From the Exhibition:

Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette

The slim cut of menswear in the early twentieth century demanded a lean, athletic figure, especially through the torso, yet not all men could achieve this ideal silhouette naturally. For older or portlier men, “stomach belts” like this example from the French company Elancia offered a way to mold the body into a more desirable, youthful form.

Men’s underwear has not been studied in as much depth as the understructures of women’s fashion, partly because male undergarments are perceived as less erotic than their female counterparts.1 Nevertheless, it appears that at least some men wore a version of the female corset in order to achieve the slim, virile silhouette first popularized in the late eighteenth century and refined by fashionable upper-class men in the early nineteenth century. In the 1810s, satirical prints by such artists as Robert and George Cruikshank poked fun at the dandies who padded their calves and cinched their waists, portraying these young men as overly feminized by their pursuit of a fashionable figure. Dandyism persevered, however, as authors like Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly and Charles Baudelaire defended men’s fastidious self-presentation as an intellectual pursuit.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the male corset had been forced into near obscurity, acceptable as a training and support garment for military officers but generally considered too effeminate to be worn by civilian men of fashion.2 The decadent dandies of the fin-de-siècle threw male consumption of fashion under suspicion, and in the early twentieth century this attitude had still not dissipated.3 In an effort to diminish the vain, corrective function of these girdle-like garments, advertising copy often presented them as “support” structures for the manly body, with an emphasis on health and athleticism. In the early twentieth century, the design of some support belts for men was based on the traditional corset, using boning and tightly woven fabric to mold the body underneath. This example, however, utilizes a rubber foundation, exploiting the modern material’s elasticity. While the front closure supports the wearer’s upright posture, strategically placed holes in the rubber allow for air circulation and greater hygiene, not unlike the design of Gardner & Co.’s pierced veneer chairs of the late nineteenth century. In the first half of the 1920s, the Parisian men’s lifestyle magazine Monsieurregularly featured advertisements for a similarly perforated belt, the “Ceinture Anatomique” promoted by one Dr. Namy for sportsmen, motorists, and any other men who were “beginning to grow a belly.”4

These garments proliferated throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and they were not confined to France. The Berlin-based men’s magazine Der Junggeselle (The Bachelor) advertised a simpler model known as the “Gentila Herrengürtel” on a weekly basis from 1919 to 1929, whereas a competing product, the more candidly named “Herren-Corset Eros,” appeared in only one issue.5 Meanwhile in the United States, the Royal Worcester Corset Company of Massachusetts began to offer a unisex supportive belt in 1925, sold under the ambiguous name “The New Medallion.”6

Men’s stomach belts seem to have fallen out of favor by the 1940s, thanks to looser tailoring in men’s fashion. However, support garments for men still exist to this day, now advertised as an extension of athletic compression gear. Taking advantage of new elasticized fibers with greater stability and memory, contemporary versions of the stomach belt are typically integrated into briefs, boxers, or undershirts, further dissociating these garments from the effeminate form of the corset.

1.C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, cited by Shaun Cole, The Story of Men’s Underwear (New York: Parkstone International, 2010), 21.

2.Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New York and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 36–39.

3.Brent Shannon, The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 18601914 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 114–16.

4.Advertisement for the “Ceinture Anatomique pour Hommes,” Monsieur, no. 2 (February 1920): II.

5.Advertisement for the “Herren-Corset Eros,” Der Junggeselle 5, no. 45 (1923): 20.

6.“The New Medallion: A Better Belt for Men or Women,” promotional pamphlet (Massachusetts: Royal Worcester Corset Company, 1925).