The mystery of 1950s girdles—instant poem

1950s ad for Playtex girdles. "Works wonders in natural figure control."
1950s girls wore girdles. But why? No, really, why?

1950s girls wore girdles (instant poem)

It was the 1950s when I
would squeeze my nether parts
into a tube that ironed bulges
into an oval shape like a sausage  
when you lower the lid of a toastie press
to hurry it up and the sausage goes 
all flat and dry. Girls wore girdles.

But why, why? Far from enhancing
the glorious teenage waist, compressing 
our bumps and clefts achieved
the opposite. Curves were gone
and straight lines ruled. This gruesome
tube was a prosthetic device
to keep our trunk in line.

Oh dear. How could I be so silly.
Of course the girly girdle was not a beauty aid.
but a twentieth century chastity belt
locking our legs together
and bullet bras combined an IQ test
with fortifications in rigid cotton
stitched into pointy grenades.

~Rachel McAlpine 2021~

The mystery of the 1950s girdle: freedom my a*s*.

You have to wonder why we forced our bodies into those elastic tubes. Believe it or not, the 1950s girdle was promoted as a revolutionary garment that would set us free.

You read that right. Truly. Look at the ad below where women in girdles are dancing and fencing, proving how freely they can move in a Berlei girdle.

This was a solution to a problem that did not exist. We already could move freely without the help of a girdle. We knew that, obviously: nobody wore a girdle to play tennis or ride a horse! It hampers movement big time.

And yet girls wore girdles to rock and roll dances. Oh yes. Under your dress the top of the girdle would roll down into a lump far less appealing than a spare tyre of flesh. The bottom would roll up, causing more anxiety. Seams and patterns left indentations in your flesh. They sort of hurt. They were sort of creepy.

Weirder and weirder: over the dreaded girdle we wore enormous swirly joyful skirts. Not slinky clingy slip dresses. Seven yards of fabric sprang from every waist exaggerating its tinyness. Everything else was fabulously overdressed.

This fashion had nothing to do with freedom. It had everything to do with control. Girdles were like mudguards in more ways than one. They were boy-guards.

In the context of the era, these garments were comparatively humane compared with 19th century corsets. That was the sell. Big deal!

Well, that was a long time ago in fashion and in the lives of us once-were-teenagers. Now it’s sports bras and briefs. A big bouncy bottom is an aspiration for some—and a faint memory for others.

1950s advertisement for girls' girdles by Berlei
1950s ad for Berlei girdles. “The absolute minimum.” Really? I don’t think so.

Sorry not sorry

I know, I know, some of you might find this post a bit rude. Sorry not sorry. This was an aspect of my real life 60-odd years ago.

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31 thoughts on “The mystery of 1950s girdles—instant poem

  1. josaiawrites says:

    Girdled, corseted, stuffed into, brassiered up into pointy projectile missiles (nipple-less), plucked, shaved, permed, sliced, coated with foundation and make-up….. And yet, here we are, still here, still fleshy, still lumpy, still human….. Thank God.

  2. Rachel McAlpine says:

    You’ve said it all, Josaia. We are glorious survivors of the “beauty” industry.

  3. Pip Abernethy says:

    Great piece Rachel McAlpine
    I remember girdles all too well
    My mother suggested we her four daughters all wear them as she did

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      They were kind of yukky, weren’t they? Maybe because they seemed so alien.

  4. Gallivanta says:

    I missed the girdle era but I didn’t escape bloomers for gym and witches britches under winter uniform. They weren’t uncomfortable; just ugly.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      One of the great inventions late to dominate underwear was–da da!–stretchy knitted cotton fabrics, as in t-shirts, tights, and panties. What couldn’t stretch had to be loose. Our first girdles were of industrial strength rubber. Witches britches were at least stretchy.

      1. Gallivanta says:

        Yes, witches britches did have that stretch factor. 🙂

  5. alison41 says:

    Oh I remember those horrible elasticated tubes – and living in a tropical country with high humidity, as I did, they were hell on earth. Nevermore! ever.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Oh no, not in the heat and humidity! My sufferings pale in comparison

  6. Cathy Cade says:

    Remember it well. and those pointed bras…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      They were stiff and hard. Again I wonder why. Partly a technological challenge.

  7. Torture devices. Just . . . UGH!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Wow, a great howl of disgust arises from the land. No, the world.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This makes me glad I am a bloke. I don’t know if you are at all familiar with the game of rugby, but when we packed down in the scrum we chanted “The secret’s in the underlift, the secret’s in the underlift, the secret’s in the underlift that’s in the Berlei Bra” – rising to a peak when we shoved hard on the last word.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What a glorious story. Some of those advertising jingles had a life of their own. Memes, I guess. From my husband I learned that the engineering principles behind the flying buttress were those of the strapless bra.

  9. Anonymous is Derrickjknight.

  10. I am the anonymous one

  11. It was probably a sausage maker who designed the original! I am amused nowadays by the fact that it seems de rigueur to shave eyebrows and then stick on slugs in their place, often at an angle that gives a quizzical, or an amazed, look. Lips the size of whoopee cushions are another favourite!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I bet it was. At least the griddle (thanks, autocorrect) didn’t permanently disfigured our bodies. Only our psyches.

      1. I suppose they had to come up with a quick plan when they ran out of whale bones!

  12. We are horrified by foot-binding, yet continue to torture our bodies into odd shapes all for fashion. We are still waiting for the revolution!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I wish that wasn’t true

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I never even thought twice about wearing a girdle, a slip, underarm perspiration protectors and high heeled shoes. I have abandoned all for sure.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Free at last!

      1. Elizabeth says:

        Only subject to gravity!

  14. a gray says:

    You could not have said it better: “They were boy-guards.” For some young ladies, it was important that they still be wearing one when they returned home.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Haha! In parents, hope springs eternal.

  15. Meryl says:

    It’s amazing to look back on all this! When my youngest daughter was at university her dissertation in her final year was on ‘pain for beauty’ and she covered foot-binding, lacing, corsetry, etc through the centuries and right up to our era, the 50s.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Wow, how fascinating that dissertation must have been. I bet you enjoyed it by proxy.

  16. cindy knoke says:

    Loved this post. And then I was supposed to ‘burn my bra’. I never really understood how that was in my best interest, but women advised it as a cure for the girdles and pointy weird bras and all the absurdity you describe in your hilarious and spot on post. I used to examine my mother’s girdle and hydraulic bra drawer with repelled fascination as a child. What was all this industrial strength stuff for??? And now there are spanx which roll too, and are a mis-spelling of the word ‘spanks,’ invented by a woman who is now a billionaire and thinks women respond to spanks??? Fashion completely bores me. There are birds and wild creatures outside to explore for heavens sake!! Stores are bores!! Fashion is trashion. Women are much more important than the clothes they wear.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Wow, that’s a very clear point of view– love it. “Repelled fascination” is apt. There was something creepy and icky about those garments.

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