A Quest for Realism
ten years ago, I read an inquiry from a journalist who wanted to collect
information and personal anecdotes on "the erotic aspects of women's
underwear." That struck a
chord with me, because it's a subject that I think is inherently imbued with
eroticism. Women wearing underwear in sexual situations obviously have aspects
of eroticism. However, I viewed this particular quest as something that was
looking beyond an obvious, sexual context. In particular, I was thinking of
those erotic aspects of women in every-day situations.
There are many publications and web-sites available that cover the whole
gamut of sexuality, and many of those focus on women in underwear and lingerie.
I'm not against this interest. However, to write about what can be found on many
X-rated sites seems rather contrived and trivial. I'm more interested in
authentic, or unrehearsed human experience, which I think this is much harder to
find. Virginian's "Zona", Sylvia Aster's "Bandeau Boudoir"
and Zuhlcity.com/Cat_Scan are good examples of authentic information. Bust-up
(Prentice Hall, 1971) by Wallace Reyburn is a cute (but fictional) spoof of the
development of the brassiere. However, it does have some good early photographs
from garment trade magazines. Possibly the items and layout of the ladies
underwear department set in the BBC comedy series "Are You Being
Served?" was better researched and is fairly authentic.
usually displayed in ideal circumstances with relatively ideal models,
nonetheless, the portrayal of women's underwear for sale in store catalogs
represents a type of realism. These publications were what real women read and
used to make their choices about the clothing (and underwear) that they bought
and wore. Also, these images and their portrayal represented a real person's
idea of what was attractive, what would sell, what represented current style,
and (I suspect) some level or standard of censorship on what was acceptable for
the depiction of underwear to be advertised in a family context. In that regard,
the manner of portrayal of women's underwear at a particular period may indicate
how the "erotic aspects of women's underwear" were controlled! Much of
what follows here will focus on this last point. Therefore, I consider this as a
sociological monograph as well as an exploration of the originally proposed
first image I selected is from the earliest catalog in my collection. It was a
celebration (in 1936) of Sears' Golden Jubilee. However, for me, it portrays an
image from a time when the portrayal of women's underwear really got
models were used who are attractive and posed in a variety of ways.
Additionally, I noted that the outline and seams of the advertised garments
appeared to be enhanced. This "highlighting" of the featured garment
was a practice that continued into the 1960's, despite the technical
availability of good quality photography and printing that should have been
sufficient to clearly portray the garment.
essay will document several trends in advertising images, cycles of style, and
some curious anomalies. Additionally, I found about 145 patents that cover
girdle and corselette design. Some of the drawings have been included to help
explain various features and also because I considered some of them to be
pleasingly artistic. I've tried to
be very careful to present illustrations that formed the basis of my
interpretations or conclusions about various advertising practices.
Unfortunately, in most cases I have not found the answers to "why"
things occur. I suspect that those answers were probably common knowledge at one
time, and so taken for granted, that no one thought to document their actions.
However, I hope that this essay may spur someone's interest and memory to come
forth with the information.
deliberately slanted the selection of illustrations for this essay in favor of
full-figured ladies. First, I greatly appreciate a woman with a well-rounded
figure! However, beyond my personal preference, I feel it is fair to say that a
large proportion of the products in this industry are focused on reshaping a
woman's body - usually to make a full-figured woman look thinner, or otherwise
rearrange her natural shape. I believe that most of this focus is due to the
influence of culture in the USA and Western Europe. Interestingly, studies by
Dr. Desmond Morris have shown that thin women are not universally admired, or
necessarily considered the most desirable. However, millions of women
(especially American women) for generations have suffered while they stuffed
their bodies into girdles and corsets to approach this society's ideal. I think
this situation was particularly sad for pregnant women who were only shown
images of models with flat (or barely rounded) tummies up to the 1960's and
70's. Ironically, (perhaps deceitfully), the ladies who modeled heavily
structured garments were usually not representative of women who would be most
interested in buying those garments for figure shaping or reducing their figure
measurements. Only in the last decade or two, have some catalogs begun to depict
full-figured women realistically and in a positive light.
my research, I encountered examples of various "appurtenances" and
ancillary items associated with women's underwear, e.g. girdle anchors, corset
hooks, ribbon tabs, etc. Additionally, I found examples of "trolley"
garters and "French" garters in the advertising copy. The archives of
the US Patent office now available on the Internet represent a treasure trove of
bra and girdle design information. In some cases, the accompanying patent
drawings were executed in great detail. (I've included one sketch from 1873.) It
was also interesting to see how women were portrayed when the patent diagrams
showed how the items were intended to be worn on human figures. The evolution of
these garments seen in catalog pages may be better understood in conjunction
with the associated inventions.
of my earliest memories (1949-51 - age 2 or 3) include viewing images of women
modeling underwear in the Sears catalog. Later, my horizon broadened to include
JC Penney, Aldens, Spiegel and Montgomery Ward. Generally, my interest has
focused on images of typical, everyday items rather than the fanciful -
"Frederick's" or "Victoria's Secret" type wear (although
some of those garments are interesting, also). At various times in the past two
decades, I preserved some of those documents. However, most of those early
images live on only in my memory.
I got older, I developed an interest in antiques. While browsing through an
antique shop, I saw a catalog from the 1960's - hardly an "antique",
but still an artifact from the time of my growing up. Naturally, I flipped to my
"favorite" part. As I looked at the images that had enchanted me years
before, I realized that it was a kind of "time capsule", and I bought
it. Since that time, I've acquired a small collection that covers a fair span of
time. (See Appendix 1.) I wondered if parts of my collection might contain
anything that could help the journalist in his quest. As I reviewed my
collection chronologically, I realized that there were changes that occurred
over time that didn't seem to be related to simply changes of style or
materials. Of course, some changes in the images themselves were related to the
quality of paper and printing process - especially the introduction of color.
These changes did not represent a steady evolution. Many times catalog companies
resorted to inferior paper or printing. Therefore, some images from the 1940's
are superior to images in the 1980's. However, other changes seemed to have no
The Stocking-Garter Connection
of the first things that caught my attention in the earliest catalogs (such as
the initial 1936 Sears image) was that the models wearing girdles, garter belts,
corselets, etc. with garters, were shown wearing stockings! This shouldn't sound
unusual. However, during a period from the late 50's through the late 80's,
(depending on the catalog company) those garments with garters (that were
intended for use with stockings) were mostly portrayed without the models using
the garters. They were left dangling uselessly. What was happening during that
period? The garments were essentially the same from the 1930's into the 1980's,
but for some reason, they were not shown being worn with stockings. I haven't
been able to pinpoint the exact time when portrayal of stockings with girdles
ended because few catalog images are available to me from the late 40's and
early 50's. (Some companies - like Montgomery Ward in the late 1940's, even quit
using live models at all!).
generally didn't show stockings with girdles during the period from the late
1950's into the late 1980's. However, as an exception, their "action
leg" brief panty girdle (shown here from a 1982 catalog) occasionally was
shown with stockings in the early 1980s. Another exception is discussed later.
suspect that the trend of not showing stockings was uneven in the industry as
illustrated by continued portrayal in the following advertising used by Lane
Bryant as late as their 1958 catalog. The model in the middle also appears on p.
317 of the 1960 Alden's fall catalog and on p. 284 of the fall 1960 Sear's
catalog. As discussed in a later section, I suspect that catalog companies used
copy and images submitted by manufacturers of various garments.
1960 National Bellas Hess catalog illustration also portrayed some of the models
wearing stockings, but sometimes the images were mixed. The model on the right
is portrayed wearing stockings (the stocking welt is barely visible at bottom of
image) and the one on the left is not. The
garments are similar - both are corselets with garters that typically would be
worn with stockings. However, they were presented differently. Possibly, this
image is a composite of two photographs taken at different times.
similar contrast occurs in the 1960 Aldens. Both panty girdles are advertised
together and have garters, but only one is shown with stockings. This is
especially interesting since the image appears to be completely an artist's
rendering (in contrast to the enhanced photos discussed later). Why would an
artist portray these garments differently? The garter panty shown in the 1960
Sear's catalog represents one of the last time stockings were deliberately shown
with garters in Sears for about 20 years.
there were problems with depicting these garments without stockings.
In 1965, the following side view of an open bottom girdle shows an
example of a "dangling" garter - since there is no stocking for
way to handle such problems was illustrated in a 1982 photo supplied by an ad
agency to Miller's department store. These images were 8 1/2" x 11"
black & white glossy photographs with good detail. (My girlfriend at the
time worked in the advertising department.)
appears to have been attached to the model's thigh with spirit gum to
keep it from dangling loose. A slight stretching of the skin is visible in the
detail image where the elastic garter is stuck to the model's thigh. It's also
possible she wore stockings and that the distortion resulted from airbrushing
times, I've noticed where the stocking appears to have been airbrushed out of
the picture. The image from Sears in 1969 (above)
was a miniature inset for the main
copy and the stocking top was barely visible until enlarged. This was the only
illustration in that catalog where there was any indication that a model was
wearing stockings, and one must wonder if this inclusion wasn't accidental. This
was also the only time I've seen the term "trochanter tabs".
Trochanter refers to upper thigh. In this case, I think it refers to the two
heavy bands that fasten at the side of the model's hips.
Ward used another type of image alteration in 1972. The effect was to
"fade" out the garters on the following back-lacer corselette.
out like this, it is impossible to tell if stockings were worn. However, the
hanging position of the garters in figure "E" suggests that they were
not. Why then, were the garters faded out?
image from the 1981 Montgomery Ward, and the following one from JC Penny in
1980, show that the model was wearing stockings, but that most of the stocking
welt was airbrushed out or otherwise altered except the slight shadow close to
the garter clip.
the faint shadow of the top of the stocking welt near the garter clips in both
illustrations and in the following detail shot from 1980 JC Penny. A slight hint
of stocking top is visible in illustrations from Sears in 1973 and 1982.
model in 1980 JC Penny is wearing panties under the corselette. I have read
various arguments whether a typical woman would wear panties under or over her
girdle or garter belt (for convenience while using a toilet). At least, in this
case, panties represent a reasonable choice as a garment - compared to the
chiffon type skirts used for a couple decades earlier (discussed later).
stated previously, Sears generally did not show stockings with girdles in the
early 1980's. However, the example with the front-laced girdle appeared in 1982.
It's hard to tell if the stocking image was altered, due to the low quality of
the basic image. The earlier image in 1973 was definitely altered.
the time of its summer 1983 catalog, Sears had returned to acknowledging the
"connection" between stockings and garters as shown in the advertising
for Cling-alon hosiery. However, girdles were not shown with stockings until
later in Sears.
Penny began to display girdles, corselettes, and garter belts with stockings
attached to garters, extensively in the early 1980s.
the late eighties, I saw a general increase in the number of advertising images
where stockings are shown with appropriate garments. There was a dramatic change
shown by Sears between 1987 (left) and 1990 (right) as shown in the following
two panels. Actually this change occurred by fall 1988. However, it was more
interesting to me to illustrate it with the ad layout from 1990 because it used
almost the identical garments, grouping, and general arrangement as used in
that essentially the same garments are presented and in a similar format.
However, I believe that the poses with hose represent a distinct and deliberate
change of philosophy.
are almost never shown with a long-leg panty girdle equipped with hidden garters
(the girdle leg is designed to extend over the top of the stocking). Shown here
is an illustration from Sears in 1991 that is the only exception I've ever seen.
bottom of the garter clip is darker - indicating that it is partly hidden by the
stocking welt. Also, a faint shadow of the stocking welt is visible under the
For other girdles and corsets, Sears' illustrations with stockings gradually increased each year up to the time when the catalog division closed (about 1993). Originally, I didn't "scientifically" record my count on an annual basis, but I used to jokingly refer to my rough estimate as the "Garter-Stocking" index - intending it to give me an idea on how uptight (or relaxed) society was getting to be. The measure was expressed as a ratio of the number of times stockings were shown worn by a model, divided by the number of garments shown that had visible garters where stockings would normally be worn. For example, an "index" score of 0.7 means that 70% of the garments were shown in their "proper" (to me) context. In the process of developing this monograph, I decided to actually perform this calculation using catalogs I've collected, and plot the results over time.
Mostly, I used Sear's
catalogs for this analysis. The NBH catalog in 1960, JCP in 1972, and Aldens
1952 were used to interpolate gaps in my collection. Later, I realized that the
NBH catalog skewed the trend of totals due to its small size - rather like a
seasonal sale catalog used by the larger companies. This accounts for the
discontinuity in 1960 data.
a long while, Aldens, MW and JC Penney led this index and Sears was last, until
the early nineties (although Sears was better in some other areas, mentioned
later). Spiegel generally was in a separate category, and today it appears to
cater to a different, high fashion conscious clientele.
following chart shows changes in the number and relative proportion of bras,
girdles, corselets, and garter belts advertised in the catalogs used in the
garter-stocking index trend displayed above. In most cases, the variety of bras
exceeds the number of girdles. The heyday for girdles appears to extend from the
mid-1950's through the 1970's.
think it's interesting to analyze other trends in store mail-order catalogs over
the last 50 years regarding photo quality, poses, image alteration, sheer
fabrics, design, etc.