Mad Men Exposes the ’60s Girdle — But Will She Get It Off in Time?

two women wearing 1960s Spirella Sarong girdle with sign "happiness is a flat tummy."

The Spirella Sarong, a vintage 1960s panty girdle.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I loved the hotel room strip tease performed by a stewardess on the 2009 Mad Men season premiere. The fitted suit. The cloche hat. The pumps. So 1963. For those of you who missed the show: A blond stewardess drops her mid-century modest garments to the floor, one by one, until there is nothing left between her, the show’s hero, and their one-night stand — except a girdle — when, oddly enough, the hotel’s fire alarm goes off.

Mad Men TV show logo

Don Draper smokes and ponders his existential angst.

I want to know — how was she planning to get that thing off?

You don’t think it’s a problem? Then you’ve never experienced a genuine 1963 girdle.

When my daughter was eight years old, I took her aside one day and explained the girdle facts of life to her. Then I wrote about it for The Oakland Tribune, where I was a columnist at the time. Here’s the story:

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, October 13, 1991 

“What’s a girdle?” Peter wanted to know.

“It’s something you . . . a woman wears to make herself thin,” I told him.

“Why not just get a Tummyciser?” said Peter, rolling his belly muscles.

You could.  You could get the Tummyciser.  You could do the aerobic walking.  You could eat the cottage cheese instead of wearing it on your thighs.  Or, you could spend $26 for a navel-to-knee body shaper – and be thin now.

As I see it, the world our children are inheriting fairly oozes with ways to feel better fast – fast food, fast cars, fast sex.

But this season, there is another quick fix on the scene.  Something I thought the women’s movement had banished from the intelligent woman’s underwear drawer decades ago – the girdle.

There it was, a week ago Friday, a department store ad touting the sexiness of shapewear.  Shapewear!  You can’t fool me.  I remember the ’50s.  I know a girdle when I see one.

A 2012 girdle -- the Flexees 3915 Firm Control Hi-Waist Thigh Slimmer Shape

Here’s the 2012 version of the Flexees Subtract. Not much has changed from 1963 to 1991 to 2012. The 2012 version is called the “Flexees 3915 Firm Control Hi-Waist Thigh Slimmer.”

I dropped Peter off at a friend’s house and took Christina with me to the mall.  Just us girls.  There, we located the Bali tailored brief, the Flexees Subtract and the Vanity Fair Slender Slip, as advertised.

“Do you know what a girdle is?” I asked my daughter as I hung the garments up in our fitting room.  Christina, who was eight years old at the time, wasn’t sure.  Embarrassed, she pointed at my derriere.

Good.  There was still time to warn my daughter off the girdle, in all its anti-woman, anti-health, anti-common sense ridiculousness.  I held up the Bali brief and declared, “No, Christina.  This is a girdle.”

It was an extra large.  I had grabbed the largest Bali on the rack so I could get it on without too many gyrations.  My goal was to make the girdle appear ridiculous in the eyes of my eight-year-old, not myself.

“I’m not going to buy one of these,” I said, pulling on the Bali.  “I’m just going to teach you some history, some girdle history.”

“I already know enough history.”

“If you don’t know history, you are doomed to repeat it,” I retorted, grunting a little with the familiar effort of pulling spandex across flesh.

There is nothing fatter than a woman in the act of putting on a girdle.  A girdle has a way of collecting up flesh as it is pulled upward, pushing it in a trembling mass toward the waist.

The experienced girdle-wearer knows this.  Patiently, she works the garment toward her waist and then, with a yank and a wiggle, she snaps the last bit of girdle over the last bit of fat.  Her body has been tamed.  Spandex rules.

The Bali in place, I glanced at Christina.  “How do I look?”

“It makes you look worse,” she said.  “It’s squashed all the fat onto your legs.  Your legs look way too fat.”

I turned to one side and looked in the mirror, hoping she was wrong.  She wasn’t. “Girdles do that,” was all I could say. “Let’s try the Slender Slip.”

8-year-old girl climbing a massive rock at Yosemite National Park. Photo by BF Newhall

Christina at age eight at Yosemite: She did not need a girdle then . . . Photos by BF Newhall

Young woman smiling and looking good. Photo by BF Newhall

. . . and doesn’t need one now. Or is she keeping a secret?

The Slender Slip was a tour de force of modern technology.  It was shaped like a pencil-thin slip, but was made of stretchy, leg-hugging material.  A panel through the crotch and some rubbery stuff inside the lace at the bottom kept it from riding up.

I watched myself in the mirror as I pulled it on.  I realized that there is something fatter than a woman pulling on a girdle.  It is a woman wearing a Slender Slip.  The Slender Slip curves cruelly under the derriere and around the potbelly.  It highlights every lump and curve.  It is merciless.

I took it off before Christina could comment and I reached for the Flexees Subtract.  Designed to slenderize from waistline to shin bones, this was easily the largest expanse of spandex I had ever seen.  I had never worn such an ambitious girdle.

“This is the ne plus ultra of foundation garments,” I said, slipping some French into the history lesson.  Carefully, I gathered up the right leg and slipped my foot through.  “You have to pull these on a little at a time.”

a spanx undergarment reaching from above waist to knees. Spanx photo

Spanx skinny britches for under jeans. Not a girdle?

I lectured and pulled and lectured and pulled, hoping Christina was noticing what a pain in the derriere a girdle can be.

A pain in the derriere and a pain in the belly.  My girdle memories were coming back to me now.  Some I shared with Christina. Others I saved for a later date.

If a woman wears a tight girdle for more than an hour or two, for example, she is likely to experience stomach cramps, especially if there is a meal involved.

Or, if she sits in her girdle for very long, she can get girdle burn.  The girdle stretches as she sits, causing the tiny holes in the spandex to open up and capture tiny pieces of her skin.  When she stand, the spandex holes close up and pinch her unsuspecting flesh.

And, too, there is the chastity-belt effect.  A girdle is not easy to put on.  The prudent woman thinks twice before taking one off.

At last, the navel-to-knee girdle was in place and I looked – terrific.  My lower half was at least two sizes smaller.

“It looks good on the bottom,” said Christina, “but you look weird on top, like raw chicken meat.  I like it better when you be yourself.”

End of history lesson.

Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune


Christina Update — Twenty Years Later

Did my daughter learn that girdle lesson that I sweated and strained over twenty years ago? Did the lesson stick? I called her up to ask.

Yes, Christina said. She remembers the girdle lesson. And, yes, she wears a girdle once in a while. But it’s not a girdle, Mom. It’s not a Slender Slip, and it’s not a Flexees Subtract. It’s a Spanx.

And the difference between my girdle-wearing days and Christina’s  is — today’s woman doesn’t wear a girdle to impress a guy. “You wear them because you’re a strong, powerful woman and you want to look really fabulous — for yourself.”

Christina also wanted me to know, “Girdle technology has changed. There’s no such thing as girdle burn any more.”

 . . . And Back to the Mad Men Episode with Don Draper in a Hotel Room With That Frantic-for-Sex Stewardess

Now you know why the script required the fire alarm to go off when it did. The Mad Men writers had no idea how to get that girdle off that stewardess without turning hot sex into farce.

Hint: If she knew she was going to do a strip tease, the stewardess would have excused herself to the bathroom, removed the girdle, stuffed it into her purse, and returned to her paramour — fully dressed but girdleless.

And, no, I’m not going to tell you how I know this.

If you enjoyed this post, check out My Awesome Zumba Body and “Shopping for a Mother-of-the-Groom Dress.” 

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  1. What a fun post! I just accidentally came across it while looking for a certain Zumba teacher. I wrote about girdles in my book, The Souls of Her Feet. Are you still dancing? Cheers!

  2. Tom Sleifer says:

    I come from the “Golden Age of Girdles,” back in the 1950s to, say, 1970s where all women always wore a girdle. A girdle at that time went with, of course, a bra. For some reason during the feminist time girdles went the way of dinosaurs, but the bra stayed around, even though it was a time of burn your bra. Recently girdles are starting to make a comeback.


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