Long before the term "girdle" was used to describe a tight, corset-like garment worn by women to make their waists appear slim, a girdle was a kind of belt or sash, tied or wrapped around the waist. The word "gird" means to encircle, or go around, and girdles encircled the wearer. In ancient times the girdle was a very useful part of many costumes, holding long, draped garments or short, loose outfits in place. Girdles were also decorative and could be a kind of jewelry for the waist. Girdles were often made of cloth but were sometimes made of metal, decorated with precious stones and beads. The ancient Egyptians were among the first to develop metalworking skills, and they used these skills to make jewelry as early as 2700 B.C.E. The societies of the Greek island of Crete, from around 2000 B.C.E. , and those of Hellenic Greece (the period before Alexander the Great [356–323 B.C.E. ]), from around 800 B.C.E. , also learned the art of metalwork, and they made decorative metal girdles an important part of their fashionable dress.
The Greek island of Crete was home to a flourishing civilization from about 3000 B.C.E. This civilization was named Minoan after King Minos, a legendary king in Greek mythology. Most modern knowledge of Minoan culture comes from the art that has been found by later generations. This art shows that the Minoans were fine metalworkers. Much Minoan art seems to indicate Minoans found a tiny waist attractive. In order to make the shoulders and chest appear larger and stronger, Minoan men and women pulled their waists in with tight belts, often made of metals such as copper, silver, and gold. These belts were rolled at the edges and decorated with designs of ridges, spirals, rosettes, and flowers. Experts believe that in many cases these decorated metal belts were welded permanently around the waists of small children in order to keep the waist small as the child grew up. Some experts think that the Minoan metal belts might have had religious importance, since metal girdles shaped like snakes have been found in Minoan temples. Other researchers believe that this practice of tightening the waist may have been more than simple fashion. They think the custom may have come from a time when Minoans depended on the uncertain luck of hunting for survival, and a small stomach could be a practical necessity when food was scarce.
Later Greek cultures were influenced by the metalworking techniques of both the Egyptians and the Minoans, and they also loved to adorn themselves with jewelry, including decorative metal girdles. In their mythology, too, the girdle had special significance. In Greek myth the famous hero Heracles, also known as Hercules, was sent on a quest to steal the golden girdle of the Queen of the Amazons, because whoever wore it would have great power. The magic jeweled girdle of the love goddess Aphrodite was supposed to have the power to make people fall in love with anyone who wore it.
Thousands of years later, girdles and their ancestors are still used to shape women's bodies. The corset, similar to a girdle in the way it shapes the body, was popular from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and supermodels of the late twentieth century were known to wear a tight belt under their clothes to keep from eating.
Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books-Imports, 1977.
Symons, David. Costume of Ancient Greece. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
[ See also Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Corsets ]