When I was a very little girl, I was simply fascinated with my mother’s girdles. If you’re younger than 40, you might not even know what a girdle is. Women in the 1940’s and 1950’s referred to them as “foundation garments.” They were like a huge pair of rubberized underpants that squeezed your stomach and hips into a nice, smooth shape. (For you younger women, think of industrial strength Spanx.) You really had to work to get into a girdle, wiggling, pulling, and straining, shifting your weight from one leg to the other until you got all your various rolls of fat smooshed into place.
Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?
I got the biggest kick out of watching my mother put hers on every day – and yes, she wore the thing every day, under the housedress that cinched in at her waist and flowed out in a puffy skirt which fell just above her ankles. My mother had a nice figure, and the girdle supported her in all the right places, so her waist looked tiny, her stomach nice and flat, and the folds of her voluminous skirt lay gracefully around her hips. I have to admit, they did great things for the shape.
Girdles came to mind because of the book I’m reading – No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a history of the “Home Front” during World War II. Goodwin, writing about the various shortages and rationing during that time, notes that most American women were happy to conserve on foodstuffs, and nylons, and gasoline, and whatever else it took to support the Boys overseas.
But they drew the line when it came to their girdles. You see, girdles were made largely of rubber, and rubber was in very short supply because the Japanese had conquered the rubber producing countries (Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.) According to Goodwin, when this rubber shortage threatened the continuing manufacture of girdles, a “public outcry arose.” The government gently suggested that women “grow their own muscular girdles through exercising.” Women countered that “neither exercise nor any other known remedy” could restore aging muscles to the “their original youthful tautness.” Journalist Marion Dixon argued that “without proper support from well fitted foundation garments” there was no way that a woman over the age of thirty could “stand erect or do any physical work” without tiring. “Certainly Uncle Sam would not want women to wear garments that would menace their health or hamper their efficiency, especially during wartime when every ounce of energy and effort is needed,” Miss Dixon concluded.
Believe it or not, the government caved. The War Production Board deemed girdles to be “an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe,” and, as such, could be manufactured despite the rubber shortage.
Score one for foundation garments.
Although I was fairly intrigued by girdles when I was five years old, by the time I was a teenager, I was plenty happy to forgo the whole foundation garment experience in favor of panty hose ~ although my mother was scandalized by the whole idea (which was, of course, part of their appeal.)
But I did wear a girdle – once. The dress I picked out for my bridal shower had a straight skirt and was very clingy. My mother suggested it would look “so much nicer” if I wore a girdle underneath it. I agreed – admittedly, I had put on a bit of weight at that time and could benefit from some smoothing out in the figure department.
I suspect she was hoping I’d be converted and take to wearing foundation garments under my bell bottom blue jeans. But let me tell you dear reader, the four hours I was squeezed into that girdle were the most miserable four hours of my short life to date. I came home from the bridal shower, peeled off that rubberized torture garment, and stuffed it into the trash can. Since that day I can happily say the most constricting foundation garment I’ve worn is control top panty hose, and I only wear those on rare occasions.
The rubber industry is safe as far as I’m concerned.