothing, 1950 to 1980, p. 125: “By the end of the sixties … all girdles were viewed with suspicion.” Rather, for most, the shift was based more on fashion and technological changes than on an anti-undie mindset (although that too existed to some extent).

 

7.  Anomaly:  sharp drop in sales of laced foundations ("corsets") in 1971

In 1971 sales were only 57% of the 1970 level. This is another probable statistical artifact, possibly due to a bankruptcy. However, it was only a blip in the overall long-term downward trend.

 

Comment on the term “Corset”

Although the Census Bureau called them “corsets,” most of them lack a busk, which is a key element of a true corset. And yet they can’t be called girdles, even if they have a lot of elastic. They’re in a sort of grey area—“laced (or “rigid”) foundations” is probably the best term for them.)

8.  Sales of torsolettes

The sales of this item declined slightly in 1961 & 1962, and then declined steeply in 1963–73. Its heyday was the mid- to late-fifties, when it was mostly worn for special events in conjunction with a petticoat. It was too elaborate and formal for the sixties. (Still, over a million were sold in 1964.) The uptrend in sales from 1974–81 can only be accounted for by some vendors classifying a different garment as a “bra-lette.” The long garters and bones of the real thing wouldn’t have sold well at that point.

 

 

 

 

Postscript on False Claims of the Girdle’s Demise in or by the Sixties
  

1.      Sociologist Erich Goode was incautious enough to write: “The girdle … was worn until about 1960." Goode was writing about women generally, so any defense that college girls were abandoning the girdle by the mid-sixties is beside the point. And Goode wasn’t talking about the date when “these trends began to aggregate in a serious way.” He was talking about when they ENDED—in the date when the girdle was no longer worn (i.e., by the generality). For that, even 1975 would be too early, since sales were only down 50% from their peak—1980 (or still better 1985) would more on-target. So he’s not off by just five years, he’s off by 20 or 25—if one wants to be a stickler for accuracy. (And accuracy is what sociologists pride themselves on, supposedly.)

 

2.      A similarly uninformed statement on the Girdles and More site was that “By 1966 or so, the girdle was large[ly] passé among college women.” That is highly exaggerated. Cheap pantyhose didn’t arrive, or at least catch on among more than a tiny percent of women, until 1968. Until then a girdle (or sometimes garter-belt) was needed if stockings were worn—and even beatnik girls often wore stockings (black) (usually tights, though). My guess is that 10-20% of “leading edge” coeds had by then turned against the girdle—but not a majority, except at a few avant garde colleges.

 

The fact that many girdle ads ran in magazines aimed at young women until the 1970’s undermines the “passé” assertion. If such ads hadn’t gotten a response from their audience for over a year, they’d have been dropped—and they weren’t. Finally, I doubt the recollections of a representative sample of women would support this claim. Most that I’ve read (and they also include recollections of what their friends were wearing) didn’t indicate an abandonment of the girdle until years later. Girdles were still worn to hold up saggy early pantyhose until well into the 70s.

 

3.      Another flat-wrong statement made by the same G&M poster was that “Newspapers of the late 1950s were filled with advertisements for girdles. These ads were rare by the mid-1960s.” Although I don’t have the statistics to prove it (perhaps undie trade journals or newspapers themselves published stats on advertising expenditures that could settle the matter), the fact that his impressions about women’s girdle habits from that period are so badly wrong suggests that his impressions about newspaper ads are similarly skewed.

 

I was recently browsing a girdle site that republishes old girdle ads a couple of months ago. Its webmaster said that the mid-to-late sixties were the high point of girdle advertising, with color being used much more extensively than before to show off the new pastel-colored girdles of the late sixties. My impression (from living thru the period and (for ad-impressions) from buying the Sunday NY Times throughout it) is that ads in the fifties (at any rate until 1958 or so) were usually small and somewhat embarrassed. In the sixties ads became much larger, more colorful, more numerous, and more exuberant. A comparison of the space devoted to such ads in randomly chosen issues of the Sunday NY Times Magazine from each year of those two decades would easily prove my point.