The Shapewear History01.04.2022
For thousands of years, shapewear has helped us achieve smooth, defined figures, from Ancient Greek to Kim Kardashian’s Skims.
Shapewear has been a staple of women’s lives for thousands of years, whether it be Skims or Middle Ages corsets. Shapewear evolves with the changing beauty standards of women over the years. We examined the evolution of shapewear over the years to discover how we have reached the current shapewear.
Shapewear was first recorded in Mycenaean Greek times around 1,600 BC. Ancient Creteans, who lived on Crete’s island before the Athenian invasion, celebrated the feminine form in all its glory. Undergarments were created to highlight the breasts, waist, and hips. This period’s art suggests that Minoan or Cretan women would expose their breasts and use corsetry in order to lift them and bring their waist. The evidence shows that the women of this era had strong, broad features and an hourglass-shaped figure. This time period would have not desired the delicate shape that shapewear today aims to achieve.
The Hellenic Greeks (356-323 BCE) introduced metal to their formwear as time went on. Girdles made of decorative metal became an integral part of womenswear. There are many references to girdles in ancient texts, including the Odyssey and Homer’s Iliad. Girdles were also made of leather and linen, and helped to achieve the hourglass-like look of that era.
The shapewear in Ancient Rome is quite different when we look at it from other countries. Ancient Roman women didn’t want their decolletage exposed, as opposed to the Ancient Cretans. Ancient Rome’s beauty standards were slim, with large breasts and big hips. Breast binders were used to reduce the breast appearance in Ancient Roman women. This minimization can be seen in sculptures of women dating back to this time.
The desire to have an hourglass figure is the main focus of women’s attention in the period between the 5th century and the 15th century. The shapewear that enabled women to achieve their desired figure in the Middle Ages was tightly laced bodices with paste. It is not clear that weight loss was the main goal.
Women’s bodies were the focal point, and this is why there is little evidence. The tightness of the shapewear made it painful because it prevented healthy airflow. Women in the middle ages remained true to the “beauty, is pain” philosophy.
In the Elizabethian Era, hips were all the rage. To create the illusion that they had wide hips, women wore large petticoats under their dresses. Steel corsets were used to conceal and flatten the chest and shape the torso to avoid an hourglass shape. These formwear techniques disguised the more sexual parts of a woman’s body and brought out the childbearing characteristics, e.g. wide hips.
Victorian Era was all for sexual restraint and morality. The ideal body for women was small waist and big bust. Although the two ideals may not always agree, women in the past used corsets to shape their bodies to meet the beauty standards. Corsets were made of steel or whalebone, and covered with heavy canvas. This combination gave rise to an extremely hourglass shape that required assistance to access.
Women would typically lie down on the ground and have someone place a foot on top of them. The corset would then be pulled tighter. The beauty standard was the hourglass figure. America advised women that they should stop purchasing metal corsets at the end of the Victorian Era (around 1917), as this metal was required to produce ammunition and other military supplies for World War I. The modern bra was born.
Shapewear was not a priority during the First World War, as it required a lot of steel. Flapper Girl was the prevailing look of the time. The hourglass figure was in and shapeless, svelte silhouettes were the new trend. To hide breasts and curves, bras, teddies and panties were all popular.
World War II
Every woman wanted affordable shapewear as the Second World War imposed a financial block on the world. To give the hips and abdomen a slimmer look, light-weight girdles were made from elastic or boning. Thigh-high, lace-detailed pantyhose often had girdles attached. This shapewear was ideal for the financial hardship of the time due to its lightweight and minimal fabric requirements. This shapewear was influential in shaping the shapewear we see today. Modern-day undergarments have the same effect as this figure-hugging design.
The pinup girl era brought back the hourglass shape. Women began to show off their breasts after years of concealing them. The shapewear of the 1950s helped highlight their breasts. The breasts were defined by padded, bullet, and cantilevered bras. Waists were then cinched with nylon and polyester whalebone and girdles. A flat stomach and big bust was the hourglass shape of the 1950s.
The infamously named “heroin chic”, the aesthetic of the 1990s, was all about slimming down the body. Women were expected to be extremely thin during the supermodel era. Because elastic fabrics were made to squeeze the body in, they became more intense. Shapewear was a hugely popular product among women in this era.
The shapewear of today is in an unusual position. While body positivity is a strong trend, there’s still a desire for thinness and an hourglass figure. While some companies are focusing on making shapewear practical and self-confident, there is still a deep desire for perfection within the wider shapewear industry. Some shapewear brands still promote a slimming lifestyle, while others encourage self-love.
We are curious to see where shapewear’s future is heading as society and the fashion industry shift away from a dominantly thin superiority. This has been achieved by the inclusion of larger models and extended-sized collections.