The corset is an undergarment traditionally made of stiffened material laced tight to the body in order to slim a woman's waist. Evidence shows that some type of waist-cinching garment was worn by Cretan women between 3000 and 1500 b.c., but narrow waists became the fashion among women in Europe during the Middle Ages. Women from that period wore a forerunner of the corset, called a body or stay, or a pair of stays. The rigid, bust-to-hip corset became popular in the sixteenth century and persisted in various guises up through the middle of the twentieth century. It was considered beneficial to women's health by some doctors and writers, while others considered the constricting garment a virtual torture. Corset making was a specialized sub-sector of the garment industry. Tailors called staymakers were experts in the fitting and forming of corsets, which were sewn laboriously by hand. With the development of elastic textiles, corsets eventually became more yielding. Around the 1930s, women's fashions started emphasizing a more natural figure and the corset gradually became extinct. The closest thing to a modern corset is the all-in-one foundation undergarment.
Archaeological evidence shows that women wore surprisingly modern-looking undergarments as far back as 3000 b.c. in Babylonia. A Cretan figure dating from about 2000 b.c. was unearthed by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the late nineteenth century. It showed a bare-breasted woman with a tiny waist cinched tight by what looks like a ribbed belt. Ancient Greek writings refer to a women's undergarment made of linen or kid, cinching in the waist, and perhaps flattening the bust. Roman women also probably wore some sort of undergarments, but the general style was for long and loose clothing. This style persisted, for both men and women, through the Middle Ages. It was around 1150 that European women's clothing had a recognizable waistline. This was accomplished by lacing in an otherwise loose dress. A twelfth century British manuscript gives evidence of a tightly laced "shapemaker" worn as an outer garment.
The tailoring skills to make intricately cut and shaped clothing did not really develop in Europe until the middle of the fourteenth century. About this time, women began wearing an undergarment of stiffened linen, tightened by front or back laces. In the fifteenth century this item was known as a pair of stays or bodies in English and corps or cors in French. The English word corset presumably comes from a version of the French cors. At first corsets were made of two layers of linen, held together with a stiff paste. The resulting rigid material held in and formed the wearer's figure.
From the sixteenth century on, corset makers started using thin pieces of whalebone—shaped like quills or knitting needles—in between two layers of corset material. The whalebone corset was much more confining than the paste-stiffened one and often worn in conjunction with other undergarments that further exaggerated the female shape. In Queen Elizabeth's time, the fashion among the court classes was for a long, stiff corset reaching from the bust to below the natural waistline, paired with a huge, whale bone-stiffened hoop skirt called a farthingale. In the nineteenth century, women wore their corsets along with a cage-like hoop contraption—a crinoline—that held her skirts far out to the sides and back. The corset also accompanied the bustle, a padded device that emphasized the woman's backside. Corsets changed with fashion, becoming longer or shorter, supporting the bust or minimizing it, depending on the whim of the day.
Improvements in the manufacture of latex in the early 1930s led to workable elastic threads that could be woven or knitted into fabric suitable for undergarments. Soon the elastic corset became the norm. This was a much more flexible garment than the earlier rigid corset, and as the garment changed the name changed too. What had been called a corset became the roll-on, then came the step-in and the corselette. By 1940, women's underwear in Europe and the United States had evolved in favor of a two-piece arrangement; a brassiere for the bust and a roll-on or panty-girdle for the waist. The corset returned briefly after World War II in the guise of the waspie—a short, boned corset to wear with the tight-waisted dresses in high style at the time—but was never an everyday item again.
Health effects of the corset
European women throughout the Victorian era wore tightly laced corsets that were assuredly uncomfortable and in many cases actually injurious to health. Young girls were put in corsets to grow accustomed to the restrictiveness. Many illustrations and contemporary references from the turn of the century depict the painful process of tightening the corset. The corset wearer would lie on her stomach on the floor, while someone else put a foot on her back and pulled the laces. Women who perpetually wore tight corsets suffered from a variety of health problems, including deformed spines and ribcages, difficulty breathing, and compression of the internal organs. Around the turn of the century, several corset makers introduced new corsets designed by doctors. These aimed to support a woman's figure without undue compression.
In the early twentieth century, upper-class women had more access to physical activities such as sports and bicycling. With the tango craze just before World War I, women took to removing their corsets before a dance. Corset manufacturers introduced sports and dance corsets to accommodate these new activities. While some corsets were becoming looser and more comfortable, women were still admonished to wear them. Though some doctors spoke out about the danger to women's health of tight lacing, a conflicting and equally scientific-sounding opinion claimed that going without a corset was unnatural and unhealthy. Historical evidence—from the Cretan figurine to cave paintings—was used to uphold the idea that women had always needed figure support. One popular opinion was that evolution was more difficult for women than for men and the corset was essential to keep women upright. Thus only a small, radical minority actually advocated abandoning the corset.
Corsets were made of a variety of materials, depending on the time period and the fineness of the article. The main fabric for the body of the corset might have been linen, stiffened with paste or starch. Lower-class women would have worn corsets of a cheap, sturdy cotton cloth. Corsets were also made of decorative fabrics like satin or silk.
The whalebone used to stiffen corsets was technically not bone at all but the teeth-like structures, called baleen, of a baleen whale. Baleen whales have hundreds of horny plates arranged in their upper jaws that serve to sieve tiny marine animals out of the water. Baleen is somewhat of an intermediary material between horn and hair, made up of many parallel hair fibers encased in hard enamel. Each baleen plate is about 10 in (25.4 cm) wide and 9-13 ft (2.74-3.96 m) long. Baleen can split along the parallel fibers and—when softened by steam—is easily shaped. Once dry, it holds its shape proving to be an enormously useful material for corset-making. Over-fishing led to the demise of baleen whale populations, and corset makers were driven to find substitute materials. They used cane or steel, and later plastic. The corset maker inserted thin slivers of whalebone into the corset to hold its shape. Whalebone was also used in some corsets for a front piece called the busk. The busk gave a smooth line to the front of the corset and was also sometimes made of wood, horn, or steel.
Metal eyelets for corset lacing were introduced in France in 1828. Elastic was used in corsets as early as the 1890s, but at first this material was suitable only for small shaped pieces called gussets. Around 1930, manufacturers learned to extrude latex into long fibers, making it possible to knit or weave a variety of elastic fabrics. Elastic became the norm in corsets and other undergarments in the 1930s.
Corsets were finished with a variety of decorative effects, including lace and ribbon. The thread used to stitch the corset together may have been strong silk or waxed cotton, depending on the garment.
Corsets were designed to fit exactly to an individual wearer, otherwise the effect was lost or the garment would be even more uncomfortable. Though a corset maker might follow a standard design, each had to be modified for the individual customer's height, weight, and figure. For a fine corset, the wearer would be fitted twice. First, the corset maker made basic measurements of the customer's torso, then cut the material to measure. The garment was roughly sewn, using long stitches called tacking. The customer was then fitted again and any adjustments noted. The tacking was undone and the corset sewn back together, using fine, short stitches.
In terms of the fashion aspect of design, the corset changed along with the mode of dress. If dressmakers brought out a line of small-waisted gowns, then corset makers obliged them with tight corsets. The fashionable figure of the "Gibson Girl" in the early years of the twentieth century brought on a craze for the S-curve corset, which thrust the bust forward and the hips back. In the 1920s, the flapper style of dress needed no corset or only a straight-lined, non-constricting one. As noted above, several doctors designed what they considered healthful corsets, and corset makers also responded to cultural trends, such as the tango, by producing special use corsets.
Corsets were most often made by specialized corset makers. Elaborate corsets required great ingenuity in cutting and stitching and each had to be specially ordered and fitted, but simpler corsets for every day could be made at home. The following manufacturing process is for an eighteenth-century corset made by a professional corset maker.
- The corset maker was usually a man and his assistants were usually women. He would start by taking measurements of the customer, either in her home or his shop. Then these measurements were used to make a pattern out of stiff paper.
- The corset maker laid the paper pattern on a heavy material such as cotton drill or coarse linen. After tracing the pattern, it was cut out with scissors.
- These cut pieces were laid on a different material (such as muslin) that would form the softer inner lining. The lining was also cut from the pattern.
- Some corsets also had a third layer, an outer covering of some fine material such as silk. These pieces would be cut in the same way.
- The layers of the corset were then tacked together (sewn with long, light stitches). With a ruler, the corset maker made parallel lines 0.25 in (6.3 mm) apart, marking where the whalebone would go.
- Then tight, straight stitches were sewn along the lines. This made cases between the two layers of cloth, to hold the bones.
- Usually the corset maker had to cut the whalebone to size, but by the eighteenth century whalebone was available already split into strips. The corset maker cut the strips to size and rounded and filed the ends. Then the bones were pushed into the spaces in the corset pieces.
- Next the eyelet holes were made. These would be punched with an awl and finished with a buttonhole stitch.
- All the corset pieces were then tacked together. The corset maker steamed the whalebone into shape with a hot iron, and the corset was left to dry on a dressmaker's dummy.
- Now that the corset was roughly put v / together, the customer was fitted again and any alterations were noted. Then the tacking was undone and the corset was stitched back together with strong thread and short stitches.
- Once the corset was fitted to the customer, the maker added extra shaping bones and the busk. The busk was made of whalebone, horn, wood, or steel, and inserted through the center front of the corset. The corset maker shaped any additional whalebone with an iron and inserted these where needed, such as to hold in the waist or shape the bust.
- Finally a layer of fine cloth was sewn on top if needed. Other finishing touches included sewing on loops to hold petticoats and stockings.
Corsets were generally very finely constructed articles made to order, so quality control was not an issue. In the 1930s, when corsets were waning in popularity, the corset industry made a concerted effort in the United States to train corset saleswomen in "scientific" fitting. Clerks in department stores specialized in corset fitting and generally spent a long time with customers, making sure each left with a suitable garment. Controlling the quality of the fit was very important and depended on a knowledgeable sales force.
The most notable byproduct of corset manufacturing was the whale. Though whales were also hunted for their oil, it is a fact that the craze for corsets and hoop skirts led to an over-fishing of baleen whales. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Atlantic Right whale was almost extinct in the popular Bay of Biscay fishing ground. When Biscay whales became hard to find, the whaling industry moved to waters off Greenland. This fishing ground was also seriously depleted by the late eighteenth century. After the 1840s, Bowhead whale were hunted for their whalebone, primarily caught by American fishermen in the Arctic. Whale oil was not used much after the discovery of petroleum in 1859, so whales hunted in the late nineteenth century were killed almost exclusively for their baleen. The Bowhead was almost completely extinct by the early twentieth century, just as the use of corsets was declining and new elastic materials made whalebone obsolete.
Where to Learn More
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1978.
Shep, R. L. Corsets: A Visual History. Mendocino, CA: R. L. Shep, 1993.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1954.
Fields, Jill. "Fighting the Corsetless Evil: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930." Journal of Social History (Winter 1999): 355 ff.
The corset is a garment with a long and controversial history. A rigid bodice, usually incorporating vertical and diagonal boning, and laced together, the corset was designed to shape the female torso to the fashionable silhouette of the period. Corsets have been worn by women in the Western world from the sixteenth century through the early twentieth century, at which point girdles and brassieres replaced them. Men, especially dandies and military officers, have also sometimes worn corsets. The primary significance of the corset, however, is its role as an essential element of women's fashionable dress for a period of about 400 years.
Throughout its history, the corset was frequently criticized as an "instrument of torture" and a cause of ill health and even death. Feminist historians have often argued that corsetry functioned as a coercive apparatus through which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality. Recently, some historians have questioned this interpretation, arguing that corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all women endured, but rather a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times. Some women did experience the corset as an assault on the body. But for others, the corset also had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, respectability, beauty, youth, and erotic allure. This revisionist view, which aims for a balanced and non-ideological history of corsetry based on carefully considered evidence, must not be confused with the uncritical defenses of corsetry that have been published by corset "enthusiasts." As for the long-standing claim that corsets were a source of disease and death, historians continue to disagree about the medical consequences of corsetry.
The word "corset" derives from the French corse, which simply designated a bodice. Early corsets were known as corps à la baleine (or in English, whalebone bodies), because strips of whalebone, or, more accurately, whale baleen, were inserted into the fabric (usually linen or canvas) to stiffen the cloth bodice. As whalebone became more expensive in the nineteenth century, lengths of steel increasingly replaced it. Traditionally, down the center front of the corset was inserted a busk, which, in shape and size, was not unlike a ruler. Busks were variously made of wood, horn, and whalebone; they were often elaborately carved and given as lovers' gifts. By 1850 the traditional, inflexible one-piece busk had been replaced by a steel, front-opening style, which made it much easier for women to put on and take off their corsets. Prior to this, women had usually relied on assistance to lace and unlace their corsets.
Corsets were also known as "stays," a term probably derived from the French estayer (to support), since they were thought to support the body. Because women were looked upon as the "weaker sex," it was commonly believed that their bodies habitually needed additional support. For similar reasons, children were also often placed in stiffened bodices, which were supposed to make them grow up straight. However, by the eighteenth century, many doctors argued that children's bodies were more likely to be deformed by corsets that were too tight. They also increasingly warned that women were endangering their health (and that of their unborn children) by wearing corsets. Over the course of the nineteenth century, medical journals published numerous articles criticizing corsetry. Yet the vast majority of middle- and upper-class women continued to wear corsets, and increasing numbers of working-class women also adopted corsets.
In her book, Health and Beauty; or, Corsets and Clothing Constructed in Accordance with the Physiological Laws of the Human Body (London, 1854), the English corsetière Madame Roxey A. Caplin defended corsets—at least if they were well-made: "It never seems to have occurred to the Doctors that ladies must and will wear stays, in spite of all the medical men of Europe." Because women "desire to retain as long as possible the charm of beauty and the appearance of youth," they wear corsets, which conceal "defects" (such as a thick waist or belly) and give support "where it is needed" (for example, in the absence of brassieres, corsets support "the fullness of the breasts"). Caplin even claimed that a French doctor had told her, "Madame, your corset is more like a new layer of muscles than an artificial extraneous article of dress!" It would be many years, however, before the majority of women stopped relying on corsets and started developing their own muscles.
The history of the corset is replete with myths and exaggerations. For example, the notorious "iron corsets" of the Renaissance were not fashion items worn by the ladies at the court of Catherine de Médicis, as is often claimed. Rather, they were orthopedic braces meant to correct spinal deformities. (Some of these metal corsets are also modern forgeries.) Accounts of extreme tight lacing are also problematic. During the second half of the nineteenth century, several English periodicals, most famously The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, published numerous letters purporting to describe how the authors had achieved waists of fifteen inches or even less. Although fashion historians and journalists have frequently quoted excerpts from this "corset correspondence," they cannot be taken at face value. Both internal and external evidence indicate that many of these letters represent sexual fantasies rather than descriptions of authentic experiences. Certainly the scenarios described, which often focused on coercive practices at anonymous boarding schools, were not typical of the average Victorian girl or woman, although they may reflect the role-playing practices of fetishistic subcultures.
Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), famously described the corset as "a mutilation undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject's vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work." In reality, however, ladies of the leisure class were not the only ones to wear corsets. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the development of cheap, mass-produced corsets, many urban working-class women also wore corsets. Clearly, the corset did not render them unfit for work, but did it lower their vitality?
Certainly many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors regarded the corset as a health hazard. They blamed the corset for causing dozens of diseases, including apoplexy, asthma, cancer, chlorosis (a type of anemia), curvature of the spine, deformities of the ribs, damage to internal organs such as the liver, digestive disorders, respiratory and circulatory diseases, and birth defects and miscarriages. Other doctors, however, approved of "moderate" corsetry, condemning only "tight lacing" (a notoriously imprecise term). In 1785, Dr. von Soemmering published comparative illustrations of corseted and uncorseted rib cages, which indicated that corsetry caused permanent deformity. Twentieth-century X-rays also show that a tightly laced corset compresses the ribs and moves the internal organs, although when the corset is removed, the body seems to revert to its normal appearance.
During the nineteenth century, relatively little was understood about the causes of various diseases, to say nothing of the treatments. One cannot, therefore, automatically accept the diagnoses of nineteenth-century doctors, many of which are patently absurd. This is not to say that corsets were totally harmless. Most authorities today agree that extremely tight corsets might risk various kinds of physical impairment or harm. There is no consensus among experts, however, on what risks were involved in ordinary corset wearing. Although contemporary scholars disagree about how dangerous corsets really were, corsets undoubtedly did contribute to some health problems. Spirometry (lung volume) testing conducted by Colleen Gau and her associates has demonstrated that corseted women suffered depleted lung volume, as well as changes in breathing (from normal diaphragmatic breathing to reliance on the accessory muscles of the chest wall). Lessened lung capacity would not necessarily contribute to respiratory disease, but it could certainly lower vitality and cause fainting. This would seem to lend credence to nineteenth-century accounts that associated corsetry with shallow breathing and fainting. In the 1880s, using an adaptation of the sphygmomanometer (blood pressure machine), the New York obstetrician Robert L. Dickinson measured corset pressure on several hundred women, recording pressures as high as eighty-two pounds per square inch. He believed that corset pressure caused digestive and breathing problems, as well as serious effects on the reproductive organs, such as prolapse of the uterus. It is sometimes alleged that some women underwent the dangerous surgical procedure of having their lower ribs removed in order to achieve a smaller corseted waist. There is, however, no evidence at all that any Victorian woman ever had her ribs removed; rib removal appears to be entirely mythical.
Some doctors and corsetieres tried (or claimed) to develop safer and more comfortable corsets. During the 1890s, for example, Dr. Inez Josephine Gaches-Sarraute designed the so-called straight-front corset, which she described as a "health" corset. However, recent physiologic testing using reenactors found the straight-front corset to be more uncomfortable and constraining than the hourglass styles of the mid-Victorian era.
The shape and construction of the corset changed dramatically over time, but there was no simple progression toward greater ease. Between about 1790 and 1810, the rigid cone-shaped stays of the eighteenth century were temporarily abandoned in favor of a shorter, lighter style, some variants of which resembled a brassiere. However, as high-waisted Empire dresses gave way to lowered waists and fuller skirts, the boned corset reemerged. Now, however, it was shaped more like an hourglass. Over the course of the nineteenth century, technological developments, such as steam molding, contributed toward the fashion for long cuirasse corsets. At the turn of the century, the fashionable straight-front corset pushed the pelvis back and the bosom forward, creating the socalled S-silhouette. Yet as women engaged in more sporting activities, such as bicycling, they increasingly adopted flexible elasticized sports corsets. By the 1920s elastic girdles and brassieres had largely supplanted rigid corsets, particularly among the young. In 1939, and again after World War II, fashion showed renewed emphasis on femininity and the corset had a brief resurgence in the form of the "Merry Widow" or guépière (waspy).
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, a cultural focus on youth and body exposure resulted in greater reliance on diet and exercise, rather than foundation garments, to create a desirable figure. The corset was, thus, not so much abandoned as it was internalized through diet, exercise, and later, plastic surgery. A minority of corset enthusiasts, both male and female, continue to wear corsets and sometimes tight lace as part of fetishistic, cross-dressing, or sadomasochistic practices.
Beginning in the 1980s, inspired by subcultural fetish styles, avant-garde fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier, began to create corset fashions. Madonna famously wore a pink satin corset by Jean Paul Gaultier on her Blonde Ambition tour of 1991. Since then, every few years the fashion press reports on the reappearance of corsets by couturiers such as Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, and Donatella Versace. Although some of these corsets incorporate lacing and (plastic or metal) boning, most are really more like zip-up bustiers than historic corsets. Cheaper versions are popular as club wear for both young men and women.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please. Oxford: Berg; distributed by New York University Press, 2001.
Valerie Steele and
The nineteenth-century corset separated the breasts and extended over the hips by the addition of gussets. Some closed in front with metal clips, some laced in back, and some laced in front. Metal eyelets, invented in 1828, allowed for very tight lacing. By the end of the century corsets produced the sinuous body shape of the Gibson girl, with a protruding bust and derrière, and small waist. Despite reports of 18-inch waists, historians have found no Victorian garment with less than a 20½ inch waist.
Tight-lacing generated criticism almost from its inception. Clerics fulminated against the vanity of the fashion as well its sexual nature. Some women viewed corseting as a form of self discipline (an attitude favoured by the Puritans) and the essayist Montaigne recognized how heroically women bore pain to be attractive. Physicians and social critics argued that the corset caused a number of health problems, including spinal deviations, breast cancer, consumption, digestive abnormalities, miscarriages and other obstetrical problems, mental and moral impairment, and even death. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Punch and other humourists satirized the corset.
Tight-lacing has not been limited to women. King Henri III (1551–89) wore stays to accentuate his slim figure. At the end of the eighteenth century, dandies began to wear stays, and the fashion became popular around 1815 with military officers and persisted until the end of the century. Though corsets left the fashion mainstream in the early twentieth century, tight-lacing has been and continues to be part of fetish-dressing for both men and women. Some male cross-dressers wear corsets, and the singer Madonna has appeared on stage in corsets with projectile breast cones.
Kristen L. Zacharias
See also clothes; fashion.
cor·set / ˈkôrsət/ • n. a woman's tightly fitting undergarment extending from below the chest to the hips, worn to shape the figure. ∎ a similar garment worn by men or women to support a weak or injured back. ∎ hist. a tightly fitting laced or stiffened outer bodice or dress.DERIVATIVES: cor·set·ed adj.cor·set·ry / -trē/ n.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French, diminutive of cors ‘body,’ from Latin corpus. The sense ‘close-fitting undergarment’ dates from the late 18th cent., by which time the sense ‘bodice’ had mainly historical reference.