When you think of the 1950s, you automatically think of Hollywood glamour. At this time, stars like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Lana Turner had the ideal body type: big breasts, big hips, and a small waist—the hourglass figure. If you didn’t have them naturally, you could use 1950s lingerie and shapewear to help you achieve the ideal body.
The hourglass silhouette of the 1950s happened thanks to the lingerie of the decade. To get the desired fit and look of the clothes on the outside, it’s important to have the correct foundation garments underneath to push up, flatten, and shape your body underneath. Many styles of lingerie were available, including brassieres, pants or knickers, slips, girdles, petticoats, corsolettes, stockings, and garters.
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – Bra
There was a large range of bras to choose from in the 1950s. Strapless, longline, and bullet bras were all popular. The 1950s silhouette demanded a larger bust to balance curvier hips. Instead of the 1940s bra that separated breasts towards the side, 1950s bras pushed the breasts in towards each other and up and out to new extremes. The natural look of the 1940s was no longer ideal.
1950s bras were made using cotton, rayon, or nylon and ranged in price depending on the design and fabric used. To add some glamour and femininity, bras could have taffeta trims, floral prints, lace, elaborate stitching, or small accent bows. Elastic wasn’t as durable as today, so caring for lingerie was a must and was always hand-washed to ensure its longevity.
Longline bras were popular and were said to “slim the diaphragm, control, and uplift.” Usually strapless with uplifting support and boning down to the waist, 1950s longline bras would also have a low back cut-out so they could be worn with strapless gowns, halter neck dresses, and low-back cocktail dresses. These were often paired with girdles or corsets for full tummy control, and some had corset hooks or girdle tabs that attached to the inside top of the corset or girdle to prevent them from coming apart.
Strapless bras had latex on the inside and boning to prevent them from slipping or falling down. One of the most expensive types of bras available in the 1950s was the convertible bra, which had removable straps for flexibility. The bra cups themselves were reduced to 3/4 or 1/2 cups to provide extra push-up power.
The pointed bra, whirlpool bra, bullet bra, and sweater girl bra remained popular from the late 1940s and into the 1950s thanks to their ultra-feminine appeal. The pointed, comically stitched, and padded bra is what gave the breast its false point at the end and enhanced weight. Without the protruding bullet shape, many dresses, tops, and sweaters from the 1950s would be ill-fitting.
Many women would own and use the foam rubber breast falsie that was available with or without a nipple, although not many would admit it! These provided shape and volume to those that lacked them naturally. They did have their downsides, though. Poor rubber quality absorbed odours and quickly disintegrated. The alternative was padded cones that, unfortunately, when worn and bumped, went flat. There was no delicate way to pull it out again. Inflatable bras were also available, but these were prone to bursting and deflating!
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear- Panties and Briefs
1950s panties, or knickers, were high-waisted briefs with elastic leg and waist bands. If you think of the classic full-coverage granny pants, you’re spot on for the underwear style of the decade. They weren’t skin tight, and plain pants were worn under tight-fitting pencil dresses, skirts, and trousers, whereas ruffled and decorated underwear was worn under full skirts.
Knickers and pants with the smoothest fit were intended to eliminate the need for a sanitary belt and provide comfortable protection. Panties were available in white, nude, or pastel tones like baby blue, candy pink, mint green, and buttery yellow. Some were also youthfully printed with floral motifs. Usually made with cotton knit, rayon, or satin, 1950s panties featured trimmings like lace, ruffles, and embroidery—sometimes your beau’s name!
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – Corsets
Corsets and shapewear are essential for achieving the 1950s hourglass figure, but they definitely aren’t built for comfort. There was a wide variety of corsets worn during the entire decade in combination with a bra, girdle, or pants. Steel boning used in past corsets was gradually replaced with plastic and celluloid, and zippers took over for hook and eye fastenings in the back, making them easier to get into.
The Full Corset
Full corsets covered the entire torso and included bra cups and straps. A full corset would either stop at the waist or extend several inches below. Later on in the 1950s, the 2-way stretch corset was introduced, which had to be rolled on. This was combined with a girdle for full-body shaping.
The Corselet or Merry Widow
The corselet was a more modern version of the corset with an attached bra. These nipped in the waist and hips, smoothed the stomach area, and raised the bust with padded 1/2 or 3/4 cups. The strapless corselet was called “Merry Widow after a movie of the same name. The name “Mary Widow is commonly used instead of the term corselet today.
The waspie was a popular corset during the 1950s. This was about 8 inches wide and just pulled in at the waist. Providing lots of shaping as it was very rigid, the waspie was the most fashionable corset and was often used underneath designer clothing. The waspie had to be used in combination with a long-line bra, girdle, and hip padding to get the perfect hourglass look.
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – Girdles
In the 1950s, girdles were still a required undergarment for most dress and pant shapes. These were often lighter and easier to move in compared to a corset, so they were often preferred by most women. Slim-fitting sheath dresses would expose lumps and bumps if not for the slimming effect of the mini skirt-shaped girdles. The girdle would only come down to mid-thigh, so women could still walk and sit freely. In the mid-50s, the sarong-style girdle dominated the market. This innovative new girdle had two panels that crossed at the centre of the legs, making it even easier to walk in. The most comfortable was the legged girdle, also called a pantygirdle. Short or long legs shape the hips and thighs as well as the tummy area. Most modern shapewear is based on the pantygirdle style.
Fluffy swing dresses of the 1950s didn’t need the shaping power of a full girdle, but short, low-waisted girdles kept the hourglass shape intact. Even slim-leg cigarette pants and capris would benefit from the thigh-slimming panty girdles. Girdles almost always had snaps for stockings—at least two, but up to six in the back and front —and often had zippers in the back for easy on and easy off. Girdles were usually made from light-knit nylon and cotton-covered “Lastex”. Girdles for the fuller figure added extra control with boning, wiring, and stiff fabric reinforcements. Even with all of this support, the consumer demanded more comfort and lighter, more breathable fabrics.
New fishnet and mesh fabrics helped with the breathability and circulation, and the improvement of nylon fabrics reduced the weight of girdles. By 1959, DuPont had made a 2 ounce girdle which is about the same weight as a modern Spandex body shaper. In hot summer weather, women simply went without a girdle and wore less confining dresses like the blouson, empire waist shifts or the chemise.
1950s girdles, like briefs, explored new colours for lingerie. No longer just available in white, even basic girdles were available in off-white, almond, light grey, bold red, baby blue, purple, and even salmon pink. Floral embroidery, lace, and appliqués aim to add beauty and femininity to the girdle.
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – Garter Belts
Most girdles, corsets, and corselets already came with attached straps that one could use to hold up their stockings; however, not all women chose to wear those particular lingerie items. For those women, a garter belt was used. Garter belts in the 1950s were a simple, short girdle with attached straps for the stockings. Some were thin and light, while others were made with wide elastic to provide some shaping support and control. It was mostly naturally slim women and teenagers who chose to wear a garter belt by itself.
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – The Slip
Beautiful, soft, and luxurious, the 1950s slip was made using quality cotton, rayon crepe, or rayon satin. These slips were usually decorated with rich lace, fancy eyelets, ruffles, pleats, embroidery, or appliqué. Slips were available in full length, which covered from the shoulder to the knees, or half length, which covered from the waist to the knee. Half slips would be worn with one-piece dresses, while full slips were worn with separates or two-piece suits. A full slip should cover the bra and not show from underneath clothing; if it did, you could adjust the length by using the thin shoulder straps. Common colours for slips were pink, peach, light blue, navy, yellow, Nile green, black, and white, and their beauty rivalled 1950s nightgowns.
1950s Lingerie and Shapewear – Petticoats
1950s petticoats were usually made with rayon, cotton, or taffeta and had hem detailing made with lace, ribbons, bows, or eyelet cutouts. Petticoats were usually white and tea-length or shorter, depending on which dress they were to be worn with. The hem is one of the most important parts of the petticoat, as there was a chance it could be seen. Ruffles, floral designs, and bows were often the accents on the hems of petticoats in order to make them look cute in case they were accidentally shown. This was never intentionally done, though. As with the slip, if the petticoat showed all the way below the hem, it would be shortened.
Are you planning to wear 1950s lingerie to get that craved-for silhouette? I usually do, especially when I am wearing a pencil dress—it covers a multitude of sins from too many desserts!