At first, I wasn’t sure why my mind wandered to this particular topic. It might have been the sense of torture brought on by endless exposure to political gurus.
Or perhaps it was the stomach ache which followed an uncontrollable fit of laughter. The latter occurred as I was perusing the latest issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, wondering, as I always do, who wears these things? And why?
The giggling, which started slowly, was inspired by a photograph of a slender young thing (aren’t they always?) wearing a corset, repurposed as a fashion statement, which could be yours, courtesy of Prada, for a mere 1K.
Or perhaps it was a combination of the two. No matter. Both result in pain.
In all fairness, it was the picture of the corset, and not CNN, that was the real trigger. Youthful memories came rushing back, and I was suddenly reliving the visceral discomfort caused by a diabolical undergarment known as The Girdle.
Ah. The girdle. I hadn’t thought about a girdle in decades. And why should I? Better it stayed buried, along with other unpleasant repressed memories, like the angst of being the last girl on my block to need a bra.
My mother grew up in the era of elastic bondage when fashion required a rigid, controlled figure. She became a strong advocate for the girdle, believing that, in addition to its cosmetic rewards, it was necessary for improving and maintaining one’s health and as a prevention against obesity. “It holds everything in place,” she told me.
As girdles were not required under school clothing, but were an absolute necessity when one got “dressed up,” I’m sure I sat in my classroom imagining that my liver, kidneys and other internal organs were relocating at will inside my body, and that my stomach was threatening to expand with each exhalation.
However, Mother, like most women of her generation, wore a girdle every day. In the 40s, as you will recall, most women wore dresses or skirts and stockings on a daily basis. And how else was one to hold up stockings if not for those garters which dangled from the bottom of the corset.
I sympathetically remember my mother’s girdle, or corset. It was a tortuous-looking garment that was held together by a series of hooks and eyes, and just in case you could still manage to slouch just a little, it was made stiffer still by plastic or metal stays, called bones. The corset, once in place on her body, was then hooked to her bra, as one final warning that anything less than military-style erect posture was unacceptable. No wonder my mother, by day’s end, was incapable of smiling.
The girdle she deemed appropriate for my health and well-being, let alone containing my “baby fat” was somewhat less restrictive. It was a pull-on elastic garment, and although boneless, still felt very much like a sausage casing into which I stuffed my body.
And the baby fat? It wasn’t hidden. Merely redistributed.
I would dutifully wear my girdle and stockings on Friday nights, when my friends and I would don our nicest dresses and go to parties. If I were lucky and a cute boy asked me to dance, I prayed his hand would not wander too far down my back where the stomach fat was pushed up above the waist, just enough to form a perfectly matched set of love handles.
And men, if you ever had the occasion to run your hands over a woman’s girdled body, instead of feeling soft and curvy, I can only imagine that it must have felt like caressing a building.
But I’m sure on those Friday nights, my mother’s mind was at ease regarding her daughter’s chastity. Even a 17-year-old couldn’t maintain an erection for the time it would take to extricate a fair maiden from her undergarment.
Sometime in the late 50s or early 60s girdles disappeared as a required piece of underwear for proper young ladies, and stockings were held up by garter belts, which was similar to wearing suspenders around your waist. Guys, no matter what you think, this is not sexy.
Thus it was a great sense of liberation when God invented panty hose. Which I regard as almost definitive proof that she is a woman.
Today’s female, fortunately, has more choices. As one forever scarred by my early girdle experience, I choose the “let it all hang out” approach. If a dress requires a restrictive undergarment, I simply buy a different dress.
But for those women trying to keep it together, there’s always Spanx. Or, if you happen to have a spare thousand, Prada may just be your answer.