On Mondays, I’ll be focusing on an aspect of material culture (i.e. stuff) that would have been relevant to Peggy’s fictional life, and I thought today I’d write about what might have gone under Peggy’s tailored uniform, using as an example this 1942 American-made girdle from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Source). The girdle is undoubtedly a garment Peggy would have been familiar with. I’m not saying Hayley Atwell isn’t a knockout, but there’s no way there wasn’t some kind of foundation garment underneath that red dress.
Girdles were essential foundation garments for many women in the early-mid 20th century. They are more closely related to modern shapewear than a corset, the main difference being that corsets aren’t by nature “stretchy,” while girdles will usually contain some kind of elastic material. In other words, the corset constricts; the girdle compresses and smooths. In the girdle above, you can see elastic panels set between silk panels.
During the war, girdle manufacturers were quick to reassure women that they still needed their product. Girdles were redesigned to use less or no rubber (which was rationed at the time), and were also marketed as aids to women’s work during the war. This British advertisement markets a girdle specially designed for women workers, and touts approval by the British War Office.
Below are some examples of 1940s underwear and foundation garments in action from the Life Magazine archives. These were taken at an underwear fashion and trade show by none other than famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.
You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of room for pantylines in the girdles in these photos, and I’m honestly not sure if panties were worn under girdles. 1940s panties were high waisted, and covered a few inches of the tops of the thighs (more like shorts than today’s briefs).
These models are wearing girdles with stockings attached. The ruffle at the bottom is likely a special addition for this show/event. Bras of this period are full coverage, and often characterized by the seam running across the widest part of the bust, which you can see here. Bras were usually fairly plain in the 40s, and colored white, ivory, or peachy pink. Fasteners were metal hooks and eyes, as they are today.
The same color scheme generally goes for other kinds of undergarments, though at the first link at the bottom of the post, there’s a photo from the same show of a slightly racier black or colored set (it’s hard to tell in a black and white photo).
These models are wearing corselets, which are essentially full length girdle/bras.
Over any of these foundation garments would go a slip, then a dress.
Here’s a bonus shot of A’lure’s “Alphabet Brassieres” display from the same show. Before I became a museologist, I spent too many years working in a lingerie shop, and these attitudes towards size really haven’t changed all that much.
To see the full series of Eisenstaedt photos, click here.
To read more about 1940s undergarments, click here.
Click here to see images of how girdle manufacturers marketed their products during the war.