Corsets and Restrictive Clothing

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Corsets and Restrictive Clothing


By: Frank Franklin II

Date: January 31, 2003

Source: Franklin, Frank II. "Vintage Clothing Show." Associated Press, January 31, 2003.

About the Photographer: Frank Franklin II is a New-York-based photographer for the Associated Press, an international news agency providing syndicated coverage to thousands of newspapers, television stations, and radio stations around the world.


Corsets first appeared in the sixteenth century, and into the modern era they can still be found in both high-end and low-end clothing stores. Popular belief holds that the corset is uncomfortable and binding for women, but that is a matter of some dispute. Nineteenth-century corsets, with their tightly laced system of support, are the center of this misconception. Corsets are still used by women, and the basic princi-ple of the corset—support—is used for orthopedic materials such as back braces.

Corsets represent a shift in clothing manufacturing and styles—that is, while clothing was previously shaped to the body, the corset allowed the body to be shaped for clothing. The fashion trends of the late 1500s to middle 1600s saw women wearing empire waistlines, where the dress gathered just below the chest and the shirt fabric flowed downward in a multitude of layers and gathers. This type of dress did not need a woman to wear a tightly laced, or restrictive, corset because most of her body was hidden under layers of fabric. But, as fashion evolved, waistlines were lowered, narrowed, and the need for the corset was perceived.



See primary source image.


The removal of multiple layers of clothing, yards of fabric from gathered skirts and shirtsleeves, and the corset all reinforced changing social and political fronts. For instance, removal of the corset had been on the fringes of feminist thought since the mid-nineteenth century. The corset, and the wearing of, represented core feminine attributes. A woman with a corset was respectable, clean, and pure. She would never disregard her "womanly" and "wifely" duties by asserting herself in public, demanding social change in the name of womankind. Most importantly, a corset represented a certain type of woman—the marrying kind. These beliefs may appear to be harsh and misconstrued, but in the light of "radical" feminist movements, forced social changes of World War I, and the continually increasing role of modernity on culture, they act as metaphors for the era.

Removing the corset coincided with the transformation of industrial work, the utilization of efficiency and rationalization, and with the young women reformers of the Great War. These were the women who were coming of age with gyms, sports clothes, and a body image of slender and curvy versus hidden under multiple layers of clothing. Manufacturers desperately attempted to encourage women to dismiss any desires for the corset's removal, but pressures for comfort and freedom coerced the industry to redesign and use science to "enhance" the corset. Hence, the girdle emerged on the U.S. consumer market. Women were then metaphorically expressing themselves in public with their dress and makeup. Furthermore, newspapers and popular culture heightened the fear and mystique of the "New Woman" by calling them spinsters, homeless (meaning a life without a man), and adrift. Older generations abhorred the "modern" image of women, and the younger generations entertained the newer images, acted upon them, or merely dreamed of them.



Fields, Jill. "Fighting the Corsetless Evil: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900–1930." In Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America, edited by Phillip Scranton. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2003.