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The History of Shapewear: From Ancient Girdles to Modern Shapers

When Spanx were introduced in the year 2000, quickly becoming a sensation around the world, you would have thought that their creator, Sara Blakely invented the whole class of garments that we today call “shapewear.” One could convincingly argue that the brand Blakely founded has become inclusive in our collective consciousness of shapewear in general, but she hardly invented the first shaper. While Spanx have been championed by no less than Oprah Winfrey herself, the explosion of Blakely’s shapers onto the world of fashion certainly heralded a new era for shapewear, but not the first. Humans have been using garments to reshape their bodies for various reasons since the dawn of recorded history.

Many people believe that the first shapers were corsets, but the history of shapewear is far older than that. The first “shapers” were probably girdles, which at that time were woven garments similar to a wide belt. In fact, there is an older garment called also a girdle, which is barely a rope, but it bears no resemblance to the class of garments that we think of as shapers. Ancient girdles were purported to have magical properties. Writings from the Bible to Babylonian texts make references to all kinds of girdles. Ishtar, a goddess of Babylon wore a girdle for fertility. Aphrodite’s girdle was associated with poetry. And some mythological girdles were the key to conquering monsters! While it is wrong to equate these items precisely with what we think of as a more modern girdle, these predecessors are an important part of the long history of garments used to shape, reinforce and strengthen the body. This practice has continued in various ways to the present.

Jump forward to the corset. The innovation of this garment is often mistakenly credited to Catherine de’ Medici, wife of France’s King Henry II, who did however ban thick waists at court during her reign. In fact, the corset itself is much older, dating back to ancient Crete or possibly before. Needless to say, this style of shaper had gone through many revisions over thousands of years. The corset as we know it first begins to take shape in the 16th century, with stays and a busk fashioned from a number of different kinds of animal bones. The steel stays and busk came later, but back-lacing was an early feature of this garment, which was reserved primarily for wealthy wearers. By 18th century, some corsets even had sleeves. At the beginning of the 20th century, women began to demand political power and the restriction of the corset came for many to symbolize social restriction. Many women abandoned the corset as they entered public life more fully. Enter the new and improved girdle!

The girdle, now manufactured with elastic textiles, offered the reshaping that mid 20th women wanted and allowed them to work and travel with ease of motion and relative comfort. This style of garment remained popular through the 1960’s when another seismic shift in women’s societal roles saw a decrease in the girdle’s popularity. And indeed, perhaps the girdle was in hiding long enough that the new generation of Spanx wearers forgot who its predecessors were. But today a whole new generation of women have fallen in love with the way modern, comfortable shapers make them feel and look. With a giant range of shapewear including your favorites from Squeem and Vedette now commercially available and hugely popular, reshaping your body is more popular than ever before.

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