Foundation Garments – What They Are and Why They Matter

By | May 7, 2016
Diagram showing the changing profiles of a period - and how to achieve them via strategic corsetry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Diagram showing the changing profiles of a period – and how to achieve them via strategic corsetry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is another entry that’s going outside the usual scope of FFC, but it’s an important topic for any costumer, so here goes.

Just like the name suggests, a foundation garment is something worn under your street clothes – or costume – which supports your outer clothing and/or changes the shape of your body, usually to meet the dictates of fashion.

Great. So what? So if you wear a 21st century brassiere under a 19th century dress you crafted from an historically accurate pattern, that dress isn’t going to fit you. It’ll hang wrong and you’ll look “off”, no matter how excellent your outerwear happens to be.

Obviously, this is a big issue when re-creating historical looks, but it can matter for SF/F and anime cosplay, too. For instance, Michelle Gomez mentioned that she wore and honest-to-god corset under her costume when she played Missy on Doctor Who. The character is a Time Lord who’s hung out all over time and space, but her costume was based on a Victorian/Edwardian profile (and Ms. Gomez said she’s rather fond of her desserts) so the costumer put her into the appropriate underpinnings to get the right “look”.

When you’re planning a costume, you should start by figuring out what you’re going to wear under it. And then wear those garments when you’re taking your measurements. I’ll be the first to attest that the bust apex on my sewing patterns goes up by over an inch when I’m wearing a corset – for obvious reasons. Relocating the bust apex on a sewing pattern has an impact throughout the bodice, so I have to account for it when sewing. Ditto for if my waist is made smaller via corsetry, or if my behind is made far more substantial courtesy of a bustle or bumroll.

For any women’s costuming for the 17th through early 20th century, you’re going to have to think about corsets (you’ll also see the term stays and pair of bodies, depending on the historical period). You can’t wear one corset to cover three hundred years of fashion. The resources page on this site points to some more in-depth material, but here’s a quick explanation as to the differences. (Apologies for the odd horizontal lines, but tables was the only way I could lay this out and WordPress HATES tables.)

Woman in a classic Tudor corset. As you can see, waist-cinching is NOT the point. Source: tudortalkandcatwalk.com

tudor_underpinnings_01

Farthingale skirt and bumroll.

Tudor / Elizabethan period. Ladies were expected to have a smooth, conical torso. The purpose of stays in this period was to push the bosom up (to create that conical shape) and to present a smooth surface all around – hence reeds all through the darn thing. Tabs on the bottom of the stays would help distribute the weight of the skirts worn. These stays were not designed to cinch in the waist, nor should you try to do that with a Tudor corset, as you’ll only hurt yourself. A huge bumroll or farthingale wheel under the skirts did their bit to both support heavy fabrics and make the waist appear smaller.
Corset and panniers of linen twill and baleen. Circa 1785. Source: LA County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia.

Corset and panniers of linen twill and baleen. Circa 1785. Source: LA County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia.

In the 18th century, the silhouette emphasized the décolletage as an attractive feature (not just flesh to be shoved into a particular shape) so the shape of ladies stays changed, although the similarity to Tudor stays is obvious. The preference for a conical torso was still there. Again, the purpose of these stays was not to pull in your waist.

Regency-era corset. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Regency-era corset. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Regency-era underpinnings. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regency-era underpinnings. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the Regency period, things – ahem – loosened up for a short while. Stays were lightly boned (or not at all) and a shaped cup area appeared. As diaphanous neo-Classical gowns were all the thing, ladies had the freedom to relax under their clothes. Again, there’s nothing being done to the waist.

 

Mid or late 19th century corset. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mid or late 19th century corset. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As the Regency gave way to the Victorian era, the appearance of a small waist became desirable. For the most part, ladies turned to corsetry except during the middle of the century, when huge skirts supported by petticoats or crinolines, were used as an optical illusion. The bigger the skirts, the smaller your waist would appear. Ladies still wore corsets throughout this period, but the severity of lacing waxed and waned. As a bare bosom (or barely covered by gauze) became acceptable in evening wear in the later 19th century, corsets subtly changed shape to shape and enhance the décolletage.Myths about ultra-tight-lacing are mostly that: myths. The average size for mass-manufactured corsets in the 19th century was 30” at the waist, fully closed. While there was certainly a minority of men and women who enjoyed tiny waists to the point of fetishism, that was not the norm.

 

A tight-lacing Edwardian lady. I suspect this image has been retouched. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A tight-lacing Edwardian lady. I suspect this image has been retouched. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As the Victorian period gave way to the Edwardian, the S-curve became fashionable – which meant padding fore and aft. Sometimes that padding would be built into a lady’s corset, which changed the shape from their Victorian predecessors by a lot. As more women entered the workforce, the emphasis on a small waist decreased.

1920s girdle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

1920s girdle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, slender and boyish was the fashion and ladies started ditching the old-fashioned corset in favor of girdles. They could be all-in-one garments cover territory from over the bust to mid thigh, or starting lower down the torso – but always ending with suspenders for stockings because pantyhose was still a few decades away.

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1930s girdle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that we really see the emergence of lingerie separates, and believe me, girdles were still going strong – and they continue to do so today, although now we call them “body shapers”.

Bullet-style bra.

Bullet-style bra.

Post war we see the “bullet bra” come into its own. Some brassieres really were quite, um, pronounced in their pointiness and you can see it in any media from the period. Again, it’s one of those things that if you decide to skip it, your poodle skirt and twin set aren’t going to look quite right.

1965 girdle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1965 girdle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It was barely any better in the 60’s. This heavily-engineered item would have featured heavy-duty elastane and non-stretch fabrics but at least the wearer was spared steel and/or whalebone. (From a submission to the US Patent Office.)

 

Men, don’t think that you’re getting off the hook…

 

A corset for gentlemen. Date unknown, but guessing early or mid 19th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A corset for gentlemen. Date unknown, but guessing early or mid 19th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

If you wanted to cut a fine figure as a Regency gent, you’ll need a corset to ensure you have the right profile for those very-tight trousers – a small waist and a flat stomach.

Fashionable Tudor men would pad their doublets according to the trend of the time – up to and including padding the stomach because a big belly meant you could afford to overeat. I don’t know enough about codpieces to separate fact from myth on the subject, but if you’re costuming the Renaissance, that’s another item you’ll want to investigate. (Cue: various double-entendres.)

 

Even today, women are faced with a plethora of choices when it comes to bras and bodyshapers.If you’re wearing a Spandex bodysuit, wear at least a body stocking underneath – or, better yet, a sheer body shaper that will give support as well as protecting modesty. If regular stores let you down for body stockings and shapers, try retailers who cater to cross-dressers. They offer a lot of options in all kinds of foundation garments.

Gentlemen, get a dance belt. When putting on comic-book / anime-inspired duds, the potential for embarrassment is just too great to be ignored. Visible underwear lines – or worse – are mortifying. And the thinner the Spandex of your garment, the greater the need for something between it and your skin. Furthermore… well, this comic put it best.

An intermediate layer will extend the usable life of your garment as it’ll take on carrying the dirt and sweat from your skin, not your $25/yd stretch ciré.

When you put a lot of work into your costume, you don't want this to be what it's remembered for.

When you put all that work into your costume, you don’t want this to be what it’s remembered for.

If you’re a woman and haven’t yet gone to a high-end lingerie shop for a bra fitting, do so, ASAP. Don’t go to Victoria’s Secret, or a department store, but find yourself a place that does nothing but sell bras (and maybe knickers) with price tags that might make you wince just a bit. Most ladies wear bras that are too big in the band and too small in the cup. Once you’re properly fitted, the right bra will make your boobs seem twenty years younger. I went from an 38D to an 32FF and my profile changed quite a lot – hoisted my apex up by an inch and a half, for a start…

Don’t begrudge the price of quality, either. I dropped $80 on a good-quality convertible bra (has removable straps so it can be strapless / halter / criss-cross as needed) which I wear perhaps twice a year and it’s totally worth it. A good bra is better for one’s self-esteem than a day at the spa, if you ask me.

Regardless of the era, foundations matter and are as important as any other part of your costume. Always build your costumes from the inside out!

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