IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Mad Men’ designer on shaping curves: It’s all about lingerie

The retro fashion style embraced by “Mad Men” loves feminine curves. But even with all the chatter the hourglass shape is a refreshing trend after a wave of pin-thin runway looks; that body doesn’t quite come naturally.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hourglass shape embraced on "Mad Men" is being celebrated by the retro-TV-show-obsessed fashion world as a refreshing trend after a wave of pin-thin runway looks.

Yet perfect curves don't quite come naturally, either.

Enter "underpinnings," says the show's costume designer Janie Bryant.

Her wardrobe closet has long-line bras, girdles, stockings and slips — and it's not uncommon for someone to be wearing them all at once. That's how it was in the early 1960s, she says, and there are some lessons to be learned, even for the most modern woman.

"Your underpinnings affect how clothes fit and how they look," Bryant explains. "The fit of your bra or your shapewear under your skirt can accentuate your waist or your bust, or in trousers, shapewear leggings can make you look smoother or slimmer."

Who wouldn't want that?

Bryant chronicles her advice — which she's been talking up since she worked on the HBO show "Deadwood" — in her new book "The Fashion File: Advice, Tips and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men."

First and foremost: Check the back view in the mirror. "The most important thing is no pantylines!"

Also, she says, know your accurate measurements, have on hand a variety of bra silhouettes, including a seamless T-shirt version and a demi-cup balconette that creates a shelf of cleavage for low-cut styles, and decide what shape you'd most like your body to take. In this era of bust-enhancers and bottom-slimmers, shapewear can act as a sculpting tool.

Of course, that's really where it started for women in the Victorian times, she notes. "I'm so interested by bustle cages and corsetry, and I started thinking about the fascination of manipulation when it comes to the female form," says Bryant, interviewed at the Manhattan headquarters of lingerie brand Maidenform. She's an adviser to the company, making in-store appearances to help guide women toward the right pieces for their body types.

Corsets pull you in at the middle, draw the eye to the bust and hips to match very feminine-shaped styles while forcing your posture to be, basically, perfect. They were popular at the turn of the 20th century when shape — not skin — helped define "sexy."Later, in the 1920s, when the fashionable silhouette became almost boyish, Bryant says, women would put on undergarments that were delicate and with little or no structure, freeing them from the corset and complementing their flapper dresses. When bias-cut, clingy dresses became en vogue the next decade, women wanted smooth satin lingerie.

The 1950s and '60s were about the body-hugging knit "wiggle dresses" that "Mad Men's" Joan Holloway is so fond of, and, for that, you needed serious foundation — maybe even one of Joan's rocket-cup, long-line bras that comes down to the waist.

By the late '60s, though, women were burning bras.

Over the last century, the biggest change in undergarments, however, was the invention and adoption of stretchy Lycra, Bryant says, which offered versatility of shape and much more movement.

Think of silk stockings, which were so precious, so easily damaged and in need of garters to hold them up: While they were pretty and sexy, they were a pain, Bryant says. Nylon-and-Lycra-infused pantyhose, complete with a panty top, were revolutionary for a generation of women who started working in earnest in the 1970s.

But even pantyhose has largely gone by the wayside as women found the shapewear — think Spanx or Flexees — that are the more relaxed cousin of the slenderizing girdle. "At its heart, foundation is about shape, a shape that is desired. Modern undergarments can achieve that and be comfortable, too," Bryant says. "We really have come a long way."

Bryant's tips on taking undergarment measurements from "The Fashion File":

—Bust: Starting at the center of the bust, wrap a tape measure around the rib cage and under the arms to get the band measurement. Remember to allow for literal breathing room as the rib cage expands and contracts.

Then, measure the fullest part of the bust for cup size. Subtract the band measurement from that number. If the difference is 1 inch, it's an A cup, 2 inches is a B cup and so on.

—Waist: This is the narrowest part of the abdomen. Make sure you're measuring the spot fully below your ribs and above your hips.

—Hips: Measure 7 inches below your waist, around the rear end. You want the tape measure to lay flat, not be cinched.