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From Metal Girdles to Emsculpt Neo: A History of Body Sculpting Through Time

Think that waist trainers are a new thing? Think again.

May 12, 2022

When we say “shapewear,” we bet “metal belt” doesn’t come to mind. Or the word “farthingale.” (Yeah–we also don’t know where that word comes from.) Shapewear has been around a lot longer than you might think-and sometimes it could get pretty weird. As beauty standards shifted throughout history, so did the types of garments women wore to achieve those standards. This week we’re sharing some of the big developments in shapewear–the original “body sculpting”–from ancient times to today. 

3000 BC: Metal Girdles in Greece

Women and men in Ancient Greece wore girdles made out of metal. At that time a girdle was a garment worn around the waist to make it look slimmer, and unlike today’s shapewear, people wore them outside their clothing, not as underwear. Picture an ornate metal belt worn over flowing robes. But here’s where it gets weird: experts believe that during this period on the island of Crete, people had these belts permanently welded around their bodies as young children. This would have permanently bound the waist. Obviously, this is not good for your health. 

Elizabethan England: Cylinder-shaped corsets

If you look at paintings of the Elizabethan time period (the late 1500s), you’ll notice most women have torsos shaped like ice cream cones. The steel corset style of the time created a flattened bust line and a long torso. Then dresses got super-wide at the hips, with the help of hooped petticoats called farthingales. (We looked into it: the word farthingale is adapted from the Spanish word verdugado which means hoop skirt.) The fashionable look at this time wasn’t about making your waist as small as possible, it was about creating a cylinder shape and very wide hips. At least the petticoats would keep you warm during cold English winters! 

Victorian era–whale boned corsets

Of all the shapewear trends in history, the Victorian corset is probably the best-known, but equally the most misunderstood. Let’s look at two common misconceptions. 

First: these garments were made with something called whale bone, which was a misnomer–the “bones” were actually whale baleen or teeth. The boning (which is made with spiral steel in today’s corsets) is not the shaping component of the corset. Boning just holds the garment up and keeps it from sliding around. Imagine trying to put up a tent without any tent poles: that’s a corset without boning. The shaping power comes from the actual shape of the fabric panels, which were also made with several layers of non-stretch fabric.  

Second: it’s a myth that Victorian women routinely damaged their organs from lacing the corset super tight. Some aristocratic women would tightlace corsets and get health problems as a result, but women in the working classes largely did not. 

Wearing a corset was part of looking groomed and professional at this time. Many jobs, including in industrial factories, required manual labor. For working-class women, corsets functioned like weightlifting belts. They supported the spine and maintained good posture during long work days. 

And in an era before maternity leave, corsets were also worn as support garments for women recovering from pregnancy who could not take time off to heal. They only laced them tight enough to add support and waist reduction would have been minor. Corsetry is still used today to treat conditions like scoliosis. 

1920s–thin is in 

The 1920s were a big decade for women, with increased voting rights and ability to participate in public life, including drinking and smoking in public–quelle scandale! The trendy silhouette was the Flapper–androgynous, broad-shouldered, flat-chested, slender. Camisoles, teddies, and bras were used to flatten curves instead of accentuate them.


1930s–the girdle returns

The 1930s version of the girdle was nothing like its ancient Greek counterpart. It was an undergarment made of several panels of stretchy fabric. Girdles in the 1930s were designed to smooth and minimize the tummy, hips, and bum. It was less about creating a dramatic hourglass silhouette and more about creating a smooth, sleek line. Most girdles at this time were open-bottom and worn over underwear, held in place with garter straps. The 1930s silhouette was all about slinky, bias-cut dresses that revealed the body’s shape. So a shapewear garment that smoothed the silhouette replaced more restrictive options. (Pro tip: if you’re going to wear a slinky evening dress anytime soon, a girdle that meets your bra line and ends just below your bum is still the best option for a super smooth look.)

1950s–the bullet bra 

The post-war silhouette was all about an exaggerated hourglass. Women wore waist cinchers called waspies along with girdles. But the most distinctive shapewear of the period was the bullet bra, with cone-shaped bra cups. Many women had to resort to cone-shaped pads that would fill in the bra…because boobs aren’t shaped like rockets in real life! 

2000: Spanx revolutionizes shapewear

Sara Blakely founded Spanx in 2000 when she couldn’t find decent pantyhose. She developed pantyhose with different waistbands to suit different body types, instead of the one-size fits all attitude of the hosiery industry at the time. The Spanx brand evolved to include shapewear that was stretchy and comfortable but still delivered results. Because it put comfort first and catered to multiple body types, Spanx came to dominate the shapewear industry.

Present day: shapewear…or body sculpting!

Today there are all kinds of shapewear options, including trendy brands like Yitty by Lizzo or SKIMS by Kim Kardashian. But you can also sculpt your body with next-generation medspa treatments. Treatments like Emsculpt Neo, Evolve, and Cryoslim all offer the kind of results you used to need shapewear to get: snatched waist, toned thighs, flat tummy, smooth derriere. Except with medspa treatments, your body looks that way even without foundation garments. Unlike other body-altering procedures, medspa body sculpting treatments are non-invasive and require little to no downtime. If you want to change your body’s silhouette for real, now you can! Remember, your body belongs to you, and you can change it however you see fit. Whether it’s slipping into a waist cincher or getting Emsculpt Neo, there have never been more possibilities for shaping your body.

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