A few years ago, I read a blog post by Jenny of Chronically Uncool; she’d decided to wear a crinoline under her dress and wondered what kind of reactions the added, fluffy volume of the skirt would elicit. She described boarding the public bus, heading toward downtown St. Louis: “An old man waiting for the bus said ‘That’s some dress’ when I walked by. The twenty-something year old security guy didn’t say anything as I showed him my pass, but I definitely felt him staring as I walked up the ramp.” Jenny received strange looks that day for a good reason — crinolines aren’t exactly in vogue.
Women have a history of wearing wacky things under their clothing in an effort to achieve whatever body shape was trending at the time. Today, we haven’t given up our quest for the perfectly crafted body shape; what may have started as crinolines, corsets and hoop skirts is now high-tech, polymer body gloves that banish unwanted bumps by compressing hips into an idealized form. Attitudes toward these undergarments may have changed over the years, but women’s unwavering love for shapewear has not.
The crinoline’s introduction to female dress occurred in the 1850s. With metal hoops to create a cage-like shape under the skirt, crinolines completely stressed form over function; sitting became a difficult activity for woman, causing the fairer sex to spend much of her time on her feet. The slow descent of the crinoline began at the end of the 19th century, when factions of women turned against restrictive undergarments that impeded movement. In 1889, the Great Anti-Crinoline League published a handbook, encouraging not just women to give crinoline the cold shoulder. As the preface of the book states, ”We can suggest nothing better than an Anti-Crinoline League of eligible men who should bind themselves by fearful oaths never to dance, drive, dine, or enter into any tenderer relation with any wearer of ‘stiffeners,’ ‘wires,’ or ‘whalebone,’ in whatsoever form.” While the Great Anti-Crinoline League might’ve successfully enlightened Victorian women, shapely undergarments hardly vanished. Crinolines experienced a brief resurgence in the 1950s, when post-war excess resulted in fashions that commanded full, voluminous skirts.
Today, crinolines are rarely worn, replaced by much more discreet shapewear. If there is any doubt that shapewear is big business, just look to Sarah Blakely, now the youngest, self-made female billionaire thanks to Spanx, her undergarment brand. Found in nearly every department store in the country, the brand is so ubiquitous that many women now refer to any shapewear as Spanx, similar to how all types of facial tissue are almost universally referred to as Kleenex. Thanks in part to its cherry red packaging and word-of-mouth advertising, it’s difficult to find a woman who doesn’t have a pair of Spanx hidden at the bottom of her underwear drawer. Still, how is it that after centuries fraught with restrictive corsets, bulky slips, and tight bodysuits, women still haven’t evolved past the need for shapewear? It might come down to a bit of jealousy; humans often want what they can’t have, wallowing in what they feel is a loss in the genetic lottery. As long as women are confronted with images of celebrities in skin-tight dresses, shapewear will continue creeping into boudoirs and dresser drawers all over the world.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.