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{image courtesy of rechappo2002 on Flickr}

Most modern women consider it a blessing that we’ve escaped the eras of the corset and girdle. Sure, shapewear still exists, but it’s purely optional now. However, many young seamstresses who sew from vintage patterns are seeking out the foundation garments of the 40s, 50s, and 60s to get a truly authentic retro look.

It’s pretty hard to avoid that controversy when it comes to this subject. I tend to disagree with those who fall too dramatically on either side of the coin, which is either 1) you’re not doing vintage “correctly” if you don’t wear the right shapewear or 2) you’re participating in the oppression of women if you do wear shapewear. A girl can’t win!

Whatever your take on wearing retro foundation garments is, the great thing is that we do have options today. You can eschew it entirely, you can try modern alternatives like Spanx, or you can seek out the real thing. Retro shapewear is still produced by a handful of companies, most notably Rago in the U.S. – this is the very same stuff our grandmothers would have worn! Younger companies like the U.K.’s What Katie Did have also picked up the torch, making reproduction items like girdles and bullet bras.
However you decide to approach the issue, here are a couple tips for incorporating retro foundation garments into your vintage sewing:

1. Do lots of research into the correct type of foundation garment for the garment you are sewing. Couture Allure did a couple great posts on the subject: check out this one on choosing the right foundation garment and this one on shopping for it.

2. Try lots of different options on. Just like finding the perfect modern bra takes a few tries, so does retro shapewear. Be patient and try different brands and sizes. This might mean a lot of ordering and returning by mail order, but hopefully the end result will be worth it.

3. Once you’ve found the perfect foundation garment, take all new measurements while wearing it. Things will have shifted! Select your pattern size according to these new measurements.

4. Do your fittings with your foundation garments ON. Whether tissue fitting or putting the finishing touches on a garment, make sure you’re properly outfitted.

I hope you find these tips helpful! Please add any of your own, as well as your thoughts on the matter. What do you think of wearing retro shapewear? Would you try it—or do you happily avoid it?


  • Dscn2893_retouch_large

    Jan 18, 2010, 09.55 PMby indil

    I’ve never tried any of these and I’m also very a beginner.. but I think that the whole point in these is that a woman can be a perfectly strong and emancipated woman even wearing shapewear lingerie. It’s not the garment that determines one’s self-confidence and condition of “oppression”. As juebejue pointed out, you may want or need to wear those garments or not. True indipendence is in the choice. In life as in fashion.

  • Me_large

    Jan 18, 2010, 05.15 PMby filmnoirgirl

    I’m a size 14/38D, I couldn’t burn my bra even if I wanted to! I love retro inspired lingerie and shapewear, although I tend to only wear it when I’m wearing a dress that i feel i need a lot of support in – ie evening wear or a cocktail dress. I wouldn’t really wear a girdle or long line bra with just a little summer dress. I love Lady Marlene and What Katie Did, lamagia.com is a good place for retro inspired pieces too. I actually like the feeling of a figure hugging merry widow or open bottom girdle and I don’t feel objectified one bit…I feel fabulous. As has been said before, it’s optional, wear what you please! Maybe I’m making assumptions here but if you like making and wearing beautiful things surely you’ll have nice knickers too, regardless if they are authentic retro or not.

  • Curlyprofile_large

    Jan 15, 2010, 03.51 PMby jkinsey

    I’d love to try and make my own shapewear, even if I would never get to wear it much. I like the authenticity it gives to period garments, but at the same time I don’t think that one should get too legalistic about what qualifies as “true vintage”. The idea is to have fun.

  • Morticia_large

    Jan 15, 2010, 12.38 PMby ana555

    i’m torn. i want to burn my bra but look good doing it! i don’t wear shapewear, but i did for my wedding (before i learned to sew). i bought a bustier and took the boning out (big mistake) because i was uncomfortable. i would definatly give shapewear another try, except the bullet bra. i’m top heavy already and i don’t want to be the cause of any accidents.

  • Ashleigh1_large

    Jan 15, 2010, 06.14 AMby sewgurlwmu

    I believe shapewear to be a gift from God! Thank goodness for the emergency garment that allows you to squeeze into that great dress you fit into two days ago before you ate all that Chinese takeout! I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting a little extra support here and there. Retro shapeware would allow for a fun and glamorous look! Whether old or new designs, shapewear rocks! ;) Thanks for this interesting article!

  • 8cd1614e48bc4501afea6f52b63c8c49a74eb814_large

    Jan 15, 2010, 01.04 AMby juebejue

    I had an impression that it was always optional to wear those stuff. It was just the norm that people wear them, because it was in fashion.. just like our bras these days— you could opt out of it if you really want. Maybe 100 years down the road, people would think that the 20th century girls were suppressed because they had to wear bras to keep their breasts perky :)

    in anycase, this article came in time! I had been looking around for a corset for my wedding and for shaping my waist a little under nice dresses. Also, i love that old retro glamorous look :) what katie did seems great — they are sold on amazon as well. Also, etsy has a few sellers that custom make corset (with mock up!) for a reasonable price.

    I was considering making a corset myself, but it just seem so… intimidating! the last time i touched boning resulted in an abandoned garment deep hidden in my closet :P

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