1940s Lingerie- Bra, Girdle, Slips, Underwear History

” Correct posture with the correct foundation garment combine to give a woman an attractive figure and will aid her in her quest for health and vitality.” 1948, Foundations for Fashion

1940s lingerie

1940s Lingerie

When people think of lingerie in the 1940s, what usually comes to mind are the glamorous, curvy, satin and lace pin-up girls whose pictures filled the magazines popular with lonely soldiers overseas. Beautiful women posed provocatively in corsets, nightgowns and swimsuits with a look that remains iconic today.

The reality, however, was quite different. Women back home were not lounging around in fancy, restrictive undergarments. They were out enjoying a new freedom working and being active outside. Because of wartime shortages in materials, they also enjoyed a new freedom in their undergarments.

1930s lingerie corset

1930s Corset

In the 1930s, women were still wearing metal-boned corsets. New technology soon allowed for girdles to take their place, although corsets continued to be worn in the ’30s. New two-way stretch elastic fabrics were fashioned into snug-fitting, full-body girdles that smoothed every lump and bump. The ’30s full-body version of the girdle included a bra top that was attached to a very short skirt with elasticized straps with metal fasteners to attach to silk stockings (remember, up until the ’60s, stockings were worn without a top – they came up to mid thigh and had to be held up). Bras weren’t very advanced – cup sizes were invented in 1935 and the first underwire bra came out in 1938. In the late 1930s, the rubber girdle came out. It really was made out of rubber – yes, rubber – and was covered in ‘breathing’ holes.

1940s underwear

Simple cotton knit panties and tops for “working women”

The war affected undergarments just as much as it affected all other aspects of dress. Production of the new rubber girdles came to a halt because rubber was needed for the war. The same went for corsets, as the steel used for the boning was needed. This ended up being an advantage for women who required more flexibility and movement with their new lifestyles.

While 1940s girdles and corsets look confining to our modern eyes the purpose was “rather than actually constricting the body to meet fashion’s demands for a nipped-in waistline, a molded hipline, via too-tight corsetry, slimming and indentation is created through ingenious designing devices which give the appearance of a slim silhouette.” Women wanted comfort not restriction so lingerie was made to gently provide a structured frame to contain the body, not a sausage casing to stuff the body into. Thanks goodness!

Wearing Lingerie:

Half of all women in the 1940s wore a one peice brassiere with a girdle over panties. It was simple, affordable and most of all comfortable to wear. The Corset Brassiere Association of American reported in 1948 that a typical woman owned three undergarments, five bandeau and three long line bras. This was about half of what the Association suggested women own which was 5 hip (girdle) and 10 bust garments (bras). They figured women needed different combinations and styles of garments for 1. office or home wear, 2. sportswear and 3. evening wear. The suggested options were:

  • For day wear:
  •  A girdle and a bra
  • Longline bra and girdle
  • All in one
  • Strapless bra or strap bra and garter belt combo
  • For sports:
  • Cotton or Rayon bandeau bra and pantie girdles that provide optimal movement
  • For evening wear:
  • An all-in-one or corsellette was strapless for youthful figures and with straps for fuller figures. A low back cut out is good for low back gowns.
1940s lingerie

Suggested Lingerie for Casual, Day and Evening Wear

Taking into consideration the occasion was one way to choose garments and body type is the other. Women were sold foundation garments based on fitting into one of four main figure types:

1940s lingerie bra corset all in one

4 Body Types and Suggested Lingerie for Each

  • Junior: Lightweight bandeau; pantie girdle with satin front panel; elasticized sides and back. Pull on girdles are popular with teens. Girdles with boning on the back help train a girl to have correct posture. Favorite colors are black, nude, yellow and blue with pretty embroidery of flowers.
  • 1940s bras bandeau bra

    1948 Bandeau Bras

  • Misses: Bra with supporting band; closer-knit girdle with waist-hugging band; elastic inset sides and back; side zipper closing. A misses body is still young and firm, needing little shaping. The ideal measurements of a young woman were height: 5’2 or ‘3, bust: 35.5 inches, waist:29 inches and hips 38 inches.  These ideal numbers grew slightly was woman aged.
  • Average: Brassiere with good separation, high waisted elastic and fabric girdle for maximum control.The bra may need thicker shoulder straps to provide appropriate lift and breast separation. Longline bras provide lift without the pressure of shoulder straps. An All-In-One is also ideal for the average body as it both shapes soft flesh and creates curves.
  • Full figure: Strong, heavy fabric all-in-one garment controls curves. Boning lends extra support, Built in brassiere molds chest and back flesh. Full figures need an All-In-One to achieve the 1940s silhouette. A version with long thigh coverage is critical to a smooth figure.

Cup sizes didn’t exist in the 1940s like they do now. Instead a woman chose the bra type designed for her body type (above) and then measured around the fullest part of the chest to the back. That number in inches was her bra size. In comparison today’s measurements count the size of your chest cavity plus cup size- a far more accurate way of measuring.

1940s “Bra” Brassiere

1941 bra The 1940s brassiere became shortened to the ‘bra.’  Bras of the era were plain without lace or decoration, most frequently made from rayon satin and sometimes cotton. The color was usually white, ivory or the very popular peachy-pink. Straps were adjustable and the bras fastened at the back with metal hooks and eyes, just like those of today.

1940s bra brassiere

1945 bras for small or full figure busts

The shape of ’40s bras was very different, however. All bras were full-coverage, with a 1-3 inch elastic underbust band reaching all the way from one side to the other. The band usually came down an inch to several inches below the bottom of the bust, covering some torso. There was also a substantial amount of fabric in the center, creating separation instead of the pushed-together cleavage of today. The straps came from the middle of the cups instead of the sides.

1940s bra brassiere

1948 Bras for Average Figures

The shape they created was pointier than today, mostly because the design wasn’t fully developed yet and bra cups had several seams that came together at a point in the center. For smaller busts a thin fabric was all that was needed (usually called a bandeau instead of brassire) while fuller busts bras used additional felt padding to create the pointed shape. Underwires did exhist but were flexible, not stiff, only adding some support to the materials not necessarily to create the pointed shape. In many cases wire was added to the center bust panel to help separate the breasts. For this reason, women used to only wearing underwire bras today will find wearing an un-wired bra an odd feeling at first.

1940s bra

1940s full coverage bra in peachy-pink. Photo courtesy of sewingmachinegirl on Etsy.com

1940s longline bra

1948 Longline Bras

The longline bra is an icon of vintage lingere, yet rarely worn by women today. It combines the traditional bra top with extra band length that extends to the belly button. The long panel is usually boned to help with posture and bust uplift. The purpose it to smooth out underbust flesh, much like a girdle smooths out tummy flesh. Most women who are of avaerage figure size wore both a longline bra and girdle together for maximum smoothness. Longline bras were also popular evening styles because they could hold up and support a chest without straps or even a full back. Longer versions of the longline bra, called waistlette bras extended down to the hips and had garter clips attached removing the need for a separate garter belt or panty girdles.

The stapless bra was a popular alternative to the 1940s longline bra for for evening and day wear. The low cut tops, open shoulder peasant blouse, and sundress fashions made wearing a strapped bra unsightly. Flexable boning in horizontal and vertical lines gave he strapless bra it’s shape. The feather boning was so soft it could be crushed without damage. It provided softer support than underwires.

1940s bus pads

1947 Bust Pads (Note the false nipples)

Bust pads or falsies were necessary for many small chested women, including some famous Hollywood stars. Bust pads also helped average women fill out ready-made dress tops instead of altering the bodice down. In the USA it was estimated 5 million sets of bust pads were sold each year.

By the end of the 1940s the very pointed bullet bra was coming into vogue. It was made pointy not by seams but but circular stitches creating a “cone” effect.  The 1940s bra was not unrealistic. Today’s bras tend to round out the breasted while the 1940s breast was gentled shaped into a moderate point. The 1950s bullet bra was to force the breast into an exaggerated point. The growth of bust pads and falsies doubled in the 1950s to accommodate the new, bigger, pointier, bust shape.

1940s bras

1947 Bras


1940s Underwear Panties

1940s underwear panties

1948 Panties in “short” lengths”

Panties also called step-ins were not worn much by women until the 1930s, and became more popular in the ’40s. The panties of the 1940s would put even those known today as ‘granny panties’ to shame. They were made from rayon satin or cotton knit in colors similar to those used for bras and were plain. An elastic band at the top or a yoke with lacing kept them in place. They weren’t close-fitting or small – they reached up past the belly button and looked more like shorts than a bikini bottom. Most came down a few inches on the legs but could be legless (like modern boy shorts) or full leg shorts down to the knee. Talk about coverage!

1940s garter belts

1944 Garter Belts

Panties don’t come with built in garter straps like girdles and wasitlettes do. Separate garter belts are needed to hold up stockings. Common fabrics include cotton, rayon, satin, brocades or all-elastic. Most have some elastic in them to hold them up around the hips or waist as well as in the clip attachments. The length of the garter straps can vary from 3 ot 8 inches. Some come with an elastic waist to create an indented waistline.

Another issue with just panties in summer is thigh sweat and rubbing. There was a solution for that too! Leg shields were made of rayon jersey that attached like a garter belt but had fabric down the inside of the leg and straps wrapping around the outside of the leg, hip sides, and buttox. They looked rather like a torture device but worked quite well. (Sorry I couldn’t find a picture)

1940s Girdles

1940s girdle

A model girdle and Bra set

Although girdles couldn’t be made in the same way that they were in the ’30s, they were produced and worn throughout the ’40s. They were praised for their shaping ability and posture improvements. They were made with rayon or cotton, and a small amount of elastic was allowed to be used to give them some stretch. They usually had some elastic panels on the front and back, the rest of the fabric being rigid. Steel boning at the back helped with posture correction.

The girdle was tight enough to shape well but not to suck everything in, and reached to the waistline past the belly button. Full leg girdles would continue down into a skirt to cover the backside completely and had four elastic straps with metal clips to attach stockings too. Since many women had begun to wear pants, a new type of ‘panty girdle’ started to be made. It was the same thing, except it took the form of a panty instead of a skirt. Girdles usually had metal zippers on one side to get in and out. Although girdles offered a smooth shape underneath the new closer-fitting clothes, many women chose not to wear them at all during the decade, wearing just a bra and panties – something that had not been done before.

1940s girdles

Pull on or roll on all elastic girdles

While the elastic girdle was for slim to average sizes women, a full figured woman needed a corset or corselette. A corset was usualy steel boned and made with very heavy materials to provide maximum support and shaping. Since it combined a full bra, gidle and hip coverage the sillhuette was perfectly smooth-no bumps and rolls anywhere.

Corseletes also called All-in-Ones are lighter versions of the heavy corset although heavy versions could still be called corseletes. Corset was an old name conguring up thoughts of Victorian era restrictive shapewear- a thought most women in the 1940s wanted to avoid.

1940s all in one girdles

All in One girdles

Wether girdle, corset or All-in One corselette it served one more shaping purpose: the indent or waist nipper. A sharp indentation 2-3 inches above the bully button and just below the rib cage was part of the ideal 1940s silhouette. This provided the hour glass shape the 1940s were known for. Dresses bodices were tailored to end right at this indention and skirts to begin and hang over the hips and stomach. The hips were never confined in 40’s girdles- only covered to smooth and shape gently. Remember during the war women had to work, move, bend in thier girdles- there was no use for any confining undergarments.

It was less critical in the 1940s to have small proportions all around as it was to have the illusion of a small waist and full hips. This is one reason dressing in 1940s dresses is more flattering on a full spectrum of women’s shapes and sizes.

 1940s Slips

1940s sips lingerie

Plain and fancy lace trim full slips with V necks

Slips were the last underwear layer a lady needed to create the perfect shape. Nine out of ten women wore slips on top of their foundation garments and under outer garments. Slips came in long dress like varieties or shorter shirt and top only selections. Slips were usually white, black or soft peachy pink. Sheer dresses looked best with matching color slips and often came with them when purchased. Silk or rayon made the best slips. Cotton knit was the most affordable slip but prone to bunching at the knees and sticking to the inside of dresses. Taffeta slips retained body heat and were not worn in hot weather. Slips had adjustable thin shoulder straps and a figure flattering bias cut shape or straight cut gores.  The top either came in a V neck cut for a dress or a stquare neck cut for blouses. Deep round cut slips were available to fit certain styles as well.  Fancy occasions slips had lace trim otherwsie specific adornment was considered necessary and likely to wear out faster than the slip material.  No dress, suit or skirt would be complete without a slip to keep clothing from clinging to the body.

1940s half slips lingerie

Half Slips

Haf slips or petticoats are waist down slips. They are popular with young girls and women who wear dark skirts and non-sheer light blouses. A knit cami top is often worn with half slips. Taffeta petticoats add a “swish” sound under dresses making them appealing to teens and single women looking to attract attention. They started to gain volume around 1947 when the New Look fashion became the new style. Until them slips and half slips were straight or a-line cut with maybe one ruffle at the bottom for some volume. Fuller petticoats were worn with long evening ballgowns throughout the 1940s.

1940s slips

Black and white slips for all occasions

What order to put lingere on:

I get emails asking about lingerie, specially in what order did women put them on and in what layers. Here is how a 1940s women dressed:

  1. Brassiere
  2. Panties*
  3. Stockings- put on before girdles and all-in-ones, but clip stockings into place after.
  4. Girdle, panty girdle, or All- In one
  5. Garter, if seperate than above
  6. Slips and petticoats

* In many cases a detached garter was put on before the panties. These kept them in place. In fashion ads the garter was worn outside the panties.

Where to buy vintage and vintage inspired lingerie:

http://www.curvaceousbeauties.com/ – Vintage modern plus size lingerie

http://www.girdlebound.com/ – Girdles of course! And most other types of lingerie.

http://www.whatkatiedid.us.com/ – Vintage reproduction lingerie, stockings, corsets and more

http://mrsdepew.com/lingerie-patterns/ – 1940s lingerie patterns

More choices:



This entry was posted in 1940s Fashion History on by .

About Debbie Sessions

Debbie Sessions is passionate about wearing history through fashion. She and her husband, Oscar, have turned their hobby into a career by teaching others how to re-create vintage style with affordable new vintage inspired clothing and accessories. We connect shoppers to the best vintage inspired clothing, shoes and accessories and teach fashion history as it was worn by everyday people. Need more help? Contact us anytime.

6 thoughts on “1940s Lingerie- Bra, Girdle, Slips, Underwear History

  1. Tom Sleifer

    Many women back in the forties and fifties did not at that time realize the overall health benefits of being in these types of garments and the overall effects of posture. My grandmother, mother, and aunt who all lived with us back in the late forties and early fifties were always every day in either a girdle or a corset without question. They would about once a year go to a corsetiere for a fitting. I use to growing up over hear them talk about the fact that there were girdle or corset dependent – which I am positive was true. Sadly in the late sixties early seventies during the feminist movement girdles and decent vintage foundation wear was looked down on and became out of style. For women I believe this was very bad for their overall health related to posture. I did some research into foundation wear and found that wearing vintage girdles or corsets everyday has definite health benefits, it has to do with the fact as humans we stand erect, standing erect gravity and age with a decent supportive garments does have a very negative effect, being in a vintage girdle will daily hold and support your internal organs in their normal natural position, a decent firm boned girdle worn daily supports and holds your organs, muscles in place.

    As a male I wanted to find out for myself both the health benefits and if girdle dependency is real or not. I found a professional corsetiere who was willing to work with me. First she fit me in a girdle that fit my life style Rago 6210 long leg high waist boned and zippered panty girdle, looking at my body over the years of not being girdled my posture was quite bad and with age I have a small stomach that needs a fair amount of control and support. I found over a few weeks of being girdled and following what the corsetiere told me I felt great my posture improved 100 percent sitting and standing, and yes once you start to relax those stomach muscles and start to rely on a girdle for support it is amazing how great you really do feel, and over a period of time you do become quite dependent on being daily in a girdle, now I understand much more concerning my grandmother, mother, and aunt.

    I have come to the conclusion that both males and females make a major health mistake not to be daily in decent vintage girdle. Once use to the benefits of being girdle you do find you love it.

    1. Debbie Sessions Post author

      Although not talked about much there were girdles for men too. They were called other names but essentially did the same thing as womens. Thank you for your insight!

      1. Tom Sleifer

        Debbie you are correct sorry to say girdles for males subject is not talked about, even though they are available. I have done some experimenting with both male and female girdles, I found interesting enough that the female girdle is far far better then the male girdles. The female girdle gives much more support and needed control over a males girdle. In my personal view girdles should not be for say female only, girdles are for both males and females.

        From some of the research I have done in vintage girdles and corsets if you follow these steps
        you will over a few weeks to months become Girdle Dependent – that is FACT.

        1. First being fitted in the right kind of foundation garment for your life style and your figure.

        2. Learn how to properly put on a girdle to get the most about of benefit of being in a girdle.

        3. Learn how to keep your stomach relaxed and just rely on a girdle and foundation wear for supporting your posture.

        4. Then developing a daily routine – wake up each morning, clean up and put on a girdle.

        I believe if you followed these 4 steps over a few weeks to months you would become girdle dependent.

        Let me know if anybody has tried these steps and if they became girdle dependent?

  2. Olivia Grace

    After perusing many 1940s pin-up cartoons, it seems like it was the fashion to wear panties over their garter straps rather than under them, which makes sense if you want to avoid undressing completely to use the washroom. I was wondering if you could provide any insight as to where the line was drawn between wearing a set of panties over or under a garter or a corselette, if it depends on the length of the girdle, and on which occasions a 1940s woman might go without panties?

    1. Debbie Sessions Post author

      A garter belt or corselette was usually worn over panties. In some cases panties came with built in garter straps that may look like a garter belt and straps were under the panties. The pin up illustrations I have seen seem to draw them like this. I can’t think of any situation where a woman would not wear any panties.

      1. Ava

        I had read about this in another blog awhile back. In most photos we’ll see, the blogger said that only in photos did women wear their garter belts and similar over the panties. Women actually wore their panties *over* garter belts for practical reasons. It just didn’t look attractive in photos to wear the panties on top of garter belts. With the full girdles with attached garters, you don’t really have a choice but to unzip and let the girdle hang down a bit in the wash room, lol.

Comments are closed.