The Story Behind Shapewear: From Girdles to Spanx

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Shapewear is every woman's best kept secret. If you don't already have some, it can be a great piece to have in your arsenal. Everyone from you and I to celebrities use shapewear, but the concept has been around in different (and much less comfortable) styles since ancient times.

The first form of shapewear is believed to be the girdle: a woven, garment-like a belt. In ancient times, the girdle was believed to have magical powers, and Ishtar, goddess of Babylon, wore one for fertility. Girdles became a symbol of virginity, and were considered strength-giving for men, or protection for women.

They were used to shape, reinforce and strengthen the body, seen as respectable and modest. Girdles were considered essential garments by many women from the 1920s to the 1960s, and today have evolved into what we know as Spanx, and other slimming garments.

Corsets have a rich history as well, and are still part of fashion today. Many link the corset to Catherine de' Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, because she banned thick waists in court during the 1550s. In reality, corsets may go back as far as Ancient Crete. In the 16th century, they were made with fabrics like silk and cloth, and the boning in them was actually bone. Whale bone was preferred to make the stays and busk, while steel stays came a bit later. Ribbon was used to lace up the back, though at first this was only used for the wealthiest of wearers.

Corsets were used to shape the body, slim the waist and conform a woman's (or a man's!) figure to a fashionable silhouette. The goal was to emphasize a small waist, and a full bust and hips. Some were kept so tight that the women wearing them were said to have "wasp waists", because their nipped-in figure was so small. Corsets often included a garter and suspenders to hold stockings up. In extreme cases, some practiced "tight-lacing" -- when a corset was worn extremely tightly for long periods of time to permanently reduce waist size. While the goal was between 16-17 inches, many were satisfied with 20. Still, this caused major complications, such as broken ribs and only being able to breathe from the top of one's lungs. The main difference between a girdle and a corset is that girdles do not have boning, but are instead a simple, tight fabric.

Shapewear, it seems, has never gone out of style. With the introduction of Spanx in 2000, the slimming garments again became a part of a woman's every day wardrobe (especially once endorsed by Oprah). Now, there are multiple brands creating shapewear for every woman, so that curves can be embraced with smooth lines. Many celebrities are vocal about their love of control garments, and corsets have even become a fashion statement, making up the tops of many dresses on the runway and red carpet. Women love the way they feel and look while wearing shapewear, and the greatest plus -- they're now made for comfort. Remember the scene in Pirates of Caribbean when Keira Knightley's character, Elizabeth Swann, had her corset laced up so tightly she could barely breathe? Let's all be grateful progress has since been made.

Click through the gallery above to see the history of shapewear in photos.

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