When you think of the lingerie of the 1940s, it’s natural to think of the glamorous, satin clad pin-up girls whose pictures filled the walls of soldiers posted overseas. Beautiful, peppy women posed provocatively in corsets, nightgowns and swimsuits with a look that is still popular today.
In reality, things were a little different especially in places where war rationing was affecting goods and services. Women weren’t lounging about in restrictive luxurious garments. Not only were they enjoying a new freedom of working and being active outside, but the rationing meant that a new freedom was found with their undergarments too.
Back in the 30s, metal boned corsets were being used. New technology introduced soon allowed girdles to be worn instead, although women continued to wear corsets. The war affected undergarments as much as it did other parts of life. Production of new rubber girdles introduced in 1938 was halted as rubber was required for the war effort. Corsets weren’t produced either – the steel boning used was needed too. This was actually an advantage – women required more flexibility and movement to go with their new lifestyles.
1940s girdles and corsets may look constrictive and confining to modern eyes the purpose was “rather than actually constricting the body to meet fashion’s demands for a nipped-in waistline, a molded hip line, via too-tight corsetry, slimming and indentation is created through ingenious designing of devices which give the appearance of a slim silhouette.” Women didn’t want something to stuff their body into so lingerie was made to gently provide a structured frame to contain the body providing more comfort.
1940s lingerie – choosing by occasion
Half of women in the 1940s wore a girdle over panties with a one piece brassiere. This was simple, affordable and most importantly comfortable. A typical woman would own three undergarments, five bandeaus and three longline bras. This was half of what the Corset Brassiere Association of America suggested women own which was 5 hip (girdle) and 10 bust (bra) garments. They figured that different combinations of undergarments were needed for 1) home or office wear, 2) sportswear and 3) evening wear. Their suggested options were:
For Home or Office wear
- A girdle and a bra
- Longline bra and girdle
- All in one
- Strapless bra or strap bra and garter belt combination
- Cotton or rayon bandeau bra and pantie girdle to provide optimal movement
For Evening Wear
- An all-in-one or corsolette without straps for youthful figures and with straps for fuller figures. These are available with a low back cut out for low backed gowns
1940s lingerie – choosing by body type
By taking the occasion into account, many women chose the type of undergarments they needed. Another common way to choose was by her body type. Women were sold foundation garments based in where they fit into the four main body types.
Lightweight bandeau, pantie girdle with satin front panel with elastic aged sides and back.
Pull on girdles are popular with teens. Girdles with boning on the back help to train the girls to have correct posture. Favourite colours are usually black, nude, yellow or blue with pretty floral embroidery.
Bra with a supporting band, close-knit girdle with waist-hugging band, elastic inset sides and back, side zipper closing.
The missis’ body shape is still young and firm and needs little shaping. The ideal measurements of a young woman is:
- Height – 5’2” – 5’3”
- Bust – 35.5 inches
- Waist – 29 inches
- Hips – 38 inches
These ideal numbers grew slightly as a woman aged
Brasserie with good separation, high waisted elastic and fabric girdle for maximum control.
For average women the bra sometimes needed to have thicker shoulder straps to provide the appropriate lift and separation for the breasts. Longline brasserie would provide lift without the pressure of shoulder straps. And all-in-one was also ideal for the average body shape as it shaped softer flesh and creates the desired curves.
Strong, heavy fabric all-in-one garment creates and controls curves. Boning would provides extra support and built in brasserie molds the chest and back fat.
Fuller figures needed the All-in-one to achieve the desired 1940s silhouette. A version with long thigh coverage was critical to smooth the figure.
1940s lingerie – the brassiere (bra)
Cup sizes as we know them today did not exist in the 1940s. Instead, a woman would choose the bra designed for her body type and measured around the fullest part of chest to the back. That number in inches was her bra size. Today we measure by counting the size of the chest cavity as well as a cup size – a far more accurate way of measuring.
In the 1940s the brasserie became shortened to the bra. Bras of the 1940s were plain without lace or decoration and were mostly made with rayon satin and sometimes cotton. The colour was usually white, ivory and the very popular peachy pink. Straps were adjustable and bras fastened at the back with metal hooks and eyes – much like the bras of today.
The shape of 1940s bras were very different to what we’re used to today. All bras were full coverage with a 1 – 3 inch elastic under bust reaching from one side to the other. This band would usually come down an inch to several inches below the bottom of the bust and covered some torso. There was also a substantial amount of fabric in the centre which created the longed for separation of the breasts. The straps would also come from the middle of the cups instead of the sides.
The shape that the 1940s bras created was much pointier than today. The design as we know it wasn’t fully developed yet and bra cups came together at a point in the centre. For smaller busts a thin fabric was all that was needed to support the bust (usually called a bandeau rather than a bra) while fuller busts would also use felt padding to create the pointed shape. Underwires did exist but they were more flexible, only adding support to the materials and weren’t needed to create the pointed shape. In many cases, underwire was added to the centre bust panel to help separate the breasts.
1940s longline bra
The longline bra is an absolute icon of vintage lingerie, but is hard to find and not often worn by women today. Longline bras combine the traditional brasserie top with additional band length which usually extends down to the belly button. This long panel is usually boned to help with posture, shaping of the body and bust uplift. The purpose of this shaping section is to smooth out the underbust flesh, similarly to the way a girdle is used to smooth tummy flesh.
Most average sized women would wear a longline bra and girdle combination for maximum smoothness. Longline bras were also popular for evening wear as they were able to support and lift the bust without straps or even a full back. There were also longer versions of the longline bra called waistlette bras that extended down to the hips and had garter clips attached. This eliminated the need to wear a separate girdle, garter belt or panty girdle.
1940s strapless bra
The strapless bra in the 1940s was a popular alternative to the longline bra for evening and day wear. Low cut tops, peasant blouses and fashionable sundresses made wearing a strapped bra unsightly. Flexible boning in horizontal and vertical lines gave the strapless bra its structure and shape. This feather boning was so soft it could be crushed without damaging it. It provided softer and more comfortable support than under wiring.
Bust pads and falsies
Bust pads or falsies were necessary for many smaller chested women, including some famous Hollywood stars. These bust pads also helped the average woman to fill out ready to wear tops and bodices instead of altering them down to fit. In America, it was estimated that 5 million sets of falsies were sold each year.
By the end of the 1940s, the extremely pointed bullet bra was coming into style. This pointed shape was created with circular stitches not seams which gave the bullet bra its signature cone shape. The 1940s bra was not unrealistic. Today’s modern bra tend to round the shape of the bust while the 1940s bra shaped the breast into a moderate point. The 1950s bullet bra aimed to force the breast into an exaggerated point. This meant that the growth of bust pads doubled in the 50s to accommodate the new, bigger and pointier breast shape.
1940s Lingerie – knickers / panties
Panties, or step-in, weren’t worn much by women until the 1930s and became more popular in the 1940s. Panties in the 1940s would put even today’s granny pants to shame. Made with rayon satin or cotton knit in similar colours to those used for brasseries and were plain without patterns or frills. An elastic band at the top or a yoke with lacing kept them up. 1940s knickers weren’t tightly close-fitting or small – they reached past the belly button and looked more like shorts than the bikini style of today. Most came down a few inches on to the legs but could also be legless (like modern day boy-shorts) or full leg shorts down to the knee.
1940s panties didn’t come with built in garter straps like girdles and waistlettes did. Separate garter belts were needed to hold up ones’ stockings. Common fabrics include cotton, rayon, satin, brocades or all elastic. Most also had some elastic in them to hold them up around the hips or waists as well as the clip in attachments. The length of the garter straps would also vary from 3 to 8 inches in length. Some 1940s garter belts would come with an elasticated waist to create a dipped or indented waistline.
Another issue some women would experience when wearing panties, especially in the summer, would be thigh sweat and rubbing or chafing. Leg shields were made of rayon jersey that attached like a garter belt but had fabric down the inside of the leg and straps wrapping around the outside of the leg, hips and buttocks. They looked like torture devices but actually worked pretty well.
1940s Lingerie – Girdles
Although girdles couldn’t be produced the same way they were in the 1930s, they were still produced and worn throughout the 1940s. Girdles were praised for their shaping abilities and posture improvements and usually made with rayon or cotton with a small amount of elastic to give them some stretch. They would usually have elastic panels on the front and back with the rest of the fabric being rigid. Steel boning at the back helped with support and posture correction.
The 1940s girdle would be tight enough to shape well but not so tight as to squash everything and suck it all in. These would reach to the waistline past the belly button. Full leg girdles continued down the leg into a skirt which covered the bottom completely and had four elastic straps with metal clips to attach stockings to. Since many women had begun to wear panties in the 1940s, a new type of combined ‘panty girdle’ began to be made in this decade. This was the same as the standard girdle in form except it would form legs instead of a skirt.
To ease getting in and out of them, many girdles would have metal zippers on one side. Although girdles offered a smooth shape under the newly fashionable tightly fitting clothes of the decade, many women chose not to wear them at all and opted for just a brasserie and panties – something which had not been done en masse before.
With elastic girdles being for slim to average sized women, a full figured women needed a corset or corsolette for maximum shaping and smoothing. These were usually steel boned and made with very heavy materials to provide the support and shaping needed. Since it combined a full bra, girdle and hip coverage a perfectly smooth silhouette was achievable with no lumps and bumps anywhere.
Corselettes, or All-in-Ones, are lighter versions of a heavy corset, although heavier versions were also known as corselettes. The corset was an old-fashioned name which conjured up thoughts of restrictive Victorian shapewear, an old-fashioned thought most 1940s women wanted to avoid.
Whether women chose a girdle, corset or All-in-One, they served one more important shaping purpose – the indent or waist nipper. A sharp indentation 2-3 inches above the belly button and just below the rib cage was an essential part of the ideal 1940s body silhouette and provided the hourglass shape the decade is known for. Dress bodices were tailored to end right at this indentation and skirts started here to hang over the hips and stomach. Hips are never confined in 1940s girdles, they are only covered to smooth and shape gently. As this is the decade that many women were needed to work, they also needed to move and bend in their girdles – there was simply no use to wear confining undergarments.
1940s lingerie – Slips
A 1940s slip was the last underwear layer needed to create the perfect shape. Nine out of ten women at the time wore slips over their foundation garments and under their outer garments. Slips were available in long dress like varieties and shorter top or skirt only selections. Slips were usually white, black or the ever-popular soft peachy-pink with sheer dresses often coming with matching coloured slips for the best look. Silk and rayon made the best slips, but the most affordable was the white cotton variety which was prone to bunching unflatteringly at the knees and sticking to the inside of dresses. Taffeta slips retained the heat and were not worn in hot weather. Slips had adjustable thin shoulder straps and were cut on the bias or had straight cur gores for the most flattering shape when worn.
The slip top either came in a v-neck cut for dresses or square neck cuts for blouses. Deep round cut slips were also available to fit certain styles if needed. Slips for fancy occasions had lace trims, otherwise specific adornments was considered unnecessary andd was likely to wear out faster than the slip material. No outfit would be complete without a slip to stop clothing from clinging to the body.
Half-slips or petticoats were waist down slips that were popular with young girls and women who wore dark skirts and light but not sheer blouses. A knit cami top was usually worn with half slips. Taffeta petticoats would add a lovely swish sound under dresses which made them appealing to teens and single women wishing to catch the attention of those around them. Petticoats of this kind were A-line with a wide ruffle at the hem to start, but then gained volume around 1947 when the New Look style became the most fashionable style of the 1950s.
During this decade, the full 1950s style petticoats were not worn by the average woman. Skirt fullness was achieved with the cut of the material and not with the fluffy petticoat. Until they took off, slips and half slips were straight or a-line cut with maybe one ruffle at the bottom for a little helping hand with the volume. Fuller petticoats were worn with long evening ballgowns in the 1940s, but these did not reach the full shapes of the 1950s.
Wearing the foundation garments or the decades look that you’re aiming for can be a good way to get the look. Modern underwear doesn’t shape the body the same way so can be unflattering when worn with a vintage silhouette. There are many reproduction alternatives too – not everything has to be true vintage!
Will you give 1940s lingerie a try? It may sound strange, but I like the feeling of support one gets from a girdle…