Vintage Lingerie Guide: 1950s Underwear

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So, you want to look as authentically 1950s as possible? Well, to achieve the perfect ’50s look, you have to start with what’s happening underneath that sheath dress or full-circle skirt and tight sweater… some amazing vintage lingerie!

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The 1950s were a time for falsies. Although we think that bust padding is a relatively new invention forever associated with this decade, there in fact was a boom for bust improvers in the late Victorian era when women were known to change the size of their bust improvers depending on who their dance partner might be.

Women had to work very hard to emulate Dior’s New Look that crossed over from Paris in 1947 as a reaction to the horrors and rationing of WW2. Women were expected adapt their form to a silhouette that hadn’t been commonplace since the previous century. 

To achieve a sharp-pointed bustline, and nipped-in waistline with exaggerated hips, a lot of blood, sweat and tears had to be shed – and not down in the gym!  The ’50s saw the rise of the bullet bra, the girdle and the petticoat.

The Brassiere – 1950s Vintage Bra

Many innovations in bra construction date back to the 1930s but didn’t really take off ‘til the 1950s.  In 1935 USA Warner Bros introduced cup fittings, A, B, C and D for the first time. They had realised that the measurement of the bust and the size of the breasts involve two different measurements. 

Other innovations such as the strapless bra, the wired bra, and the padded bra were introduced in the late ’30s, but didn’t really spring to the fore ‘til the ’50s.  With the outbreak of WWII however, these new fashion ideas were put on hold for almost a decade. 

As early as Spring 1940, controls were introduced restricting the amount of corsetry available for civilians and when clothes rationing was introduced in the UK in June 1941, restrictions were increased.

During the war, many British women were either working in the factories, toiling in the Land Army providing food for the nation, or occupied in the forces doing ‘men’s work’ – and many complained that they needed good corsetry more than ever for physical support. 

These cries for ‘support’ eventually reached the ears of the government early in 1944, through a recently established body the Corset Guild of Great Britain.  Formed in 1943 by retail shop owners and leading corset manufacturers, the Guild presented a petition to No. 10 Downing Street that in March 1944 resulted in corsetry being classified under as Essential work order.

War time restrictions on clothing continued until March 1949 in the UK and even after that some rationing continued.  Most underwear that was available was purely practical, not alluring, any pretty lingerie that was advertised was astronomically priced and indistinguishable from that which had been produced in the 1930s.

The process of easing women out of wartime restrictions was given a bold impetus by the introduction of the famous ‘New Look’ in Paris by Christian Dior in the Spring of 1947 in the first collection show at his newly established couture house.  While cloth was still rationed, Dior put yards-and-yards of it into full-flowing, below-the-calf-length skirts, extending to twelve inches from the ground and replacing the shorter tubular styles that had been the fashion for years. 

Instead of the current square-shouldered jackets with lightly defined waists, he presented a short jacket with rounded shoulders and a nipped-in waist.  In spite of the loud disapproval of the British authorities (headed by future British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, as President of the Board of Trade) and protests from the patriotic and serious minded, the New Look was instantly and widely adopted in Britain. 

The New Look also called a for a new, high-rounded bosom which quite often had to be constructed with ‘shaplies’.  These were British made, mass-produced false busts made of sponge rubber and costing 10/6.

1947 was a ground-breaking year for another reason, nylon fabric was first shown at the British Industries Fair, where the new underwear fabrics made from it were described as ‘a beauty and a revolution’.

Fabrics such as nylon taffeta and nylon marquisette were getting used in corsetry by 1947 and they contributed an important step towards the glamourization of foundation wear and the creation of lightweight garments capable of providing degrees of control that were hitherto available only with the use of formidable fabrics.

The sweater girl bra came into fashion around 1955 and reached its zenith in 1957. This style, with its two projecting (often stiffened) cones and its whorls of stitching, was as remote from nature as the flattener bra of the 1920s. 

The sweater girl bra also known at the Hollywood Maxwell was inspired by the naturally-endowed film star, Jane Russell; its aim was to create an exaggerated, high-pointed bosom and these bras were shaped to sharp points, stiffened and built up.  It was also often underwired beneath the bust to add to the effect and it was hitched up tightly to the shoulder straps to have added desired uplift.

For the less well-endowed, a lining of latex foam was whirlpool-stitched into the cup to create ‘The Equalizer’ with its ‘cunningly concealed contours for that all-so-feminine American look’. All sorts of bust improvers were advertised and displayed in shop windows, including pneumatic busts that could be inflated at will like a balloon.

By 1955 the fashionable bustiers and long-line bras of the moment were summed up by Alison Adburgham as a ‘caress of nylon, lastex and lace’, some were so lightweight that they rolled-up as small as the nylon stockings usually worn along with them.

The Corselette / The Girdle

The New Look was also achieved with the corselette, a heavily boned, echoing the Victorian corsets of the past and padded at the hips to extenuate a tiny waist. 

The Corselette was a combination of the bra and the girdle and it was a foundation garment very popular in the ’50s. It was mass manufactured by companies such as Triumph, Jantzen, J Roussel and Warner.

Another key foundation garment was a girdle called the Waspie, a short corset worn over a slip and bra and the familiar roll-on (pantie girdle), tight-laced to achieve an hourglass look.  The fad was mostly short lived and mainly worn by high fashion models for catwalk shows. It was replaced by the elasticated cotton roll-on girdle with suspenders attached around 1950.  

The 1950s Petticoat

A full-length tulle petticoat (just 12 inches off the ground) was required to achieve the New Look. Under the new, full skirts went voluminous petticoats and in the first wave these were often brightly coloured and frilled. 

In a time of rationing and when lots of women still made their own clothes on a regular basis, and carrying on the trend of ‘Make Do and Mend’ from the war, in many cases these petticoats were adapted heirlooms rescued from Grandmother’s attic.

A shortened form of the crinoline skirt took off in the later-half of the decade, when the teenage fashion trends of the late ’50s seized upon mass-produced paper nylon petticoats.  So teenage girls could wear full, circular skirts and pretty, waisted frocks with full skirts set off with a rustle of petticoat.