The corset is arguably one of the most controversial undergarments in the history of fashion. They have been a symbol of femininity, fashion, and eroticism since it was first invented. No wonder I have an interest in corsetry, my great-grandma owned a corset shop in Chicago from 1930 to the 1960s. Thanks to the fashion industry, corsets went through a variety of adaptations from its origins in the 16th century through the 19th century, and even into the 20th and 21st century.
For the sake of keeping it short and sweet, I have narrowed down the topic to corsets that were prevalent in women’s fashion in the western world.
What exactly is a corset? It is a tightly fitting undergarment that shapes a woman’s body to conform to the desired silhouette of the time. Corsets weren’t even called corsets until the 19th century. Before then, they were called bodices, stiff bodices, or stays, so that’s what I will call them until we get to the 1800s.
Corsets are first seen in the very early 16th century, although it is unlikely these early corsets were corsets at all. Instead of fabric and boning, the frame was an iron cage that was either an early fetish accessory or a primitive attempt at orthopedics.
By 1530, stiff bodices were worn. During the mid to late 16th century, the fashionable silhouette was a flat chest and conical torso, which could not have been achieved without stiffening. Stays were not independent of their clothing yet; it was part of the bodice of the dress.
Stays got their independence by the end of the 17th century when they become an article of clothing in their own right. However, they were demoted to underwear, because they were worn under clothing (*wink*). Although restrictive and uncomfortable, stays did not bend the body into an unnatural shape…yet.
Stays were for sure considered underwear by the 18th century. The torso remained flat and conical but the breasts were pushed up, creating cleavage, while the hips were freed, giving women more movement (what a novel concept). Stays became much more decorative at this point despite being under garments. Think Victoria’s Secret circa 1700s.
By the end of the 18th century, stays started to exaggerate the female shape, raising concern. Physicians began to express their concerns and warn against tight-lacing, especially since tight-lacing began at a young age. And by young age I mean babies. From infancy through adulthood, females were expected to wear stays to encourage proper, lifelong posture.
From the late 1790s to the 1820s, fashioned changed: the waist moved higher and sat just under the bust, creating an empire waist. Since the dress fabric flowed freely from the under bust, downward, there was so need for a stay. For a brief moment in the corset’s 400+ year history, a structured bodice went out of style.
Don’t relax just yet. By the 1820s, the corset became fashionable again and the term “corset” was introduced. The waist moved back to its natural place and was deliberately tightened instead of following a natural shape. In the 1860s, corsets became mandatory for women to retain a certain social norm. Fashion emphasized beautiful and elegant fabrics and trim of the corsets. The Victorian silhouette peaked in the mid to late 1800s (60s-80s).
In the 1890s, extreme tight-lacing became popular and physicians cried out again. As a result, a new shape was invented in the Edwardian era. While I’m sure the fashion industry meant well, the new silhouette was not any better. In fact, it was worse. The new corset design took pressure away from the stomach but exaggerated the bum so that the corset pressed the belly and hips backwards, forcing the wearer into a lordotic posture, commonly called “S- Shape” or “S-Bend”. This was enhanced by additional structure called a bustle. The forced unnatural posture made corsets even more harmful than ever before.
Fortunately, this fashion was short lived. By the early 20th century, the Suffragette Movement was in full effect, women started to take more interest in sports (they needed movement for that), and styles changed. By World War I, corsets went out of style.
From then on, girdles and bras, which had an evolution of their own, triumphed over the corset for the majority of the 20th century. Today, corsets manifest in many ways: Spanx, “waist cinchers”, even corset tops are in style. For better or worse, perhaps corsets are here to stay.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. 4th ed. Vol. 5. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Toulalan, Sarah, and Kate Fisher, eds. The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to Present. New York: Routledge, 2013.