The Visibility of Underwear

The very amusing authoress, Jilly Cooper, one wrote about how she detested the sight of a woman wearing a thin blouse over a slip and brassiere. "All one can see is rigging"! These days not only is the visibility of the brassiere commonplace but all too often it reveals itself to the world, peeking from ill-fitting halter tops and the like. Decades ago, visibility was still a concern and references to the 'mono-buttock' appearance of the tightly girdled woman in the tight skirt are certainly indications of the foundations beneath.

First of all, let us go back to the Victorian era. We have shown some pictures from a 1890s newsreel that show the real women of the time. Of course, they are wearing corsets; women did in those days and when you watch the newsreel, it is quite plain from the size of the waist, even on the stout lady. When these women moved, their torsos were immobile. You do not have to be a corsetry specialist to know what they are wearing beneath the layers of clothing require to keep warm in those days.

 

In principle a correctly corseted lady should simply look like a lady with perfect posture, however, there are giveaway signs. As I mentioned above, I used to wear a back-support corset with two surgical steels on either side of the spine. If I bent over even slightly, the back of the corset would show as a ridge through even quite thick clothes. (This is a problem that I recently encountered with a Jenyns corset kindly given to be by an acquaintance in Australia). It’s only really bad corseting that is visible, however, even with perfectly fitting garments,  my elderly friends avoid sitting in soft reclining chairs and will always choose an upright chair. Even myself, if I sit down, I have to be careful that my thighs don’t gape in a most unladylike manner, a sure sign of a heavier woman in tight underwear.

G.A. Dariaux, author of the book “Accent on Elegance” (1970) has this to say “The purpose of a girdle is to exert an invisible control over excessive curves. Invisible being the key word, it is unattractive and inelegant to tug at a girdle in order to keep it in place, and it is hideous to let the garters show.”

My Mother once told me (and Mrs. I agrees) that a woman who wears a well fitting corset looks elegant. A woman who looks as though she is wearing a corset is wearing a poorly fitted one.

The way a lady sits in a chair tells so much about her underwear. A British aunt of my husband used to lower herself gingerly into any lowish chair, dropping the last few inches with an exhalation of breath. Her thighs would spring apart to reveal the virtuous bottoms of her long rayon knickers. And that, I might add was just a Marks & Spencer girdle at work. Fully corseted she would never have attempted such a low chair!

On the other hand, the Charis corsetiere on the right (1937) wears a corset. Bearing in mind the era, you would guess right based solely on the age of the woman. The corset barely shows, however, the straight back and a dozen little details of her posture shout corset.

 

If having you underwear make visual reference to itself is bad enough, playing with it is unforgivable as the following article reveals:- “Are You a Corset Contortionist?”, Ladies Home Journal, April, 1938.

"THE YANKER. Offender No. 1—she’s perpetually tugging at the lower edge of her girdle. We’ve all seen her, we all know her; too many of us are her. So let’s do something about it. Let’s, the next time we go corset shopping, pick a model that is long enough to fit well over the danger point. If it is the proper length, your anatomy will see to it that the girdle stays where it belongs. 

THE BULGER. A distressing sight, that of the lady who, beneath sleek hips, suddenly bursts out with too, too thriving thighs. She has erred in choosing a corset that is too tight, forcing the unfortunate flesh to find an outlet below. To avoid that lowly bulging, be sure your new girdle allows room for everything you have to stay in its proper place.

 

THE ROLLER. This is another all-too-frequent casualty—the waistline excess commonly known as “spare tires.” 

 

Permalift ran a series of advertisements in the 1950's extolling their foundation range

There's a small oddity that you might notice on the left. The lady in the dress who wouldn't be seen dead without her stockings, wears a panty-girdle with no suspenders. The lady in the middle with the Bermudas, who wears socks, sports the panty-girdle with the suspenders!

Spirella (article on the right) had almost identical advice to impart but with a slightly male chauvinistic point-of-view, but what would you expect from 1947?

 

The remedy demands both length and width; either an all-in-one foundation garment or a girdle that rises well above the sit-down bend, one which will not compress and force your tummy upward. A couple of light bones in front may also help. THE GOUGER. Here we have the lady who, every time she sits or stands, adjusts the top front of her corset with a most ungraceful gesture of thumbs-in-and-up. As in the case of the Roller, an all-in-one is the logical solution to her problem. If she wants a girdle too, it should be high and flexible in front. Then she won’t have to dig for it."      

 

Good advice for the young lady ready to embark on her social career.

 

     

And, of course, one should never, ever, catch one's flesh in the zip fastener !

Life magazine in 1938 ran an an excellent spread on foundation wear and the models involved (centre left).

 

 

To the malaises described above by the observant correspondent from the Ladies Home Journal might be added THE SMOKER, THE CRITIC and THE SLOUCHER, although quite frankly the model is trying to slouch but her corselette is preventing her. One up to the corselette, I say!

There's plenty more where that came from (largely a LIFE 1938 edition magazine), although some of the poses are a little bit mystifying. It is simply a photographer let loose at an underwear fashion display.

 

 

 

 

Oh dear! The perils of RIDING UP and ROLLING UP. If a girdle is featherweight it will never stay in place and the legs will roll up. What you want is industrial strength elastic and boning, but it doesn't pay to be too honest about that.

 

In a film about dressing to go out in the 1940's, the lady gets all the tugging and pulling done before she gets dressed.

 

I love the pictures on the right, largely because they are so real and so 1950's. The models are pretty, but not glamorous. The beautiful, but powerful girdle has nipped in her waist, but left a slight spare-tyre above the rim in this untouched-up pose. The flimsy brassiere is inadequate for her breasts. The girdle is expensive and probably worn for a special occasion. This illustrates a phenomenon reported by Rosalind (the Blackpool corsetiere). The ladies desperately need a long-line brassiere to control that bulge, yet even in the late 1950's, such a garment was considered more old-fashioned than the girdle. Such a sight was not uncommon in the bedrooms of better-class suburbia in the 1950's.

In today's world of climatic control, ladies rarely need to be either hot or cold and consequently the fabrics used in clothes can be sheerer and lighter than decades ago. Visibility of underwear is therefore much more common and acceptable today. The obvious brassiere beneath the blouse is so common as to elicit no comment, however, and perhaps this is a male thing, but my husband always regards the inadvertent display of the brassiere label a social gaffe of ludicrous proportions. Nevertheless, I have removed most of my brassiere labels since at least, on this occasion, he may have a point.

  

 

Spencer (1941), amongst others, went to quite some effort to produce 'recessed lacing' that would not show through the outer layers of clothing. Spirella, being a little more practical, realised that front-lacing was unlikely to show since bending over backwards is merely an expression and not an everyday act. Spirella often, however, covered their rear-lacing to avoid embarrassing evidence of one's corsets when bending down. The amazingly slim model in the middle is, in fact, going to find that bending in any direction is less than comfortable.

 

Ambrose Wilson, the catalogue that, more than any other, brought traditional corsetry to the British housewife for five decades, sold a corset with 'invisible lacing' for many years (middle right). Another practical feature of this corset is that the side suspenders come a little further towards the front for ease of fastening.

 

We have some of these corsets in the collection as well as a girdle with concealed back-lacing from Rigby & Peller.

 
The Germans even applied secret lacing to a panty-girdle and covered the tell-tale lacing with lycra flap (right). Marks and Spencer (far right) even got in on the act.

 

Another aspect of corsetry that requires hiding is the length of lacing left over once the garment is tightened. These lengths of lacing can be a dreadful embarrassment, particularly if they come loose and trail !  This is truly a mortifying experience as my Aunt will testify. The traditional way of dealing with the lacing is to ensure that it is as short as possible whilst allowing the wearer to don the corset correctly. Corset laces come in standard lengths which are always too long; they have to be shortened. The remaining lacing that will appear after the corset is tightened and the laces tied, should be tucked under the edge of the corset where there is always a little space. They may even have to be tucked vertically down the edges, but it works and leaves no unsightly bulge, and Heaven forbid, you'll never betray your secret by trailing a couple of yards of lacing behind you !

 

 

     

 

Of course you can disguise all you want, however, that tell-tale suspender bump is a sure giveaway! When these pictures were taken (1930s - 50s), suspender bumps would have been sufficiently common to elicit no comment.

 

The latter problem is solved by the fan-lacing corset (right), however, it introduces another problem of how to disguise the potentially bulky strapping. There's nothing more inelegant than a matronly figure in a smart dress who leans forward to reveal the spider's web embossing of her complex foundations against the shiny rayon of her skirt.  

 

Incidentally, this remarkable corset is what aficionados of the brand referred to as 'the triple lacer'. This particular model was bought by a thin elderly lady in the 1950's. The waist is a scant 24", yet the overall length is 20" at the back. "Mummy, why doesn't Granny's tummy poke out like yours?" Well, now you know!

 

I've mentioned under Jenyns, how even tight fan-laced corsets can not only announce themselves due to the bulk of the strapping, but when heavily boned at the back, the bones tend to come away from the spine when the wearer bends.

CAMP's strongest weapon in its fight against fat

I recently encountered the girdle shown above. Beautifully constructed, with Teutonically robust bone casings finished in corset-quality satin, it certainly would have fulfilled its purpose. However, if somebody had gone out of their way to design a garment that would show through the thickest of coverings; this was it!

Colourful corsetry                       The topic of colour is mentioned below but also in the German section as well as Marks & Spencer who went through a colourful phase in the 1970's.

Beware of Patterns!

It is not just bones, laces and labels that can offend but patterns. For several decades, Playtex manufactured foundations in a slightly bluey-white, high latex content fabric with a distinct pattern (right). In the 1970's I saw that pattern so often through unlined slacks and blouses. My husband recalls a rather frumpy young woman at a company party wearing a long chiffon dress through which her Playtex patterned corselette was clearly visible.

 

 

Even girdles and corsets could be coloured!

 

 

 

Marks and Spencer (above left) also made a range of patterned foundations in the 1970's and I challenged you to keep those patterns hidden. What was it about the 1970's? Did our daughters' rebellion into the world of 'flower power' in the 1960's elicit a ghastly flower patterned response from their mothers in the 1970's? Certainly, such patterns were highly distracting and at Oxford University at least, women taking exams were banned from wearing coloured brassieres under their (mandatory) white blouses. British Caledonian Airways had similar instructions in their manual for stewardesses in the 1970's and 1980's.

 

Some German companies took their flowers to extremes as Felina did above with their blue roses. Such contrast would show through any white blouse and actually, by today's standards, so my husband reckons, that might even even look quite pretty. Hmm! foundations have a silent and invisible job to my mind and should neither advertise their presence by sound nor sight.

 

 

There are some articles, however, that, come what may, are simply going to show through one's clothes. The hooks and eyes of the standard long-line brassiere are always hard to hide (left), particularly in Summer when clothing is thinner.

Our friend from the WRNS was well aware that her brassiere showed through her shirt, but leaning over the plotting table for hours on end required this sort of firm support. Even when she started to wear a corset to ease the strain on her back she simply explained "It's either back pain or the Commander ogling me!" The latter apparently was quite harmless unlike the former.

 

On the right we see a couple of classic 'howlers'. The young equestrienne is wearing a back support; not that uncommon in horsey circles in the 1960's. This protection or augmentation of one's posture is laudable and need not draw attention to itself unless one bends over when the rigid spinal steels will separate from the back and reveal a hard ridge, but of course, horse women should not slouch like that anyway. Unforgiveable is the tightness of the jodhpurs that shows the suspenders of the garment quite clearly embossed against the material. That is never going to be disguised especially when one sits on the horse. The solution is to remove the suspenders that are unnecessary here.

Another pitfall that our young equestrienne needs to consider is the length of those spinal steels. As can be seen from the back view, there are just a tad too long and may or may not be hidden by the cantle of the saddle when riding. If you must wear stockings and suspenders when you ride, the the old-fashioned 'elephant ear' jodhpurs were designed for you. Indeed, did they go out of fashion when women stopped wearing stockings, I wonder?

 

When Underwear is designed to be Visible

 

I'm beginning to understand, the girdle that we purchased in Singapore in 2002 (right). This garment appears to have a built-in panty-line. An eastern lady explained to me that the panty-line was designed to be seen, so that the onlooker would think that the lady in question was NOT wearing a girdle.

 

 

 

The beautiful Dutch model on the left pretending to be a cook in the 1960's, clearly displays the indentation caused by a tight high-waisted girdle. In fact, she could well have been wearing the foundations above, attributed to Hollywood actresses of the same period. On the far right, the pianist's front suspenders are clearly visible through the satin fabric of her dress but we should not be surprised because we all wore girdles then.

 

The very elegant Gale Sondergaard (1899 - 1985) appears quite tightly confined as she reaches for the safe in 'The Road to Rio' (1947)

 

Let us consider one of the classic giveaways of your foundations. It is, simply, deportment. Stiff, old ladies used to walk that way because they wore stiff, old corsets. A really tight long-leg panty-girdle (and I mean REALLY tight) actually interferes with the muscles of the posterior and thighs, rendering normal locomotion quite impossible. I remember a dear old lady who, in her 70's and hitherto totally independent, went from a pillar of the community to a virtual recluse due to back pain that had developed to a chronic intensity. Ultimately, she was fitted with a pair of rigid surgical corsets. The difference was profound. There she was was once again attending all the village functions and it certainly helped her back pain, however, her unyielding posture and restricted gait shouted 'tight corsets' for all to see.

 

My husband recalls a stout and aged Scottish 'auntie' who visited irregularly. As she ascended the stairs, he remembers being fascinated by the engineering embossed on her tight skirt.

I love the photograph in the centre right (above). The female cadets are ever so serious and proud; their carriage erect, their posture magnificent. They are girls of whom any mother would be so proud, despite the very obvious fact that they are all wearing long-leg, panty-girdles. Were these standard issue to cadets? Certainly in the British navy, Wrens could order service standard corsets and girdles; both bullet-proof and man-proof, an ex-army friend of mine used to say.

 

We learnt recently (2011), that this picture is quite famous and comes from America in the early 1960's. The girls were members of an organization called "Angel Flight" which was a non-official military-like auxiliary to the US program called Reserve Officers Training Corps. The girls would be wearing quite simply the standard underwear of the period that would be a long-legged panty-girdle. But without a doubt, these proud cadets have a spring in their step, and we know where that spring comes from!

 

A sequence of photographs that come from a wedding home movie of the 1960's clearly shows the foundation of the bridegroom's mother (left four); bride's aunt, younger friends (it is good that one wears a girdle but 'Oh Dear'; that ridge!) and another lady shows similar foundations.

 

 

I think this unpleasant, but observant child sums it all up:- "I can tell when Mummy wears her tight girdle 'cause she walks funny!"

 

We started this discourse in 1890, let us end in 1960 with a fashion show aimed at the 'larger woman'. Just one look at the lacquered hair and the shiny rayon dresses and you know, you really know that those ladies are wearing girdles. Ladies like that always did in the 1960s; you don't even have to look at their torsos, not that a lady, unlike those above, would ever dress to show her girdled torso.

 

The learned Roger K has much to add on the Visibility of Underwear.

 

Getting it wrong, and getting it right.

Getting it wrong!

One good way to advertise your underpinnings is to dress badly, either by your clothes or your foundations. Regard the following horrors that, despite being worn by young and charming models, are so utterly wrong. Perhaps it is because the models are young that they simply do not know!

All of the models are making the cardinal sin of wearing a long-line brassiere that fails to meet the girdle. Should any of these girls sit down, an agonising roll of flesh will be trapped betwixt bra and girdle. They might look thin, but all women carry fat. The whole purpose of the long-line bra is to disguise this, not squeeze it out! A reader kindly provided the solution. Click on the left picture to see how Contessa could have saved the poor girl from 'nipping a sausage' as an old corsetiere used to call this effect.

 

And what were Playtex, a superb and successful manufacturer of foundations, doing on the right. The model's breasts don't begin to fill the cups. That puckering of the brassiere tip will show clearly through the poor girl's blouse. If that wasn't bad enough, she seems to have taken great care to attach her stockings with as much gathered material and lumpiness as possible. If those stockings stay up during a dance, I'd be surprised. All she needs is a twisted bra-strap, the label to be showing, and the hooks-and-eyes to be miss-aligned and her chances of replacing Miss Moneypenny will be absolutely zero!

Even in 2010 (extreme right), the same mistake is being made, although with kinder materials these days, the result may be less uncomfortable.

 

 

The girl on the far right shows how it should be done, even if the garments are utterly superfluous on her. I doubt, even in the 1970's when this photograph was made, that any girl of that age would wear such underpinnings.

 

The photograph on the left here is a personal favourite of mine for the expressions on the girls' faces convey (to me) something that the compositor of the marketing department certainly did not intend. The girl on the left sobs on her friend's shoulder. She knows that sooner or later, that reinforced brassiere that holds her shoulders back will allow her tummy to creep out above her girdle. Her infinitely smug friend wear a corselette in which such a problem is impossible. She knows that she will be comfortable and that her friend will suffer the torment of flesh trapped between her powerful elastic foundations. " I told you so" is written clear across her features.

 

In the middle, the very attractive girl wears so tight a panty-girdle that her hips are reduced to a masculine tube and the bulge of flesh above the girdle is the inevitable consequence. Tight slacks and a loose blouse is all she can hope to wear.

 

The return of the 'Dior waist' in the late 1940's was complemented by the most magnificent corsets and girdles, however, the later British forays into this arena showed just how badly the wasp waist could go astray.

The model on the left is closest to a reasonable example. The corset is boned so that it will not fold over, however, the lacing is at its tightest (as the horizontal creases show), but the effect is to bulge the flesh above. If she is about to don a wedding dress, where the waist-line is important, but the parts above and below should be modestly concealed in less than accentuating, virginal white satin, then the effect is correct. However, if a figure hugging gown is the next covering, then bones and laces will be embossed for all to see. In the middle, is imminent catastrophe. The second the model bends, that ridiculously short belt (hardly a corset) will fold-over. It will not straighten and the outline of whatever gown she wears will advertise her elaborate, but totally inadequate underwear. The model on the right is at least aware of her dreadful foundation although from the front, it does not look too bad, but beware, women are never catty to your face, they only stab you in the back and that is the angle from which your waspie will be plainly visible!

Waspies were notorious for bending bones. These garments were usually designed for the younger woman and consequently the boning (and the length of the garment) was often inadequate to prevent the garment nipping in and squeezing out the bulges of flesh that it was trying to compress. This sequence of shots from a film would make any corsetiere cringe. The poor dear is actually more shapely after the basque has been removed!

 

      

Bones poke out at the shoulder in these two examples

 

Bones poke out at the bottom                                                                                                                       Another CAMP horror from the 1970's

 

We have mentioned CAMP many times in this regard. CAMP made wonderful, and very effective corsets and girdles for many decades, however, the engineering of the corsets could draw unwanted attention by virtue of its bulk. Another feature that is guaranteed to stand out is heavy back boning. If it's not correctly placed and held immovable, it will sooner or later poke out or reveal itself the moment the wearer attempts any incautious bending movement. Sadly, towards the end of CAMP's worldwide success in the early 1980's, many of their products lay unsold in the suddenly unfashionable corset salons. Inevitably, only the odd styles and sizes remained, and women desperate for a strong garment, and corsetieres desperate for a sale, would compromise frequently creating aesthetic disasters and harming the poor wearer into the bargain.

 

One of my Spirella corsetieres once admitted that she'd had to rescue more than one old dear from her CAMPs. This wasn't just professional rivalry, but a genuine attempt to help these ladies buy better fitting garments.

 

What were these glamorous models thinking? Perhaps that is unfair, what was the photographer thinking?

The model on the left demonstrates the major failing of a strapless basque and that is the cantilevered bust section that pokes forward. These basques can tend to be less substantial than proper corsetry and another (painful) failing is when the bones at the front turn over when you sit down. 

 

On the right, what was the (French) manufacturer thinking? The bra is fine, the negligee a piece of photographic adornment, but that girdle is appalling! It has been designed to show through the poor girl's clothes. Buttoned on suspenders, heavy-duty zipper and the raised welts of the zipper channel will show through all but the sturdiest of tweeds; and this isn't a tweed-wearing girl!

 

 

We have mentioned this elsewhere, but these basques always seem a bit short on the wearer who then has to lean forward into the cups giving the appearance of having stomach cramps. Certainly, to stand up abruptly from the cramp position is to risk revealing far more than one should.

 

This pretty girl (right), as so often is the case, wears a foundation that would never be part of her own wardrobe. The elegant girdle is aimed by the marketing department squarely at her mother, however, for decades, corsetry advertising substituted one generation less as their models. The exception was Spirella who organised shows where real women could show off the corsets and girdles that they wore on a daily basis (below). Even then, corsetieres were not immune from persuading their daughters to wear garments that would appeal to their far more elderly clientele. Not all the women in this pose seem entirely at ease!

 

Returning to our lovely on the right, the girdle is an excellent example of early 1970's corsetry. However, the girdle was dying at this point, and the likely age of the wearer would be three decades older than the model! Note how the girdle is so firm, that although the girl leans over to her right, the girdle remains unimpressed by her manoeuvre; it's actually a little too big for her! If she was really rash enough to wear this garment beneath her summer frock (it must be summer for her to venture outside in her underwear), it would be all too obvious I fear.

 

Just what were the manufacturers of the panty-girdle on the left thinking? This gem comes from Vintage Glamour Puss and seems to have been designed to advertise its presence through the thickest of clothes. Heaven forbid that one should dream of wearing slacks with such a device. Panty-line, suspenders and less than elegant removable crotch seem to have been raised with the view to embossing themselves on anything other than a petticoated summer frock.

Here is a French attempt to ensure that the glamorous model's otherwise pretty girdle will be seen through all but the thickest of tweeds (that the French do not wear anyway).

Is this good or bad corsetry? Well apart from advising the model to loose weight, I have to admit that if the question is "Does Body Magic really work?" then the answer must be YES!

 

 

 

Making an effort at least

 

Below on the left, the lady has just gone a tad too far as the dramatically elevated bosom shows. Perhaps the picture on the right of mother and daughter reveals the truth that all girls will eventually turn into their mothers. One suspects that the means to achieve the mother's excellent figure has been passed down through the generations.

 

 

 

According to the corsetieres that I have had the pleasure of meeting, underwear should not advertise its presence other than by forming the figure. What I mean to say is that a stunning figure might only be achieved by expensive and effective foundation garments, but those garments should never call attention to themselves, only the resultant figure. I think the inimitable Hattie Jacques came very close to demonstrating how this should be achieved.

 

 

Hattie Jacques (1922 - 1980) in Carry on Cabby (1963). The voluptuous Josephine Edwina Jacques was 40 when this film was made and would well have known, as would her peers in the early 1960's, the figure enhancing properties a good foundations.

 

  

The stunningly beautiful Miss Taylor reveals in 1950, two wedding dresses with what looks like a high-waisted girdle at her real wedding (left), and at least a waspie in the film "Father of the Bride" (right). She really didn't need any foundation garments in those days, but we all wore them then and why would she be different. In later life, she really did need serious foundations to support her back that became progressively bad as she grew older.

 

How it should be done ....

 

 

That this lady (left) is wearing proper foundations is obvious, but from her figure and her confidence, not revealing ridges and rigging. The charming lady on the right also has thought about her outfit. What might have been a girdle line is hidden by the fancy belt.

 

 

...and how it shouldn't

 

As a footnote to this page, it does not matter how much money you have, style cannot be bought. Regard the picture below of three guests at a royal banquet

 

 

The lady on the left simply does not care; apparently she has never heard of foundation garments. The elegant lady in the middle probably does not need any, however, she takes no chance and the broad sash belt conceal any ridges or bumps. As for the lady on the right, she looks like she has bought a satin bridesmaid's dress from the 1960's at a charity shop. Only the lady in the middle demonstrates style and yet the other two could have could purchased anything they wanted!

 

 

1960s Woman