The common impression that “American women began getting rid of their girdles in large numbers roughly the mid-1960s” is contradicted by the annual sales statistics collected by the Dept. of Commerce and published in their “Current Industrial Reports” pamphlets each year, under the title “Brassieres, Corsets, and Allied Garments.” I don’t have the complete run of these pamphlets, but here are the figures from ones I do have. (Sales were originally given in thousands of dozens; I’ve converted this to thousands. I.e., 60,240 below stands for 60,240,000.)
This periodical is no longer published; it fell victim to David Stockman’s budget-cutting ax in 1983.
2. Girdles. The Census Bureau collected statistics on sales in price ranges for both zippered and roll-on girdles, but unfortunately failed to collect data on two subdivisions of much more interest to fashion historians: Open Bottom Girdles vs. Pantie Girdles, and High-Waist vs. Normal Waist;
3. Corsets (the Census Bureau’s outdated term for the mild, 20th century foundations with flexible busks or no busks at all—so a better term would be Laced Foundation or Non-Elastic Foundation);
5. Total of columns 2–4 (Girdles, Corsets, and Corselets);
6. Garter Belts;
7. Torsolettes. These are commonly known as Merry Widows, a trade name that the Census Bureau avoided with the neutral term, “bra-lettes,” defined as “hip-length with garters.” “Torsolettes” would have been a better choice, being the generic term used by other manufacturers. (Note: in 1974 the Census Bureau added the words, “including briefers,” which caused an immediate 80% jump in this category, and began a strong upward trend. That explains a puzzle, because Torsolettes had to have the by-then unpopular garters.)
The figures include imports, which rose from .3% of shipments in 1960 to 14% in 1980. In all cases except 1982 I have used the revised figures that appeared in the next year’s Report. E.g., the 1961 figures were taken from the 1962 Report. Once again, the numbers below represent thousands sold.
Girdles Corsets Corselets Total belts lettes
1960: 60,240 900 2,856 63,996 6,792 1,728
1961: 67,032 840 3,120 70,992 7,452 1,716
1962: 70,776 780 3,072 74,628 9,324 1,632
1963: 75,624 756 2,952 79,332 9,024 1,176
1964: 84,960 696 3,000 88,656 9,804 1,008
1965 88,368 828 3,012 92,208 11,484 924
1966: 90,552 780 2,880 94,212 12,828 828
1967: 94,080 780 2,700 97,560 12,708 792
1968: 94,956 720 2,916 98,592 9,060 636
1969: 82,692 720 3,060 86,472 7,032 540
1970: 70,884 636 2,388 73,908 4,104 372
1971: 63,096 360 2,184 65,640 3,180 324
1972: 61,128 348 2,640 64,116 2,436 300
1973: 53,256 312 3,108 56,676 1,956 252
1974: 45,192 240 3,336 48,768 1,644 456
1975: 46,464 216 2,916 49,596 1,500 372
1976: 44,532 120 3,648 48,300 1,236 420
1977 46,308 96 3,864 50,268 960 480
1978: 44,112 84 3,492 47,688 948 420
1979 43,068 72 2,736 45,876 1,200 660
1980: 43,992 108 2,256 46,356 1,320 564
1981: 42,492 72 2,676 45,240 1,656 828
1982: 37,740 48 3,636 41,424 1,884 648
E.g., girdle sales rose by over 10% from 1960 to 1961, and rose 36% from 1960 to 1968. This increase involved a large number, 24 million items, suggesting that more women were wearing a girdle more of the time. (Especially since these girdles were lasting longer, due to their being made of Lycra / Spandex, not latex / rubber.) Sales in 1970 of these longer-lasting girdles were 118% those of 1960, so it’s highly inaccurate to say that the girdle died in the sixties.
In 1974 girdle sales were still 48% of the high-water mark six years earlier, in 1968. Furthermore, in the next six years girdle sales fell only 3% (by 1980), refuting the common notion that a reified group called “women” trash-canned their girdles en bloc as soon as they could. Only half of them did so. And even that is an overstatement. What the figures more likely suggest is that a minority of women (say 40%) abandoned them for everyday wear, some of them continuing to buy girdles occasionally for special events, others wearing pantie girdles regularly to help hold up saggy early pantyhose.
The high year for garter belt sales was 1966; the high year for girdle sales was 1968. Sales of garter belts rose 89% from 1960 to 1966, whereas sales of girdles rose only 50%. On the downslope, sales of garter belts in 1970 fell by 68% from 1966 levels, whereas sales of girdles at that point fell only 22%. Over the next six years sales of garter belts continue to fall about twice as fast as those of girdles: In 1976, garter belt sales were only 30% of 1970 levels, compared to 63% for girdles.
Taken together, and bearing in mind that garter belts were primarily worn by the young, these figures support the contention that many high school girls switched from wearing knee socks and bobbie socks to garter belts and stockings at the start of the sixties, then started to switch to pantie girdles in the mid-sixties (since pantyhose sales didn’t take off until late 1967), then defected en masse to pantyhose in the late sixties. Probably only two-thirds (??) of women over 35 had abandoned girdles for daily wear by 1980. What women were abandoning, much more than their girdles, which they retained for evening wear, etc., were stockings. Again, this is contrary to the message conveyed by many impressionistic histories of the period.
However, the girdles that were sold in the mid-seventies and after came without garters attached, were rarely open bottom type (because those required stockings), and were rarely zippered (see item 4 below)—and hence were likely less firm on the average than earlier girdles. (There are no Census Bureau statistics on OBG vs. PG sales, because the dumbkopfs there didn’t realize we’d be curious about it.)
These were typically worn by those needing support (older women), This suggests that the surge in girdle wear up to 1968 was primarily due to younger women, especially students, adopting girdles, not to all segments of the girdle-wearing population increasing their girdle wardrobe due to greater prosperity. It also indicates a trend away from firm girdles and the flat-tummy look of the 50s and early 60s in subsequent years.
(Note: Prior to 1962 it’s not possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison, because prior to 1962 a third category that was subsequently merged with the other two, Latex Girdles, didn’t differentiate between zipped and unzipped items.)
Here’s the percentage of zippered sales to all girdle sales for even numbered years:
These were typically worn as an alternative to the combination of longline bra and high-waist girdle by those needing support (older women). This further buttresses the proposition that the much larger surge (36%) in girdle wear in that time frame was primarily due to younger women adopting girdles, rather than to all segments of the girdle-wearing population increasing their foundation wardrobe due to greater prosperity.
There was a surge in the sales of corselets in the years 1968 & 1969, which was odd in light of the declining sales of the three other items in this category in those years. It was followed by a peculiar sharp drop in 1970 (perhaps due to a bankrupt company not reporting sales at the end of the year), and then by a pronounced upward spike in 1972-1978. Probably this was due to a surge in popularity of garterless body briefers. (The suddenness of these jumps and dips may also have been the result of certain manufacturers re-categorizing items in their product lines, or realizing that they had either been failing to record sales in this category, or had been recording sales of corselets as both corselets and girdles.)
Again, since younger women were overwhelmingly the purchasers of these lightweight items, this indicates that there was no mass “consciousness raising” against indulging in figure firming and its associated feminine fripperies per se, although histories of the period sometimes imply or assert that that was the case, based on the attitudes of progressive types. E.g., see Ellen Melinkoff’s What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Women’s Clothing, 1950 to 1980, p. 125: “By the end of the sixties … all girdles were viewed with suspicion.” Rather, for most, the shift was based more on fashion and technological changes than on an anti-undie mindset (although that too existed to some extent).
In 1971 sales were only 57% of
the 1970 level. This is another probable statistical artifact, possibly due to a
Although the Census Bureau called them “corsets,” most of them lack a busk, which is a key element of a true corset. And yet they can’t be called girdles, even if they have a lot of elastic. They’re in a sort of gray area—“laced (or “rigid”) foundations” is probably the best term for them.)
It’s occurred to me that there was a coded message from manufacturers to young women when they popularized the term “roll-on,” in the thirties: It indicated that roll-ons were boneless—i.e., unlike the laced foundations worn by their moms. This differentiation would have pleased the youngsters’ rebellious streak.