Corset (before 1500): Wikis

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A corset is a garment that girds the torso and shapes it according to the fashionable silhouette of the day. Most often it has been used for cinching the waist and supporting the breasts.

Some women tended to wear corsets tighter than necessary and buy corsets with smaller waists, but most women, although they purchased an 18 or 20 inch waisted corset left a gap at the back closure to accommodate a more realistic 22-26 inch waist measurements. On average that would mean a corset reduced the figure by only an inch or two at most. Stories about women with broken ribs, having ribs removed, and causing fatal injury to themselves through tight lacing are greatly exaggerated and apocryphal.

In fact, like today, in order to achieve the hourglass figure, many women took to adding volume to their bustlines to increase the ratio of bust to waist. Also, the full skirts, crinolines and bustles of the 19th century added to the width of the hips to make the waist appear slimmer.


16th to late 17th centuries

The earliest corsets were called "payre of bodies" and were usually worn with a farthingale that held out the skirts in a stiff cone. The payre of bodies, later called stays, turned the upper torso into a matching cone or cylinder. They had shoulder straps and ended in flaps at the waist. They flattened the bust, and in so doing, pushed the breasts up. The emphasis of the stays was less on the smallness of the waist than on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and the curving tops of the breasts peeking over the top of the corset.

By the middle of the 16th century, corsets were appearing as a commonly worn garment for women. These were made of stiffened multiple layers of linen with wooden busks or shafts that were inserted in a pocket at the front in order to keep the corset and figure straight. In this form, the corset survived until about 1860.

18th century

The predominant forms of stays in the 18th-century was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a contrast between a rigid quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and heavy full skirts below. The primary purpose of 18th century stays was to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture to help a woman stand straight, with the shoulders down and back, and only slightly narrow the waist, creating a 'V' shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn. However, 'jumps' of quilted linen were also worn instead of stays for informal situations. Jumps were only partially boned, did little for one's posture, but did add some support. Both garments were considered undergarments, and would be seen only under very limited circumstances. Well-fitting 18th Century stays are quite comfortable, do not restrict breathing, and allow women to work, although they do restrict bending at the waist (forcing one to protect one's back by lifting with the legs).

Late 18th to early 19th centuries

Stays became much less constricting with the advent of the high-waisted empire style (around 1796) which de-emphasized the natural waist. Some form of stays was still worn by most women but these were often "short stays" (i.e. which did not extend very far below the breasts). By contrast, corsets intended to exert serious body-shaping force (as in the Victorian era) were "long" (extending down to and beyond the natural waist), laced in back, and stiffened with boning.

By 1800 the corset had become primarily a method of supporting the breasts, as the waist was raised to just under the bust line. Corsets still slimmed the torso but this was not their primary purpose.

Transition to the Victorian

When the waistline returned to its natural position during the 1830s, the corset reappeared and served dual purpose of supporting the breasts and narrowing the waist. However, it had changed its shape to the hourglass silhouette that is even now considered typical both for corsets and for Victorian fashion. At the same time, the term corset was first used for this garment in English. In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately.

The Victorian corset

When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to achieve the same effect. The focus of the fashionable silhouette of the mid and late 19th century was an hourglass figure, achieved by reducing the thickness of the waist through corsetry. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tightlacing first became popular. The corset differed from the earlier stays in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer's measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.

Late 19th century

In the late 19th century overzealous concern about reports of tight lacing caused a movement for rational dress. Some doctors were found to support the theory that corsetry was injurious to health (particularly during pregnancy) and women who did tight lace were condemned for vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. In reality, tight corsetting was most likely the cause of indigestion and constipation but rarely the cause for a plethora of ailments associated with tight corsetting at the time ranging from hysteria to liver failure.

The Edwardian corset

1900 illustration contrasting the old Victorian corseted silhouette with the new Edwardian "S-bend" corseted silhouette

The straight-front corset, also known as the swan-bill corset, the S-bend corset or the health corset, was worn from circa 1900 to the early 1910s. Its name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset. This corset forced the torso forward and made the hips protrude.

The straight-front corset was popularised by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. It was intended to be less injurious to wearers' health than other corsets in that it exerted less pressure on the stomach area. However, any benefits to the stomach were more than counterbalanced by the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer.

The straight fronted corset was introduced to create the illusion of a slimmer waist by forcing the hips back and bust forward. This was thought to alleviate some of the pressure on the abdomen. However, by 1908 corsets began to fall from favour as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form. Early forms of brassieres were introduced and the girdle soon took the place of the corset which was more concerned with reducing the hips rather than the waist.

Post-Edwardian long line corset

Fashionable silhouette in 1906.

From 1908 to 1914 the width of the skirt slowly sank from waist to ankles. And the corset had need to grow in the lower edge. A new type of fashionable corset covered the thighs. This corset changed the position of the hip, making the waist become both higher and wider. The new fashion was considered uncomfortable, cumbersome, and furthermore required the use of strips of elastic fabric.

After World War I

World War I caused a lack of steel for civilian use and the corset, which had been using steel bones in its construction since the 1860s, further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles which also used less steel in their construction. The development of rubberized elastic materials in 1911 helped the girdle replace the corset.[1]

Change in economy also changed the culture. Before: The typical young lady would be living at home and would have received a corset around age 15, and she might have been married by age 18. After: The young lady was a student. The average of marriage has been pushed up since the early 20th century to being 26 years of age in the Western world. The typical corset was an underbust corset only for corpulent or pregnant women, but often it was all smooth underwear carrying the same name. See: girdles, corselettes and corsages.

Corsets fell from popularity during the late 1910s but forms of body shaping undergarments often called corsets continued to be worn well into the 1920s. However, these garments were better known as girdles with the express purpose of reducing the hips in size. A return to waist nipping corsets in 1939 caused a stir in fashion circles but World War II ended their return. In the late 1940s they were revived and were popularly known as 'Merry Widows'. In the late 1980s and 1990s, fetish fashion became popular and corsets made something of a recovery, often worn as top garments rather than undergarments.


  1. ^ Carlisle, Rodney (2004). Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries, p.102. John Wiley & Songs, Inc., New Jersey. ISBN 0471244104.

CORSETS: A Visual History ISBN 0914046209

References in French

See also

External links

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