INTRODUCTION:    A Quest for Realism


About 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.  


Although 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 subject.  


The 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 "interesting!"  Live 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. 


This 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.


I 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.


During 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.


Some 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.


As 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 logical origin.  





The Stocking-Garter Connection


One 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!).


Sears 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.


I 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. 




The 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.


A 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.



Sometimes 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 attachment.


One 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.)  




The garter (second left above) 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 the welt.


Other 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.


Montgomery Ward used another type of image alteration in 1972. The effect was to "fade" out the garters on the following back-lacer corselette.


Faded 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?


The 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.  

Note 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.



The 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).


As 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.  



By 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.


JC Penny began to display girdles, corselettes, and garter belts with stockings attached to garters, extensively in the early 1980s.


Since 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 1987.  

Notice 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.



Stockings 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.


The 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 girdle leg.  

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.


For 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.                     


The 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.  



I 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.