The 10 Best Waist Cinchers
The Mid Century Girdle - A Memoir
Today’s women get to wear velour pants with elastic waistbands.
Today’s women get to wear velour pants with elastic waistbands.
When I think of girdles, I remember my Granny’s girdle. Picture mid-century Massachusetts. The season is fall, through a vintage lens. The sort of grainy crackling you experience when you watch old home movies filmed in Super8 film. Color, but faded, so that the yellows are a muted gold, the reds with an orange-tinge, like the whole world sat in bleach for a few minutes.
My paternal grandmother, Gert (Goldie in the old world) was the most lovable person I’ve ever known: short, doughy, her worn face a bit manly and framed in thick black eyebrows, almost handsome, wearing a housedress that buttoned down the front, with pockets and a 2-inch bias-tape edge, and her stockings worn without a garter belt, scrunched around her ankles like loose socks. She wasn’t the type to wear a girdle around the house.
Such an ordeal was Gert’s girdle, it had to be a real occasion for her to stuff herself into one. Squeezing her stumpy 4'11" Eastern European body into the stiff elastic contraption took both a mental run-up and a considerable amount of single-minded strength.
When I looked at her all dressed up for these special occasions, I still saw all the layers under her heavy wool herringbone coat. Her big-buttoned tweed ladies suit. Her silky old slip with the cling of freshly splashed Jean Naté. And, underpinning everything, holding her together in a neat, immovable brick shape, gripping her stockings with industrial strength, was her girdle.
Granny was making a huge sacrifice on behalf of this rare vanity. Crimping her abundance of flaccid old flesh into the confines of super-tight elastic and struggling to hook the ugly fasteners left her breathless and relieved, a surprised little “I did it!” on her red-pressed lips.
Nowadays, Granny wouldn’t have to go to all that trouble. Today’s women get to wear velour pants with elastic waistbands. Dress it up with a flowy blouse. No stockings. No effen girdle. Now it's a choice, not a convention. We are lucky ladies, indeed.
Ladies Unmentionables: From Brutal to Beautiful
Let's go way back for a minute. We'll start at the time the iron corset would have been worn - the 16th century. (Before that, everyone, men and women, rich and poor alike, just wore a long linen nighty, or shift, under their clothes). According to at least one very smart source, scholars believe this iron corset was a medical device used to correct spine curvature.
During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, women went from wearing just this unisex loose linen nighty, to wearing the shift in addition to farthingales and corsets. The affect of the farthingales and corsets during that time in history was to flatten the bust and taper into an ice cream cone shape to the waist, then a dramatically wide hip.
A quick aside: You should know that during this time, women wore nothing to cover the nether regions. In the context of human history, drawers are a relatively new invention. It's only since the 1930s that underpants as we know them today came into regular use. About the same time as the brassiere, and interestingly though not serendipitously I suspect, when plumbing became widely available. As you can probably imagine, women didn't need any more encumbrance to relieving the bladder than they already had under all that whale bone and buckram. So, they went commando.
Supposedly less stressful on the organs, it created a flat tummy, a smaller bust, and a protruding tush.
In the 1700s, baleen and textiles made up the corsets, or stays, that elongated the conical shape to the waist. The equipment list under a woman's dress included: hoops of various widths; a cloth pocket tied around the waist; baleen or wooden stays with busks; and, of course, the linen shift. All with the goal of looking light and airy. By the end of the century, the ideal had changed from wide-loads to junk-in-the-trunk, replacing the hoops with bustles.
Then, the end of the 18th century saw a 30-year period dubbed the Empire/Directoire, in which women dropped all of this artifice in favor of a classical Greco-Roman look. Then modesty won, and the bustle made a big comeback that lasted about 100 years. The corset also came back with a vengeance. The late Victorian corset was so restrictive and contortive that it inspired a whole movement called the rational dress movement.
From the late 1800s through about 1908, we have a combination of undergarments that create an incredibly idealized shape with a dramatically prominent butt and breast that are impossible to achieve in nature. Not coincidentally, this era is the heyday of medical exploration. There was a lot of doctoring to death going on at the turn of the 20th century. Doctors were at the top of the social heap, and they began to deem the restrictive corset as a danger, squeezing the organs, causing hysteria and liver failure, and more.
So, as we wend into the Edwardian era, we see the corset change shape into the S-bend, or "health corset." Supposedly less stressful on the organs, it created a flat tummy, a smaller bust, and a protruding tush. Unfortunately, although women looked healthier due to the flattened abs, any health benefit was counterbalanced by injury to the back. Ironically, the S-bend bent the back in ways that the corset was originally invented to fix. Nonetheless, this style was popular up into the 1910s, when brassieres made their first appearance.
And so we arrive at the Golden Age of Girdles, stretching from the 1920s to the 1960s. Our most iconic ideals were naturally curvy: Jane Russell; Liz Taylor; and, of course, Marilyn Monroe.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, nobody wore underwear. Less was more. As a culture, we celebrated a freed bosom and bottom, and a tiny figure, like Farrah Fawcett's. And that led to the 1980s athletic ideal, a big bust and tight buns as exemplified by Jane Fonda's remarkable fitness even into her 50s. In an effort to look natural and to free women from the confines of undergarments, both exercise and plastic surgery spiked. Now you could get your tummy tucked, your breasts augmented and your butt lifted, permanently. Underwear became practical and comfortable. In an effort to slim the hip, we adopted shoulder pads that lasted all the way to the next century.
The next undergarment revolution came when Madonna famously, shockingly, made it popular to wear underwear on the outside. We still see the exposed bra-strap today, and it isn't always pretty.
In the 21st century, millennial women exercise. We make the most of what nature provided. And we can buy waist cinchers to help nature along without a knife. Part underwear; part exer-wear. We've found a way to give ourselves the hourglass shape, but only if we want it. And that is a beautiful thing.
How to Size Your Waist Cincher in 4 Easy Steps
- Tie a length of elastic around the smallest part of your waist and wiggle from side to side to let it settle. You have found your natural waist.
- Using a tape measure, measure at the level where the elastic settled. If your waist is larger than 32 inches, you may want to wrap it all little tighter, since it will compress more easily than a fat-free waist. This is where judgment comes in. Too tight and you won't wear it. Too loose and it won't cinch properly.
- The fabric of the waist cincher is very important in determining size. Waist cinchers made with more elastic, lycra and spandex will stretch more, so they need to be a little smaller. To show results, it must be rather tight.
- Use the manufacturer's size chart. Most companies put a lot of research into these charts, and they will, more often than not, provide you with an incredibly close-to-perfect option.