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How Women's 'Shaping Underwear' Has Changed Throughout History

Updated July 25, 2019 23.5k views13 items

Steel corsets, whale bones, and girdles have defined the history of shapewear. For thousands of years, women have manipulated their bodies to fit fashion trends. In ancient Rome, women bound their busts to match the ideal of a small-chested, large-hipped figure. In the Victorian era, women became obsessed with the "wasp waist," using corsets to shrink their waists down to 16 inches. And flappers achieved a boyish figure thanks to hip-slimming girdles.

Shapewear has even changed history. During WWI, the US government asked women to stop wearing corsets because they used so much valuable steel. Women listened, and they freed up enough steel to build two ships. 

In the past, shapewear wasn't just for date nights. 1950s housewives were warned not to take off their girdles when vacuuming. Victorian women wore corsets so often that doctors worried they were permanently damaging their bodies. And women even wore shapewear to the beach. From ancient Mesopotamia until today, women have used shaping garments to fashion their bodies. 

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  • In Ancient Babylon, Girdle-Like Garments Were A Symbol Of Virginity

    In Ancient Babylon, Girdle-Like Garments Were A Symbol Of Virginity
    Photo: BabelStone / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Shapewear dates back thousands of years. The ancient Minoans donned undergarments that bound their waists and pushed out their bare chests. A visitor to Crete in 1600 BC might see bare-chested Minoan women walking the streets, their waists restricted by a corset-like garment. 

    In ancient Mesopotamia, women wore shapewear known as a girdle. While few of the cloth garments survive, in Babylon, girdles supposedly held magical powers. The goddess Ishtar wore a girdle to promote fertility, and many linked girdles with virginity. 

  • Ancient Greek Women Wore Undergarments That Emphasized Their Chests And Minimized Waists

     Ancient Greek Women Wore Undergarments That Emphasized Their Chests And Minimized Waists
    Photo: John William Godward / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Hellenic Greece, an hourglass figure was seen as desirable. Consequently, waist-cinching belts and girdles became wardrobe staples. As metalworking became more advanced, girdles followed suit; they were often crafted from gold, silver, or copper and adorned with decorative motifs.

    Girdles make appearances in Greek literature from the period, as well. Hercules was said to have sought out the magical girdle belonging to the queen of the Amazons, and legends spoke of Aphrodite's girdle and its supposedly romantic powers. Homer even described one such garment in the Iliad:

    She spake, and loosed from her bosom the broidered girdle, curiously-wrought, wherein are fashioned all manner of allurements; therein is love, therein desire, therein dalliance - beguilement that steals the wits even of the wise.

  • Ancient Roman Women Wore Chest-Binders To Minimize Their Bosoms

    Ancient Roman Women Wore Chest-Binders To Minimize Their Bosoms
    Photo: Fotowerkstatt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

    Roman women wrapped their chests in a strip of cotton or linen cloth. Known as a strophium, the band held and compressed the breasts. A mosaic from Sicily's Piazza Armerina shows women wearing the tight bands while exercising. 

    Why did Roman women bind their bosoms? Ancient Romans deemed large chests unattractive, instead preferring a woman with a small bust and large hips. Roman shapewear helped women hide undesirable curves up top while emphasizing their hips.

  • In The Middle Ages, Women Wore Tightly Laced Bodices

    In The Middle Ages, Women Wore Tightly Laced Bodices
    Photo: Domenico Ghirlandaio / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Medieval shapewear was often visible on the outside of clothing. That's because medieval underwear was a loose-fitted smock, usually made from linen. Both men and women wore these shapeless smocks, also called a chemise, under their clothes.

    But medieval women showed off their shape starting around the 14th century by topping their underwear with tight bodices. Laced bodices even showed peeks of the chemise beneath. While later centuries would emphasize the curve of chests by donning lower bodices, medieval dresses typically included tight binding on the chest and waist.