The History Of Corsets

Explaining where corsets originated from, what materials they've been comprised of, and the changes they've affected in fashion.

The corset, containing the French word corps for body, is a cinching garment that encases the middle torso to either push up or flatten the breasts, or to hug the waist into shape, or both. It is a fashion mainstay that has been in use in one form or another for hundreds of years, but its roots can be traced to drawings discovered at the Neolithic archaeological site at Brandon in Norfolk, England. The drawings depict women wearing bodices made from animal hides that are laced down the front. It's suspected that these primitive corsets were molded to the body when still fresh. Also found in the caves were stone dolls adorned in corsets that were tied with the sinew of birds and small animals.

Around 1700 BC, Minoans used corsets that were fitted and laced or a smaller corselette that left the breasts exposed. Because men are also depicted in artwork of that time period as having tiny waists, it is believed that they used belts to cinch their waists tight and traditionally, began on young boys in order to train their waists.

In other ancient civilizations, corseted women were painted on pottery in Crete, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Assyria. Women, in these cultures, commonly took part in strenuous activities such as gymnastics and bullfighting that necessitated the use of constricting bands or garments for support. Grecian women wore bands called zona while Cretan women wore heavy rings around their waists and bolero jackets to give their breasts support. Women in Egypt wore a band under their bust as part of their outward costume. In contrast, Romans used corseted tight lacing as a form of superiority over slaves to show their low status and subjugation to their loosely draped masters and mistresses.

References to corseting can be found in the Bible. Instructions in the third chapter of Isaiah tell us that "instead of a girdle, there should be a rent and instead a stomacher of sackcloth, and burning instead of beauty". It was a lesson gone unheeded because early Christians used rope to bind their waists until the bindings bit into flesh for penance. Fashions were influenced during this era by the East and typically imported through Constantinople. In deviation to the Christians, the women of Constantinople and Alexandria embraced the use of a constricting, bejeweled belt.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, free flowing dresses were replaced by dresses that utilized lacing to shape the garments closer to the body. A trim silhouette was achieved by the use of stiffer fabrics while a corseted effect was incorporated into the garments as opposed to being a separate article of clothing. These gowns were known as kirtles. Although, the definition of a kirtle changed over a period of time and in other regions, in England, kirtles were traditionally gowns with tight fitting bodices. Chaucer made reference to them in his tales, noting that they were made in varying colors and laced closely to the feminine form. Surcoats were also introduced in this time period. It was a garment worn much like an overcoat that encased the body snugly, and was considered so lewd that Charles V of France threatened to excommunicate anyone who dared to wear one.

With the advent of the growing silk industry in the 14th century, fabrics such as silk, brocade, velvet, and damask required a stronger, supported construction in order to reveal the body's shape. The first artificial support was made in Italy, called a coche, and later became known as a busk in England. It lent a smooth, straight, rigid line to the front of the bodice when laced and, in theory, was supposed to allow the wearer entrance and exit from the garment without disturbing the laces. The earliest known busk was made in 1556 from iron.



The 16th century costume was upheld as a symbol of position, rank, and wealth. The corset played a large part in displaying a person's position. In the French court, under the influence of Italian-born Catherine de Medici, ladies in waiting were instructed to cinch their waists to a size no bigger than thirteen inches around. Even given the difference in average body size of a woman in modern times, thirteen inches would have been extreme.

It was also in this court that a steel framework corset was introduced. Usually made up of four plates with perforation ornamental designs, they were connected at the sides and front while leaving the back open to get in and out of. It is argued whether the metal corsets were a normal item in a woman's clothing collection, if they were used for an orthopedic purpose, or if they were a sign of rank since a knight's armor during this period was more for show than function.

Other changes took place in the 16th century as well. The separation of the bodice from the skirt of a gown aimed for a tighter form on the upper body while the skirts grew heavier and more full. An under-bodice was needed to achieve the fashionable look and was similar to past garments worn by men during the medieval times. These under-bodices were typically made from paste-stiffened linen and given support by wooden busks and were referred to as "bodys" or "corps". In later years, iron was added to re-enforce the under-bodice. They were sometimes elongated over the hips with an extra bit of fabric called a basque that could then be altered with padding to change the shape of a woman even further. The under-bodices of this period became so elaborately adorned that it became fashionable to wear clothing that revealed the undergarment. Because the lacings had been moved to either the back or front, a stomacher was worn to hide them.

During the 17th century, there was a space of time when politics across Europe demanded a less extravagant use of fabric. Along with a less-is-more-approach to fashion came the embellishment and fixation of the busk. The busk fit inside the front of the corset and was made from wood, ivory, metal, or whale bone. A young man might carve or purchase and elegant busk as a present for his heart's fancy. The lacings that held a busk in place were separate from those that supported the corset. It wasn't uncommon for a young woman to use her busk as a flirtatious point of interest or bestow her busk lacings on a particularly admired gentleman. Busks were also fashioned into daggers and could be used as weapons on the occasional unwanted admirer. The basque disappeared as well as more expensive fabric and was replaced with "tabs" to help support petticoats.

The advent of the 18th century and King Louis XIV of France's reign saw a return of luxury, but only briefly. The Corps Baleine showed up on the scene and skirts diminshed. The new corseted look had over-the-shoulder straps, was lengthy, and was worn over a blouse. It's supports consisted of primarily whalebone and was so rigid it alarmed medical professionals of the day.

The Napoleonic Era introduced cotton as the most popular fabric. Softer more natural lines were fashionable, so most women divested themselves of the constrictive stays. However, if a woman didn't have flattering curves, she was still wont to use binds strategically.

The 1800's heralded changes in corsetry by leaps and bounds. During the Napoleonic Wars, a doctor with the French army invented a metallic eyelet. Eyelets added to corsets allowed them to be cinched even tighter without fear of damaging the fabric. When the quality of the eyelets went under scrutiny, the Minet Back made its debut. The back closure consisted of a series of loops on each side. A whalebone bar was then passed through the loops. Additionally, lacings were threaded through the loops as well which meant that the pressure for supporting the garment was on the bar instead of individual points.

Some other 19th century adjustments included the first corset designed with a front busk divided in two that hooked to close and laced in the back. The corset was created by Jean-Julien Josselin, and occasionally, one would spring open on an unsuspecting young lady. The glove-fitting corset ready made and produced by Thomson and Company was constructed using steel while the first rubber corset was fashioned in the 1860's. The late 1880's reported suspenders being added to the corset to hold up stockings.

In the early 1900's, athletics were fast on their way to becoming a widespread interest of women. To accommodate the need for freer movement, a lightweight corset was made with less boning and sometimes, only cording or quilting was used for support. The garment also had larger shoulder straps. In 1910, the first ventilated mesh corset and the "all-elastic-step in" was introduced.

The 1920's escorted in the Flapper and sexual freedom. Gone were the distorted, curvaceous figures from previous years. The girl-woman silhouette catered to the naturally slender, but a larger woman could achieve the fashionable appearance with a light corset and bandeau. In the 1930's, the corset was finally pushed aside in favor of elastic undergarments.

During the late 20th century, corsets again found their way in fashion as outwear. Trendsetter and singer, Madonna, made them popular in the 80's. However, beginning in the mid-century, corsets became associated with fetish wear since the bra replaced them for daily function. Today, corset specialty shops can be found in most major cities, but are no longer considered a necessity.

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