Period Costumes - Corset History
Created | Updated Mar 26, 2009
Introduction to Corsets | Period Costumes - Corset History | Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them | Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism | The Corset - Conclusion
Neolithic drawings portray women encased in bodices of raw animal skin. As they dried, they would have shrunk, causing the same effects as tight lacing. The tendency is well-established.
Tight lacing is a simple way of changing one's appearance and has been used throughout history by both men and women.
The first garment recognisable as a corset was the 14th Century cotte. A linen bodice worn under a dress, it created the serpentine slimness fashionable then. This was aided by the introduction of the panel-cut bodice in the late 1300s. Used by both sexes, it fitted the body exactly and, later, would largely be the basis of Victorian corsetry.
The Tudor Corset
By the late 15th Century, separate skirts and bodices had appeared. The latter (now stiffened with paste), evolved into the 'Tudor' corset; the first specific style of true corset. Any portrait of female members of the royal Tudor family shows the style well; the outer bodice is practically identical to the foundation it required. The style was straight and unshaped, unlike the earlier fashions, stopping at the waist, and had straps to support the bust (which was considerably flattened, emerging from the square décolletage). It was made from double-thickness fabric (mainly linen, although silk-satin and velvet were used for outerwear), stiffened with a 'busc' (central panel of stiffening) of wood, metal, horn or whalebone. The effect was to give a flat-fronted, sharp silhouette which complemented the equally angular, voluminous skirt.
As always happens, the 'bodies' were taken to extremes, as shown in later portraits of Elizabeth I. The waist becomes very low and tight, with the skirt angled upwards at the back and almost square-topped, hanging from a farthingale - imagine wearing a cartwheel.
Stays - the 18th Century
In the early 18th Century, what were now called 'stays' had been incorporated into the elaborate court dresses worn by the nobility. They were similar in shape to the earlier style, although the outward appearance was different. Further stiffening had been added, and the shape was largely achieved by skillful cutting of the bones (whalebone was the standard material by this time).
They could be fully-boned (baliene) or half-boned, with spaces between the casings (demi-baliene). The former had a very complex fanned arrangement, which was used before the reintroduction of shaped panel cutting. Separate pieces, however, were used - the front panel was richly decorated if, as worn by the nobility, it was to be on display (called a stomacher, it had a practical function in that it could slide over, and hide, a front-lacing.) The stays were slightly more curved than previously, and extend over the hips - 'tabs', slit to the waist, to accommodate the extra width. This style was worn with oversized hoop petticoats - held in place partially with the tabs - for full Court dress.
Stays lost popularity with the introduction of new printed fabrics, which were light-weight (muslins, etc). After the French Revolution (1790) restrictive heavy clothing was discarded due to its associations with the ancien régime. New fashions were copies of romanticised 'English country clothes' - light, loose and slightly see-through.
There is some evidence that stays were not worn during this period, and some otherwise. It's unlikely that all women rose up and unlaced en masse, because of the predominance of stays until that point. Advertisements suggest they became longer and more fitted to keep the figure in line under revealing frocks. Construction innovations were necessary - gussets and shaped panels were added, instead of tabs. What is likely is that younger women would probably be able to go without, but those who wouldn't, pretended. The high Empire waistline eventually dropped, and by 1820 a characteristic new shape had developed, with the corset instrumental in creating it.
During the Victorian era, the corset underwent its greatest changes. Its shape was radically different - it centred on a small waist (fashionable in previous times, but never to such a degree), with bountiful curves above and below. Early examples were short, but as the waistline lengthened shaping grew more complex. Inventions helped this development; metal eyelets (1828), steel busks - by now, the front centre fastening enabling the corset to be put on with ease, and without outside help - (1829), and the sewing machine (1858). The corsetièr(e) was by now a specialised and accomplished craftsperson; the garment's construction approached engineering.
Its construction could be either shaped weaving (patented 1832) panel-cut of up to 13 pieces, or steam-moulding on a metal frame (from 1860s.) An example from 1886 shows a classic long-line shape, encompassing the hips. It would be worn with the cuirasse bodice, which followed its shape exactly. It had a 'spoon' busk instead of a straight one, which dipped in at the waist, further reducing it. There is the elaborate boning of the 18th Century, but the benefits of panel cutting are obvious. Gussets have been discarded; continuous shaping gave a much smoother appearance. Touches of decoration, such as lacy edges, are similar to lingerie. Whalebone was by now becoming expensive due to increasing rarity - cord was used, particularly around the bust, as an alternative stiffening.
Throughout the 19th Century, the shape remained basically the same despite variations in dress style; there was however periodic shifting of the waist. The major change was to occur in 1900 with the return of the straight busk.
The S-curve was introduced for health reasons by a corsetière who had some medical knowledge, and was concerned that the extreme 'wasp-waist' was damaging to women, particularly the way the abdomen was compressed from the front. However, this innovation was taken up with such enthusiasm that it became equally exaggerated.
The straight-fronted corset had this effect: the figure is elegantly sloped towards the middle, appearing perfectly symmetrical from the side. However, there is a visible lean to the way the body is positioned- the front slightly forward of the rest. The shape was termed the S-curve, for obvious reasons. Superfluous flesh from the front is forced backwards to give a prominent rear, and the bust projected over the low front of the corset. The fashion reached bizarre proportions at its height in 1905.
Modern Underwear- Stayless?
From this point, the corset’s importance diminished. There was no really definite style to emerge after then, although tight-lacing looked set to continue... until the war.
The First World War necessitated simple, modest clothes. Undergarments were lightweight, the corset having been superseded by the brassiere and the new, high-quality elastic fabrics. The fashions of the 1920s especially illustrate this; based on the unsupported youthful figure, they were meant to represent comfort and freedom, but those who weren't so naturally shaped provided the corsetière's last customers. New York department store B Altman and Co were, by 1926, selling 'Combination Garments' with elastic sections, 'boned across front only... to hold [the] figure firmly'. The flattering effects of elastic were exploited in these slightly-shaped garments, with only a minimum of gores and tucks replacing intricate panels. The very young, focus of the new fashions, hardly required even these.
A brief resurgence of the waist in the 1930s almost brought the return of a lightweight corset, but the outbreak of yet another war halted this. Clothing rations discouraged the wearing of restrictive underclothes, as did the need for women to take up active work.
The next resurgence was with Dior's 'New Look', an exaggerated 1930s style which introduced the 'waspie' and Marcel Rochas' corselette (combination bra and panty-girdle). The waist was reintroduced to fashion, but the traditional boned corset was now considered hideously old-fashioned. The great advances in bra design, particularly in the 1950s (although sometimes daft) provided more practical methods of support.
Now that it was no longer regular wear, the corset was free to be subverted by alternative fashion. Its less obvious uses were exploited. Recently, it was dragged up from the underground to reappear in haute couture, and also in general street-wear. It appears that the corset has regained its position - only now it is worn as a matter of choice. However, whether this current revival should be included in the list of corseted eras remains to be seen.
Other Entries in This Project
- An Introduction to Corsets
- Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
- Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
- Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them
- The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism
- The Corset - Conclusion