The Secret to Reproduction 1940s Shapewear

The Quest for Vintage Style Shapewear for a Modern Style Body.

If you've been following Slightly Obsessed for a while, you know that I am bit, well, obsessed. I want to experience as much of history as I can, in all its layers. For me that doesn’t stop after hours or with what I’m wearing under my historically accurate clothing.

For years my 1940s undergarment solution as been either a modern Rago 9357 or 9077. These match the style shown in historic catalogs so well that underclothing you would find it hard to tell I’m not in an original girdle. They have just enough compression to smooth out my girly bumps under fitted vintage clothing, just enough point to the bust line to mimic the style at the time without looking torpedo-like & the removable stocking clips are indispensable when wearing historic (elastic free) stockings. For many years I was happy, thrilled actually, which is saying something when it comes to heavy duty shapewear like an open bottomed girdle.
Without proper foundations, there can be no fashion.
Then life, work stress & too many late night cookie binges added 40 lbs to my waistline (among other places). While I am working to take off this extra weight again, it was a lot more fun to gain than it is turning out it is to lose. In the meantime, what is an obsessed historical gal to do about her 1940s underwear?

The Quest Begins.

At first I tried simply wearing the too small girdle. I bet you can guess how well that went. Denial, I figured, would make it work. Talk about a mistake! Not only was it even harder to put on, but the bust line bulged and squished in all the wrong places. What I realized was that the bottom half still fit fine, thanks to the stretch of the material & my overall “squish factor”, but there was nothing to be done about the bust. So it was back to the drawing board & back to the closet for my beloved girdle.
Spencer Girdle Ad Before & After 1940

Modern store bought shapewear isn't my preferred option. Sure it works great under modern clothing, but I have yet to find any that can mimic the nipped in waist and pointed bust line of true 1940s girdles. Not to mention, modern store bought shape-wear and I have a bad history. I've tried my share of modern "suck it in" underwear over the years. Unfortunately, they all have a wonderful habit of rolling down regardless of how much of that sticky, rubbery stuff they put on the edges. Not only is this terribly uncomfortable, but I end up looking like the underwear version of how we wore our socks in the 1980s!

So while this has been OK and has a place in my modern wardrobe, it's not my final solution for historic clothing for one simple reason.

My WW2 uniform skirt.

It's snug to begin with and was tailored to me when I was about half way between my thinnest & my current sizes. There is no room for error either, no extra seam allowances to let out, no give in the wool fabric. That uniform demands serious, historically accurate shapewear. Although a few weeks skipping the midnight snacks probably wouldn’t hurt either.

I know by now that 2 separate pieces would be my best bet because I can customize the different sizes based on my proportions. 2 pieces weren't as common in the 1940s as one piece girdles, but they were still available. There are a couple of companies making reproduction vintage style undergarments right now but Rago was my first choice again. Not only do they use serious heavy duty compression materials, are liberal with the boning in strategic places but their style tends to be a little more traditional. No fancy colors and decorative strap arrangements there. It's all about old fashioned utility. Yes, that is basically me admitting that being over 40 puts me into the “mature figure” category sold in catalogs at the time.

So What am I Wearing Now?

I started with the bottom, and Rago 6101 & 1361. Both are high waist, "Extra firm" side zippered girdles. The biggest difference is that one is the classic open bottom style while the other is a closed bottom style. I prefer the latter when wearing socks because the open bottom style rides up without stockings & garters pulling it back the other way. I especially like the closed bottom style because the garter clips are removable. Who needs to have those dangling around your legs if you aren’t wearing stockings, right?

Unfortunately Rago doesn't make a bra in my size. So it was straight back to the reference images and good old Google. I settled on finding a generously sized, no-wire, un-padded bra with a 3 piece cup construction which is about as typical of the 1940s as possible.
1948 Sears Catalog

There are sewing patterns available. In fact, several years ago I attempted to make one. It was bad. Titanic or Hindenburg bad. I went through 4 mock ups (which you know I never do), couldn’t get the combination of cup size, band size and general shape to work together and abandoned them all in an angry heap. So clearly, while the idea of making your own historic bra sounds good, it’s not something I am going to attempt anytime in the near future!

After some luck and only a little bit of sidetracking, I found a commercially made bra in my size that fit the above criteria for style & cut! Carnival actually makes several styles that have the proper construction and thus shape for the era, and they have both in traditional & long line cuts which we also see in catalogs from the 1940s. If that wasn't enough, they carry my size & don't cost any more than every other bra out there. Happy dance! I ended up getting both a soft cup long line bra & a shorter traditional length. This way I can mix and match girdles and bras depending on what clothing I am wearing, the weather & how I feel that particular day.

But Does It Work?

When I originally wrote this article in 2017, I hadn’t yet worn my modernized 1940s style undergarments to an event. Well, after a couple of years I can confidently say that they are working splendidly. I get the smooth hips, nipped in waist and just enough lift in the bust that was the hallmark of a woman’s figure during the era but didn’t have to spend a small fortune or make myself crazy sewing them from scratch. The separate pieces have held up well, even if I’ve forgotten to remove the garter clips when washing a few times. I have even gotten additional pieces, so I have enough to wear a fresh girdle each day during particularly sweltering events and a dedicated black set for wearing under my dark colored vintage dresses. In all, I’m very pleased with this compromise. While wearing originals is great, there are times when getting the proper look, even if it means buying something modern, is the best choice.

Do you wear historically accurate or historically inspired underwear or do you just wear the same modern undergarments you wear every day & are thankful no one sees them?

Title Quote
"Without proper foundations, there can be no fashion" Christian Dior

Title Image
Happy Memories, Jules Erbit, 1938.