Let's talk about Foundation Garments, okay?

I'm cleaning house. I'm looking through a lot of my old attempts at this topic and trying to makes since of them. 

As I skim through past projects and research and other mis-steps of this nature, I've come to the conclusion that everything I attempted to make, alter, or do has resulted in mediocre faire. It's time to make that right.

As I've stated many times before, I am very pro foundation garment. I believe that it is a crucial look, depending on the era you are going for, to help shape you to the style and body type of said era. Now, I also won't wear a 20's bandeau knowing all the advancements in bra technology since then, mainly the advent of cup size in the 50s. I do, however, want to clear up some things as I see them in the scope of what I mean when I use the terms I use.

I use the term foundation agreement to categorize everything that goes beneath the outside garment to make it look its best. From undies to stockings to bras and anything else.

It's all that stuff that helps you get your desired look. Shapewear, as in your bras and cinchers, girdles and such can vary in intent of function and result.

One misconception I have discovered is that people think a girdle's job is to make you look smaller. I've worn a vintage girdle, about 80% my size, and I can say it added inches to my frame. I believe a girdles job isn't to make you smaller, it's to make you look smoother.

We all have lumps and bumps, and a girdle is pretty much a flexible corset. If you want to shave off inches, get a cincher or a corset. If you want to look flawless beneath your dress, get a girdle.

Then you get into the vast category of full girdles, half girdles and girdles with garters, etc. Whew, it's too much, really. I have learned a long time ago that vintage girdles are not my thing. I'll never find one that fits me like a glove, I'm too big in boobs and hips and too small in waist for a standard one, and I have no desire to make a classic pre 50s girdle.

50s shapeware is really what we still deal with today with the advent of elastic mesh. Oh, that stuff is golden and pretty much what all modern 'classic' shapewear is made of today. So from now on, that's what I'm going to mean when I talk about shapewear. This stuff and all modern variations in between.

Shapewear is nothing but elastic and rubber sewn together with some cotton paneling. It's been that way since the 1950s, after real girdles gave way to these lovely modern upgrades. 

Again, these really are not meant to make you smaller, they are intended to smooth you out, so don't buy one thinking you'll go down two sizes. First and foremost be honest about your size. I've always said that. And be honest in inches, not in size numbers. Abolish size numbers across the board on any article of clothing you wear because all companies have their own standards.

Next is buy your foundation garments by hip or waist size. If you are between sizes then determine where you want the most support and pick the size for that. Though be careful, you could get bunching in areas you don't want. If you are sewing savvy, you can take in the waist a lot more than you can add a panel to the hips. Wear your own bra, and try to avoid all-in-ones because they never work. 

Also, consider how much flexibility you want. Do you want to be able to dance in it? Walk for long distances in it? Remember, ladies of yesteryear were able to do all the day's functions in their foundation garments. 

And lastly consider longevity. This plastic and rubber thing that you stretch isn't going to wear forever. Just like bras, you are going to need to replace it most likely sooner than later so be prepared for the investment. 

Whether making, altering or buying, be prepared for the investment. And pay the money. Don't 'deal' your way with foundation garments. They are tedious to make and are a barrier between your body and your garment, so pay what is needed. The cheap ones are just that. Trust me, I have experience.

That said, make sure you get what you want, what fits the way you want and what creates the shape you want. When you find that, then buy a crap load of them!

Or, if you are ambitious enough, know what you want, and have some sewing moxie, do a girdle hack!
More next time!


  1. I used to wear one piece foundations years ago, then I switched to a (front hook) long line bra and girdle. Much easier on the kidneys :-) ! Anyway, I have a problem with long line bra fittings--if I get the right cup and band size, it's too tight in the waist. I'm thinking about doing some hacking myself. Thanks for this much needed info Shelley.

  2. Shelley, I love your blog. I think it's very important that someone document the things you're working on. I have no idea how to make it pay, but it seems to me that it is valuable as research.

    My grandmother was a Spirella saleswoman--she sold custom corsets, the kind that were replaced by the more modern foundation garments. She wore a corset almost all the time--she said it helped her with her back. I got to play with her fabric samples--flesh and white-colored (never black--these were NOT sexy!) pieces of lace and stretchy elastic fabric, which I made into gowns for my Barbie doll.

  3. Ooh, Wendy, that sounds like fun!!
    Thanks for the blog compliments. I'm glad people find it such a resource. I enjoy doing it very much. I wish it would pay, too! :)

  4. I have two modern-day corsets (too small for my real size, since my ex pressured me into buying a lot of things that were tight and uncomfortable). It might be interesting to try a vintage girdle, particularly after learning it doesn't serve the same purpose as a corset. I write 20th century historical fiction, a preponderance of which is set mid-century, so it's very helpful to know these details about what real women wore.

  5. I agree with the shape wear concept.... But... How does one use the restroom multiple times a day without breaking one's nails?

  6. What a great (and comprehensive) article!

    Corsets were a discussion topic this holiday after attending several burlesque shows and talking back strain/relief with an old pal who's performing again. Simply put: the corset helps support the spine, which is very relaxing. I have a 50's style dress that's boned, and it's great for standing for long periods, for the same reason.


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