Constructed of elasticized fabric and sometimes fastened with hook and eye closures, the modern girdle is designed to enhance a woman's figure. Most open-bottom girdles extend from the waist to the upper thighs. In the 1960s, these models fell from favor and were to a great extent replaced by the panty girdle. The panty girdle resembles a tight pair of athletic shorts. Both models of girdles usually include suspender clips to hold up stockings.
Girdles were considered essential garments by many women from approximately 1910 to the late 1960s. They created a rigid, controlled figure that was seen as eminently respectable and modest. They were also crucial to the couturier Christian Dior's 1947 New Look, which featured a voluminous skirt and a narrow, nipped-in waistline, also known as a wasp waist.
Later in the 1960s, the girdle was generally supplanted by pantyhose. Pantyhose replaced girdles for many women who had used the girdle essentially as a means of holding up sheer nylon stockings. Those who want more control purchase "control top" pantyhose. Many women forgo wearing girdles, stockings, and pantyhose entirely.
Girdles and "body shapers" are still sold to women who want to shape their figure with a garment. Some of these garments incorporate a brassiere and thus become functionally equivalent to a corset. However, they do not incorporate boning and hence do not produce the constricted waistline characteristic of Victorian-era corsets.
For men a girdle was often used to hold weapons. It also gave them freedom to move in a fight, unlike other types of clothing. both of these are thought to carry the connection of power to the man's girdle in literature. For example, Odysseus wears a girdle which allows him to swim for three days straight, and a girdle worn by Thor doubles his strength.
Later on, for women, the girdle became a sign of virginity, and was often considered to have magical properties. Monsters and all types of evil are recorded as being subdued by girdles in literature, a famous one being the dragon slain by Saint George. Marriage ceremonies continued this tradition of girdles symbolizing virginity by having the husband take the wife's girdle, and prostitutes were forbidden to wear them by law in historic France. Often in literature, women are portrayed as safe from sexual or other attack when wearing a girdle, but suddenly vulnerable if it is missing or stolen.
Non-clothing uses in literature include Tolkien's "Girdle of Melian", a magical, protective "wall" surrounding an elven kingdom, and the metaphorical "girdle of righteousness" mentioned in the Bible, representing righteousness as a protection as well as something to be worn constantly.
The twentieth century women's girdle attracts various references in literature, often in a disparaging way. For example, Marilyn French in her classic book, The Women's Room, is very critical not only of the girdle itself, but also of the virtual compulsion to wear one, a compulsion which existed until the late 1960s. In John Masters's Bhowani Junction, once the mixed-race Victoria Jones decides to opt for an Indian rather than British persona, she rejects her girdle as a "western garment".
Like its predecessor garment, the corset, the girdle attracts a degree of eroticism. Some men like to wear female girdles, and/or find women attractive in them. In addition, the Australian feminist writer, Beatrice Faust, in her book Women, Sex and Pornography refers to a "slight but sustained feeling of arousal" when wearing a "moderately tight" girdle. The subject is discussed in the Web site Zona: The Girdle Zone