Prudery in Advertising Used to Confuse Me

Girdles from Sears Catalog, Fall 1958.

Costume researchers of the future, given only this image, might deduce that girdles were worn on the outside of our clothes…. And that the stocking suspenders/garters were purely decorative. There was a time when manufacturers who wanted to use the same ad in “family newspapers” and in women’s magazines had to be careful how they showed women’s underwear, lest they incite lustful thoughts and corrupt the young….

I’ve mentioned before that I was a “motherless child” — raised after her death by a loving father. We managed very well, except when it came to my clothing. Luckily my Aunt Shirley, and old (female) friends of our family, and sometimes the mothers of my school friends stepped in. Mrs. Betty P., who helped me sort through my mother’s closet when my father couldn’t bear to do it, eventually told him that it was long past time for me to start wearing a bra. (Fathers are often reluctant to admit that their little girls have grown up.) She was right. She took me to a department store (along with her own daughter) to have us fitted. My first bra (age 11) was a 34 B.
However, Betty’s daughter Janie and I used to puzzle over the lingerie ads in the backs of magazines, trying to make sense of them.

If the garters attach to your stockings, and you wear the garter belt over your bouffant petticoat…. How could that work? Sears catalog, Fall, 1958.

Full circle bouffant petticoat from Sears catalog, 1957. Janie and I knew you couldn’t bunch that up to make your garters reach your stocking tops….

This was 1957 or so — when huge crinoline petticoats were all the rage. Girls wore them in layers –preferably two bouffant petticoats at a time.
But this was also before pantyhose were available — women wore stockings held up by a garter belt, if they didn’t need “more control.”

Garter belts, 1958. Sears Fall catalog.

If you were going to wear a very fitted dress, a girdle or panty-girdle was needed so you would have a (relatively) smooth line from waist to thigh without bulges that outlined the garter belt.
But: my 11 year-old friends and I looked at ads like this one …

“How could this work?” my 11 year old self wondered.

… and asked each other how the garter belt could reach your stocking tops, if you wore it over your bouffant petticoat?

Advertising Undies Without Offending….

In the 1920s, advertising underwear was a tricky business. What did you do about that awkward top-of-thighs area at the bottom of the corset? Should the advertiser show the long bloomers (sometimes called knickers) which most women wore?

Ladies’ bloomers (also loosely called knickers or drawers), 1925. Butterick pattern 5705.

Would a family newspaper run an ad showing underpants? Or worse, a woman’s thighs or crotch? And isn’t it possible that, however they were shown in corset ads,  women sometimes wore their long underpants over their corsets, so they could be pulled down for a visit to the toilet (or outhouse, or chamberpot?)

Corsets illustrated as worn over bloomers, as shown in Sears catalogs, From Blum’s Everyday Fashions of the 1920s.

Well, 19th c. bloomers or drawers were often two separate legs, attached only at the waist. You could say Queen Victoria wore crotchless panties….

Open drawers, circa 1860, illustration from Ewing's Fashion in Underwear.

Open drawers, circa 1860, illustration from Ewing’s Fashion in Underwear. You could wear these under a corset and still answer the call of nature.

 In the 20th century, many women’s underpants/drawers/knickers were made with an open crotch, or a crotch that opened with tiny buttons, so those could be worn under the corset/girdle.  Awkward, but do-able.)

1917 underwear choice: open-crotched drawers (left) or a long “envelope” chemise with a button crotch. Delineator.

Pretty vintage lingerie with a button crotch.

Lingerie from Delineator, June 1924. Left, a “step-in;” right, a button crotch “chemise.”

Keep in mind that the 1930s Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S.A. had been written by men who said, “If it’s objectionable to a child, it’s objectionable, period.” (My 12th grade term paper was about movie censorship — so I’m quoting from memory.) Among other forbidden things (as reported): the inside of a woman’s thigh could never be shown in films. (An idea parodied here.)  For context, here’s the article accompanying that image.

Too hot for the Motion Picture Production Code? Corset illustrations from Delineator, 1929

That nervousness about female anatomy made it difficult for advertisers show exactly how corsets and stockings were worn. Often they were shown as if the garters were purely decorative, and had nothing to do with holding up your stockings.

Message: “There are suspenders attached to our corsets.” Women would know the suspenders were for holding up stockings, but the ads didn’t show how.

Some advertisements showed the corset superimposed on a clothed figure.

Corsets over clothing, in ads from 1912 and 1924.

Note to the future: Ordinary 20th century women did not wear their corsets over their dresses. (Although a few performers and young women with a desire to shock eventually did….)

For corset ads, a nebulous frill or draped fabric was also useful for propriety.

Sketchy lace frills or a delicate drapery avoid showing bare thighs between corset and stocking.

Some ads did show suspenders attached to stockings — but, does this mean women tucked their underwear into their stockings, as shown?

Thighs covered by long bloomers or drawers. 1926.

More voluminous undergarments tucked into stocking tops, 1922.

This company went bold — The photographer blurred out the crotch area: (Yes, photos were being altered almost as soon as they were invented.)

The area at the top of the model’s thighs has been blurred in this photo. 1926. She may have been wearing tight knit undies to start with.

Remember, in the Fifties,  TV wouldn’t allow a married couple to occupy the same bed (see The I Love Lucy Show.) (And Lucille Ball, who really was expecting a child, was “Enceinte,” not “Pregnant.”)

But the 1958 Sears catalog wasn’t censoring its pages — some photos are realistic, with bare thighs appearing between girdles and stockings, as they were worn in real life. I suspect that it was up to the manufacturer to decide whether his customers were easily upset by women’s bodies…

Sorry, boys. Nothing titillating to see here!

… or not:

Models wearing bras and girdles, Sears catalog Fall 1958.

Girdle worn over bare skin, although the photo is poor quality. Inside of thigh visible! Sears catalog, 1958.

A Sears model shows how a girdle and stockings were really worn. 1958 Sears catalog.




Filed under 1950s-1960s, Combinations step-ins chemises teddies, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Foundation Garments, Girdles, Hosiery, Hosiery, lingerie and underwear, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Panties knickers bloomers drawers step-ins, Underthings, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Underwear and lingerie

16 responses to “Prudery in Advertising Used to Confuse Me

  1. anna

    I’ve always wondered how they managed those crotchless panties etc. when they had their monthly. (And I’m trying to word this as acceptably as I can, so as not to upset either the owner of the blog, the Hayes Office, or Nanny Bot if there is one.) As a confirmed Austen fan, I have read a lot of guff in learned social history tomes about how women “didn’t wear underwear” until the 19th century…but I somehow doubt that, unless the authors don’t consider pantalettes/bloomers underpants. Sanitary pads as we know them today didn’t appear until 1888 or so; I know from conversations with my mother and MIL that rags were all they had. How does one manage with crotchless panties/no panties?
    I suppose it makes sense that in so many 19th century novels so many women spent so much time “being indisposed” and spending the day in their bedroom.
    You need not post this comment if it offends a child.

  2. KB

    Oooooh, light bulb! I always thought it would be such a faff going to the loo from say 1930 to 1960. You’d surely have to undo your girdle in order to take down your big knickers, maybe rolling your stockings part way down, whilst keeping your slip held up…. Then practically dress yourself all over again. If you just put the undies on over the stockings/girdle /suspenders it would save a lot of bother. Though I guess the girdle, next to the skin and possibly even in the live of fire toilet-wise could get very dirty….

    • You’ve brought back memories of me trying to use a squat-type loo in Paris (1970s or 80s) while wearing pantyhose and/or tailored slacks. (It was winter.) It’s not easy to keep your knees apart with the elastic waistband of your pantyhose pulled down around them! Wearing your bloomers over your corset or girdle would not give a smooth line under light weight dress materials, and it appears from 1930s Lux soap ads that some women did wear girdles instead of, not with panties.

      • anna

        Remember the “body suits” of the 70s with snaps in the crotch? Talk about having to undress and dress again to use the bathroom! Not to mention having to be very supple indeed to snap it closed while standing in a public restroom stall!

      • Oh, boy, do I! Been there, did that. Amazingly , I bought two or three jumpsuits before noticing that they ended up touching the floor of public restrooms when I pulled them down. Yuck! For home wear only!

    • Yes. I was scratching my head at the headline on this post and about when we get to garter belts, the giant light bulb ignites. I had assumed the illustration was correct and they were worn over panties. WHO WOULD DO THAT IRL? And what panty am I wearing over that longline girdle?

  3. Linda - Yéyé Dolls

    This is a great article, as always! When I was reading I thought several times, oh, men always have had it so much easier than women, underwear-wise hahaha! Of all the ads I think the one with the petticoat is the most challenging to make sense of! Imagine that! 😀

  4. Marilyn Hamill

    In the late ’60’s, when bikini bathing suits were introduced, you couldn’t find a belly button in any catalog. Hard for me, because I couldn’t have a suit that showed mine, but how to order if you did not know how high they went? I ended up sewing my own bikini bathing suits.

  5. I often wondered about these ads – why did they show suspenders in this impossible configuration…… its amazing how prudery can be so impractical!

    • I’ve puzzled over these for costuming, trying to figure out which layer goes on at what time, and how they could possibly wear petticoats that way, without them getting all bunched up by the straps. Finally it was explained to me that that’s not how they really wore them, but since I was always trying to work directly from firsthand sources, I had no idea!

      • I remember a memoir — was it James Laver? — in which he remembers, as a boy, walking in the park in London with his Late Victorian aunties, who would sometimes pause on the gravel path, and then move on, leaving a puddle where they had been standing. Crotchless “open drawers” explain part of this process, but not the petticoats, boots, and splash problem! I got rid of many of my reference books before starting this blog, so I can’t check the reference.

  6. michelle miller

    I look forward to all your posts especially now that Im at the start of the longest “staycation ever”

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