Tag Archives: bust flattener

Some Ways That Costumers Transform Actors’ Bodies

Delineator magazine, July 1926.

Hand sewing. Delineator magazine, July 1926.

The many comments I read from theatrical costumers pointing out that our skills overlap —  but also differ from — couture, tailoring, retail fashion and dressmaking got me thinking about one costumers’ specialty that won’t show up in ready-to-wear:  transforming the actor’s body. [That is, transforming it to make it less attractive rather than more.]

Sometimes it is the costumer’s job to make a normally proportioned actress look like this . . .

Illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

Story illustration by Henry Raleigh, Delineator, July 1929.

. . . At other times we may have to eliminate all her curves so that she can play a male role.

Some while ago, I watched a TV show about people participating in a “CostumeCon.” One of the contestants was female, playing a male character, and she tried to suppress her breasts with adhesive tape. (Was it really duct tape?) It was so tight that she had to be extracted from it with scissors in order to breathe. Yipes! Theatrical costumers know there are better ways to do it. (Even researching bust binders from the 1920’s would have been a start!)

“It Ain’t Pretty” — Sometimes

Unlike retail fashion and couture, it’s not always the costumers’ job to make people look more attractive. Over the years, as a designer and a costume technician, I have built costumes (these are just random highlights) to transform

  • a pretty, twenty-ish actress, only 4’10” tall, into a male, forty-ish, hunchbacked dwarf, for Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
  • a curvaceous opera singer into a teenaged boy, for Marriage of Figaro.
  • a trim, healthy actor into a pot-bellied old man in Galileo.
  • a male actor into a female character and back to male again. (A musical version of The Duenna.)

I’ve never worked on Greater Tuna, but that show has two male actors playing all the characters in a small town, including ladies of a certain age and stoutness.

Sometimes a female character goes through several stages of pregnancy in less than two hours. (e.g.,  Stella in  A Streetcar Named Desire.)

Sometimes you have to turn a healthy actor into a seriously obese character, like Falstaff.

Operas often use mezzo-sopranos  or contraltos to play young men.  (These are called “breeches” or “trouser” roles:  Cherubino, Octavian [the Rosencavalier,] Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, among others.)

Sometimes you have to transform a matinee idol actor (e.g., John Barrymore, Lawrence Olivier) into Richard  III (called “Crookback,”  so “deformed, unfinished . . . that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.”)   In grand opera, Rigoletto, the court jester,  is also a man with a “hunch.”

Sometimes a trim young character ages into a plump, sagging, old one — as Queen Victoria does in biographical plays and movies. (And as Henry VIII did, except in a certain recent TV series ….)

There is a trend for male actors to play female roles (e.g. David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest) and for female actors to play male characters. (There are far more male roles in Shakespeare than female roles — some modern theatre companies like to equalize them a bit.)

And I mustn’t forget Charlie’s Aunt  (first performed in 1892) — in which a young man is persuaded to pose as a friend’s elderly aunt from Brazil in order to chaperone a meeting of proper young ladies and university undergraduates.

So, part of the costumer’s job is to figure out ways to accomplish these transformations, while giving the actor or singer complete mobility and as much comfort as possible.

Welcome to the wonderful world of “fat suits,” “birdseed boobs,” bust flatteners, “pregnancy pads,” and “body suits” — but not the kind popularized by Donna Karan!

Costumers call all padded suits “body suits” now — the old term “fat suit” is frowned upon. And, like custom tailored suits, cartwheel tutus, and couture garments, making padded body suits requires special skills and a lot of hand stitching.

If the transformation is to be believable — not a joke — you start with plenty of research. Life drawing classes frequently use models who would never appear on a fashion runway.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm.

Life drawing of a model (watercolor), detail of back and upper arm. These folds of flesh can be duplicated in a body suit.

Observation of people on the street is also useful. In many cases, you need to consult a medical library to understand curvature of the spine, stages of pregnancy, or other medical conditions.

It’s almost impossible to build a good padded bodysuit without a dressmaker’s mannequin which has the same measurements as the actor. (We sometimes pad the mannequin itself, first, to be sure we are starting as “close” to the actor’s body shape as possible.)

The base of the suit is usually a stretchable leotard — with or without sleeves and legs, as needed. A “pregnancy pad” can be built on a scoop-necked, sleeveless leo, or even a camisole/tank top, but it needs a snap-closed crotch strap to keep it in place when the actor sits.

Traditionally “built” padded bodysuits use layers and layers of polyester fiberfill (the kind used for quilt-making), each layer cut and shaped to simulate belly fat, “love handles,” sagging pectoral muscles and fat, and even the fat accumulating on the back and shoulders. (Fat does not accumulate on the front of the body only.) Notice the back-of-neck and shoulder padding on this body suit, which changes a young, erect posture (the mannequin) into a flabby old man’s slouch.

A padded body suit fromThe Costume Technician's Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

A padded body suit from The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Ingham & Covey. Photo by Frances Aronson.

To build up the “fat,” costumers begin with the widest part of the bulge, cut a large oval of fiberfill, and hand stitch it securely to the bodysuit with stretch stitching (called cross stitch, herringbone stitch or catch stitch.) The first layer must be well secured, because subsequent layers, each smaller than the last, will be attached to the previous ones. The shape is built slowly, 1/4 or 1/2 inch of thickness at a time.

Not surprisingly, an actor wearing all this padding will sweat. Acting, especially on stage, can be very hard work. The suit will need to be completely washable — repeatedly washable, over weeks or months of use. That’s why it can take 40 hours of work to make an elaborately padded suit:  painstaking hand construction. The final shape is sealed in with another layer of smooth stretch fabric, hand stitched for definition. Sometimes it needs nipples and a belly button. And the final layer may be dyed to match the actor’s skin tone.  A zipper will need to be added, and a snap crotch. (Actors need to visit the restroom, just like everybody else.)

Really huge suits — for Falstaff, for example — can be built on a semi-spherical “cage” of boning and fabric, which stands away from the actor’s body and provides some air circulation. The realistic padded structure — belly, “man breasts”, etc. — is built up on top of the cage. Outdoor productions, which rehearse or perform in daytime, can put the actor wearing a padded body suit at risk of heatstroke, so every precaution and opportunity for cooling and hydration must be planned. (Sometimes this includes putting pockets inside the costume to hold ice packs.)

Birdseed Boobs

When we wanted to give a female character large and/or sagging breasts, without a complete bodysuit, we used to make a pocket in each large bra cup and fill them — but not tightly — with flaxseed, which simulates the weight and movement of breasts. Hence the term “birdseed boobs.” Modern silicone has been a big improvement — at least for filling part of the cups. One thing I learned from a friend: never, never put birdseed boobs into storage without removing all the birdseed . . . . Unless you want mice nesting in your costume storage area.

When You Need to Flatten Instead of Flatter. . . .

Many people have a mistaken idea that all opera singers are very large, like this Wagnerian singer of the past.

Not true. I worked with a lovely (in personality as well as looks) mezzo soprano who could have posed for a Petty Girl calendar. She sang the title role in La Cenerentola (Cinderella), but she also sang Hansel in Hansel and Gretel and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro — male roles. When you wear a C cup bra — or larger — just wrapping a band of “athletic support” elastic bandage around your chest, even if you put shoulder straps on the bandage, does not provide comfort and support. You need something that flattens the breasts without pushing them down or making a crease under them — something that supports and distributes the flesh to the sides, as “minimizer” bras do.

Lovely ‘Rochelle’ suggested a method she’d encountered at another opera company — a close fitting, V-necked, sleeveless shell — dyed to her skin tone — with boning on each side running up from just below the waist and over her bust points. (I made several boning channels.)  The boning pushed her breasts up and flattened them, so they looked like a man’s pectoral muscles.  After fitting the coutil shell (which zipped up the back) as tightly as we wanted, I opened the side seams, folded out a long wedge from just below her bust to the waist, and inserted a godet of elastic in each side seam to give her plenty of breathing room. (Some singers and Shakespearean actors learn to expand the ribcage at will, by several inches, creating a vacuum to suck in huge gulps of air.)

Recently, I was amazed to discover that the “Breeches role / opera flattener” we made decades ago had the same fan-shaped boning as this 1920’s bust flattener for older women (the one on the right:)

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Even if I did “re-invent the wheel,” my flattener was much more comfortable than Duct Tape!

Book Recommendation:  The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey, will tell you how to do many useful things, from corset construction to cartridge pleating and pattern drafting. Click here for more about this very practical book. There’s a whole paragraph about it at the bottom of the post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Women in Trousers

Underpinning the 1920s: Brassieres, Bandeaux, and Bust Flatteners

The women’s undergarment called a “brassière” has been around since 1905 in the U.S. (1) and before 1912 in England (2). However, the first brassieres didn’t look anything like the garment we know today. (Numbers) indicate sources listed at end of post. [Read about 1920s Girdles and Corsets here. Read about Early 1920s Fashions here.]

Boneless Brassieres from the Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, 1917

Boneless Brassieres from the Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, 1917

Warner Brothers Brassiere Ad, March 1925

Warner Brothers Brassiere Ad, March 1925, Delineator.

A very similar brassiere, made entirely of delicate machine lace, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Lace Bandeau Brassiere circa 1920, Fashion in Detail drawing by Eleri Lynn, Photographs by Richard Davis

Lace Bandeau Brassiere circa 1920, from Fashion in Detail. (4) Drawing by Leonie Davis, lace photograph by Richard Davis. It closes at the side back with hooks and eyes, so the help of a maid would be required to put it on.

An undergarment like this, worn very tightly, would compress the breasts. However, if I had found any of these brassieres in a box of vintage underwear, I might have classified them as camisoles, rather than brassieres.

The first uplift brassieres — with shoulder straps and a snug, elasticized band below the breasts, and, most importantly, two distinct cups for the breasts — were not mass-produced until the mid-to-late nineteen twenties.

Ideal Fashion Figure, Early 1920s

Couture dress by Lucien Lelong, 1925; Clara Bow, photographed by Dyar for Vanity Fair, 1928

Couture dress by Lucien Lelong, 1925; Clara Bow, photographed by Dyar for Vanity Fair, 1928

Movie star Clara Bow had an ideal figure for early 1920s fashions; she epitomized the garçonne, or “boy-girl” look.

Butterick Ad, Delineator, June 1925.

Butterick Ad, Delineator, June 1925.

Naturally, most of the women alive in the twenties did not look like boys at all.

Young woman and her mother, 1920s. Photo courtesy of rememberedsummers.

Young woman and her mother, 1920s. Photo courtesy of rememberedsummers.wordpress.com

And this is where the brassieres, bandeaux, and bust flatteners come in.

Bust-flattening Bandeaux and Brassieres, 1920s

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

Ads for De Bevoise Bandeaux, May & April 1925. Both are made of stiff corset material; the one on the right is boned and designed to flatten a more mature figure.

The terms brassiere and bandeau were not used consistently, but in general a 1920s “bandeau” was a band that went around the chest, supported by two ribbon straps.

Bandeaux, 1928. Picture from Everyday Fashions of the Twenties, by Stella Blum.

Bandeaux, 1928. Picture from Everyday Fashions of the Twenties, by Stella Blum.

A “brassiere” was less skimpy and usually reached to the waist; both brassieres and bandeaux had one or more tabs that could be used to attach them to the girdle or a waist-high corset, which in turn had suspended garter hooks which attached to the stockings.

Old-fashioned brassieres from a 1928 Sears catalog would have appealed to older women.

These old-fashioned brassieres from a 1928 Sears catalog would have appealed to older women.

You can see that, although the brassieres above resemble the brassieres from 1917 pictured at the top of this post, there is a difference:  these 1920s brassieres have almost no curve. They are meant to flatten the bust.

Brassieres for "stout women" from a Sears catalog, 1928-29. From Everyday Fashions of the Twenties, p. 130.

Bust flattening brassieres for “stout women” from a Sears catalog, 1928-29. From Everyday Fashions of the Twenties, p. 130.

The brassiere on the left is “for stout women and nursing mothers” [Ouch!] only because it fastens up the front.

Reducing Brassieres

Women who were not content with compressing their breasts could try to reduce them:

The Bailey rubber reducing brassiere. Ad from Delineator, July 1918.

The Bailey Rubber reducing brassiere. Ad from Delineator, July 1918.

The Madame X Reducing Brassiere, November 1924. It was also made of rubber, to encourage water loss.

The Madame X Reducing Brassiere, November 1924.

Madame X corsets, girdles, and brassieres were also made of rubber, and usually worn over an absorbent undergarment. The purpose of the rubber was to “sweat off” the fat.

Brassieres That Hold Your Stockings Up (and Push Your Breasts Down)

Brassieres from 1928-29. Pictured in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

Brassieres from 1928-29. Pictured in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.  The brassiere on the left is unboned and “comfortable for sports or dancing.” The one on the right “can be worn without a corset.”

Even in the twenties, some objected to bust-flatteners on the grounds that they would damage breast tissue. These garter-and-brassiere combinations, with the stockings exerting a constant downward pull, must have forced all but the smallest breasts to crease at the bottom. In addition to breaking down the breast tissue,  imagine how perspiration forming in those creases would have caused rashes and general misery in warm weather.

Bandeaux and the Boyshform Binder

These 1928 bandeaux have elastic backs, and either a back or side closing. Notice that they have some easing along the side seam, but they still have the “uni-bosom” or “mono-bosom” look of the previous century, as if a woman had one, large, oblong breast running across her chest. These bandeaux were intended to make even that slight curve disappear.

Bandeaux. Picture from Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

Bandeaux, 1928. Picture from Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

I have not yet come across a picture of the Boyshform binder. The Boyshform company was formed about 1918 and “claimed optimistically that its utterly flat bandeaux would hold the bust in position without ‘pressure or pinching.’ ” (1)  Another bust flattener with a punning name was the Kabo Corset Company’s “Flatter-U.” The bust reducer illustrated below has a back made from corset material and a front made from several overlapping bands of elastic stitched together:

"Elastic Front Brassiere Bust Reducer gives the bust firm lines. Corset material back...." 1928. Pictured in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

“Elastic Front Brassiere Bust Reducer gives the figure firm lines. Corset material back….” 1928. Pictured in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

The authors of Uplift: The Bra in America suggest that the Maiden Form company trademarked that name in 1924 to distinguish the purpose of its new, non-flattening bras from the Boyshform flatteners.

Corselets, Corsolettes, Corselettes, Corsettes and Other Combination Undergarments

The discomfort of brassieres that had to be buttoned with a tab to corsets or girdles — and probably often produced a bulge at the waist where the gap occurred — led to the widespread adoption of a combination garment that was called (with several spelling variations) the corselette.

1924 Brassiere Corset combination, 1924 Long Brassiere 1925 Treo Brassiere Girdle Combination Garment Ad. All from Delineator magazines.

1924 Brassiere Corset combination, 1924 Long Brassiere; 1925 Treo Brassiere Girdle Combination Garment Ad. All from Delineator magazines.

Treo undergarments, here pictured from an ad in Delineator magazine, were sold in stores and also carried as a brand name in the Sears, Roebuck catalog, so they reached a wide spectrum of customers. (1)

1925 Bien Jolie Step-In Corsette Ad, Delineator.

1925 Ad for Bien Jolie Step-In Corsette; “which comfortably flattens the lines of the body.” Delineator.

Corselette pattern from Butterick, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Butterick Corselette pattern, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Women could also make their own simple — and flattening — brassieres, bandeaux, and corselettes from sewing patterns until true uplift bras, which “lifted and separated,” became available in the mid-1920s, and were too complex for the home stitcher. Simple bandeaux which had cups, but did not give support, were still featured in pattern catalogs.

The End of the Boyish Form

Breast flatteners and binders continued to be sold throughout the 1920s, but the return to a more natural, feminine figure in the second half of the twenties — accompanied by the invention of brassieres that had cups that fit and actually supported the breasts — gradually put an end to bust flatteners. The Boyshform company was in financial trouble by August of 1925 and went bankrupt in 1928. (1)

Sources especially useful for this post include (1) Uplift: The Bra in America, by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau; (2) Fashion in Underwear: From Babylon to Bikini Briefs, by Elizabeth Ewing; (3) Everyday Fashions of the Twenties as Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs, by Stella Blum; (4) Women’s and Children’s Fashions of 1917: The Complete Perry, Dame & Co. Catalog, a Dover Book; (5) Fashion in Detail: Underwear, (V&A Museum), by Eleri Lynn, Photographs by Richard Davis, Drawings by Leonie Davis; (6) The Mode in Costume, by Ruth Turner Wilcox, (7) Fashion, by Mila Contini; (8) History of Twentieth Century Fashion, by Elizabeth Ewing, (9) 20,000 Years of Fashion, by Francois Boucher, and issues of Delineator magazine from 1924 to 1929.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets & Corselettes, Hosiery & Stockings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage patterns, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes