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Underpinning the Twenties: Corsets and Corselets

“To be smart this season one must be more than slim. The figure must defy nature and be as flat as the proverbial flounder, as straight as a lead pencil, and boneless and spineless as a string-bean. One must be straight like a boy and narrow like a lady in a Japanese print.” – Delineator magazine, February 1924.

Two corselets from 1925. Left, Butterick pattern 5691; right, ad for Bien Jolie corsette # 6099. Delineator Magazine.

Two corselets from 1925. Left, Butterick corselette pattern 5691; right, ad for Bien Jolie corsette # 6099. Delineator magazine.

Corselets, Corselettes, Corsolettes, & Corsettes, 1924 to 1929

Delineator writer Evelyn Dodge explained the difference between a corset and a corselet in her “The New in New York” column dated July 1925:

“Not all women need corsets. Women with young, slender figures find that the corselet, which is a combination brassière and hip-confiner, is sufficient. It is unboned and is therefore as soft and flexible as the natural figure. It keeps the figure straight without making it rigid. It is made of soft light fabrics such as brassière material, broché coutil and fine washable satin and has elastic gores to fit in at the hip. “

“Corsets” were heavily boned and rigid. (“For the figure that is heavier… the corset becomes heavier with heavier material, more bones… and with lacings.” — Dodge) “Corselets” (or corselettes, corsolettes, corsettes, etc. — you could find many spelling variations even in the Delineator‘s articles and advertisements) were unboned, or very lightly boned, and flexible.

Bien Jolie Corsette ad, Delineator, March 1924.

Bien Jolie Corsette ad, Delineator, March 1924.

The woman in this 1924 Bien Jolie Corsette is doing something you couldn’t possibly do in a heavily boned corset: she is bending at the waist. (If you do bend too far in a metal-boned corset, the bones develop a permanent crimp, a dent or a bulge.) The ad says, “The freedom of the uncorseted figure and the long, slim lines demanded by the modes of today are both attained by the Bien Jolie Corsette. . . .”

A Delineator article called this boneless garment a “brassiere corset” early in 1924:

A Brassiere Corset for slender women, Feb. 1924. Delineator.

A Brassiere Corset for slight figures, Feb. 1924. Delineator.

Butterick Corselette Pattern No. 5691, 1924-1925

Butterick corselette pattern # 5961, Delineator, Dec. 1924.

Butterick corselette pattern # 5961, Delineator, Dec. 1924. The corselet is shown worn over bloomers.

In her July 1925 article, Evelyn Dodge went on to say:

“You can either buy or make your corselet. It is very easily made, and if the figure is large or small at one point or another the corselet can easily be fitted when it is being made.”

You can see that there are no boning channels in the corselette, but coutil is a non-stretch corset fabric vith very little ‘give.’ Elastic in yardage wide enough for mass-produced girdles was not available before 1930, according to Ewing (Fashion in Underwear, pp. 102-107), so some corselets of the 1920s show wide bands of overlapped elastic. You can see this in the illustration on the right, below.

Butterick pattern 5961 was featured again in January and March issues of Delineator. 1925.

Butterick pattern 5961 was featured again in January and March issues of Delineator, 1925.

1924 p 36 corselette 5691 descriptionThe pattern description doesn’t say whether this corselette opens with hooks and eyes under the left arm . . .

Does it open along a side seam?

Does it open along a side seam?

. . . or along the side front seam, like this commercially made corselet.

Bien Jolie Step-in Corsette ad, Delineator, April 1925.

Bien Jolie Step-in Corsette ad, Delineator, April 1925.

Dodge continues, “These corselets have been enormously successful for several reasons — their excellent lines, their inexpensiveness, and the fact that they can be washed as easily and as often as any other piece of lingerie. They are supple enough for sports and dancing and their unbroken lines are perfect under the light fabrics of evening gowns.”

Commercially Manufactured Corselets, 1924 to 1929

Although the spellings differed, the popularity of the corselet is apparent by the number that were advertised.

The Treo company, a line available through Sears, Roebuck’s catalog, as well as in stores, called this model a “Brassiere Girdle” combination garment:

Treo "Brassiere Girdle combination garment" ad from Delineator, May 1925.

Treo “Brassiere Girdle combination garment” ad from Delineator, May 1925.

The DeBevoise company suggested that this Step-in Corsette belonged in a bride’s trousseau:

DeBevoise Ad, June 1925. Delineator.

DeBevoise Ad, June 1925. Delineator.

This Warner’s corselette for large figures is “boned in the modern manner,” although the “silk jersey top” can’t have had much impact on a large bust.

Warner's Corselette Ad, April 1925. Delineator.

Warner’s Corselette Ad, April 1925. Delineator.

This Bien Jolie satin brocade corselette dates from 1924:

Bien Jolie Ad for Corsette # 6076, April 1924. Delineator.

Bien Jolie Ad for Corsette # 6078, April 1924. Delineator.

By 1926, flattened busts were going out of fashion and a more natural silhouette was beginning to replace the “unbroken straight line” of Butterick #5691.

Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, July 1926. Delineator.

Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, July 1926. Delineator. Note the elastic curving in toward the waist and the model’s curved silhouette.

By March, 1929, Delineator showed these “foundation” garments [note the name change; they are no longer ‘corselettes’] in an article about the latest underwear styles:

Foundation garment with darted and separated bust. Delineator, March 1929.

Foundation garment with darted and separated bust. Delineator, March 1929.

By 1931, you could buy this Smart Model “co-ed” foundation with “new bustline, no boning” from a Sears catalog for $1.98.

From Stella Blum's Everyday Fashions of the 1930s. Please do not copy this image.

From Stella Blum’s Everyday Fashions of the 1930s. Please do not copy this image.

This is part 4 of a series about undergarments in the 1920s: to read “Brassieres, Bandeaux and Bust Flatteners” (click here), “Underpinning Twenties Fashion: Girdles and Corsets” (click here), “Garters, Flappers & Rolled Stockings” (click here.)

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Accessory Patterns, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Girdles, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Accessories, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes

Underpinning Twenties Fashions: Girdles and Corsets

Frances Clyne dress, Gossard elastic Step-in girdle, original photo by Steichen

Frances Clyne dress, Gossard elastic Step-in girdle, original photo by Steichen

Flat in Front, Flat in Back

Bien Jolie Flexible Corsette ad, July 1924

Bien Jolie Flexible Corsette ad, July 1924

In our breast-obsessed culture — the culture of push-up bras, cleavage, silicone, and breast augmentation surgery – we are bewildered by the early 1920s fashion ideal, which emphasized a curve-free, flat-chested silhouette.

Most people have heard that women “bound their breasts” to achieve a boyish figure.  (I always pictured Ace bandages used like mummy wrappings, but I now know better. I’ll be showing some 1920s brassieres in a later post.)

This ad for a corsette or corselet, as they were sometimes called, shows a lightly boned combination brassiere and girdle creating the ideal silhouette of the early 20s.

What we forget is that the ideal twenties figure was as flat in back as it was in front.

Warner's Wrap-Around Corset Ad, 1925

Warner’s Wrap-Around Corset Ad, 1925

Even slender women required some help in achieving an unnaturally flattened bottom.

500 1925 april p 69 bon ton corset photo

Illustration of a woman having a dress fitted, from an ad for Bon Ton Corsets, April 1925.

500 bonton corset ad april 1925 wide

Two corsets from the same ad for Bon Ton Corsets, Delineator, April 1925.

Sports Girdle, 1924

Warren's Featherbone Girdle for Sports, 1924

Warren’s Featherbone Girdle for Sports, 1924

This Warren’s “Featherbone” sports girdle was for active women, but its “flat back is a noteworthy feature.”

Treo Girdle Ad, May 1925 (Click to Enlarge)

Treo Girdle Ad, May 1925 (Click to Enlarge)

You can compare it with this 1925 Treo girdle for average figures.

The Warren’s Featherbone allows the legs to move more easily, but does not allow for any development of the gluteal muscles.

Back Flattening Corsets for Larger Women

Larger women needed more help.1924 dec p 68 flattening corset top

1924 dec p 81 just bon ton corset flat“The full-figured woman may easily attain the stylish flat back and slender, youthful lines with …specially designed Bon Ton Round-U corsets…. Model 886 is a special design for excessive hips and lower back … [with] wide sections of substantial elastic beneath the corset which checks, controls, and reduces superfluous flesh and creates much desired lines of fashion.”1924 april short photo H W flattening corset p 111

An H & W girdle from 1924 “gives a perfect contour by holding down the hip and holding in the abdomen.” At $10.00, it is also expensive. The average working woman earned less than $30 a week in the 1920s. (Source: Uplift, by Beck and Gau,  p. 39)

Average Measurements, 1925

The 1925 Gossard girdle advertisement, with its embroidered dress from Frances Clyne, which appears at the top of this post contained this description of “average measurements” for an American Girl, 5′ 4″: chest 34″, waist 26″, hips 35″. Presumably, she was wearing a girdle. flat with measurement text

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Filed under 1920s, Corselettes, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Girdles, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes