AKA: stays, pair of bodies, payre of bodies
How to say it: kawr-sit
- thin straps or strapless
- tight fitting to shape the bust and waist
- traditionally uses spring steel ‘bones’ to achieve the desired silhouette
- often has a front opening known as a ‘busk’
- laced at the back
Origins of the style: Women have been using clothing to control and manipulate their bodies as far back as 2000BC, however the corset as we know it didn’t appear in the fashion underwear realm until the 16th century.
The early corset was constructed from layers of fabric and stiffened with glue or paste, however as the fashionable silhouette moved away from the natural shape of the female body, corsets were required to have a greater impact on the figure and so boning was added to help achieve the desirable shape. Early corsets were known as ‘pairs of bodies’.
In the early 1500s the boning was generally made from wood, horn or whalebone and was used to create a flat, cylindrical shape that, with the help of a wooden busk at the front (a thin, knife-shaped piece of wood or whalebone that was inserted into the front of the corset and held in place with laces), flattened the stomach, waist and bust. These corsets were laced at either the front or the back, had shoulder straps, is sometimes known as an Elizabethan Corset (after Queen Elizabeth I) and was apparently quite comfortable to wear when laced properly.
In the 17th century the desired shape was more of an inverted V and so the corset was adapted to cinch the waist, flatten the stomach and push the bust upward. They were generally made from linen and the necklines varied from very high to very low. Some even fully exposed the breast, which was seen as a sign of status and beauty among the aristocracy. Corsets were laced at the back and sometimes had sleeves and ribbon decorations.
The inverted cone shape remained popular throughout much of the 18th century and so corsets continued to cinch the waist and push the bust upwards; however shoulder straps were added to pull the shoulders back and promote a straight posture, while tabs at the waist gave the hips room to move. Despite being worn as undergarments, 18th century corsets, now called stays, were often heavily decorated and made from rich fabrics. Towards the end of the century the high-waisted Empire silhouette became fashionable, eliminating the need for a small waist and so the corset shrunk upwards. It was still worn by women to uplift the bust but was cut in a straight shape that was not required to cinch in at the waist. In 1848 a front opening busk was introduced to allow corsets to be removed without having to loosen the tight lacing as much. In the 1850s steel began to be used for boning allowing for even tighter lacing. Towards the end of the century the once fashionable crinoline skirts began to fall out of favor, and were replaced by a slimmer skirt shape, this meant that corsets that had until this time finished just below the waist, lengthened to cover and control the now visible hip region. During this time a new, pear-shaped busk was introduced which pushed the stomach inwards; this new shape, combined with extremely tight lacing was labelled as detrimental to a womans health by many physicians of the time and so a new corset shape was developed.
This new corset, called the S-shape, S-curve or Swan-Bill corset, became the desired silhouette in the Edwardian era, and was designed to take the pressure off the stomach in response to health concerns surrounding the pear-shaped busk of the late 1800s. The new corset sat just below the bustline and provided very little support for the breasts, whilst flattening the stomach area, cinching the waist and pushing the shoulders up and the hips back to create the S-shape. This shape may well have eased the pressure on the stomach, however it put a large amount of pressure on the hips and spine and was therefore just as bad for the wearers health.
In 1908 the desired waistline returned to a more natural size and was slightly raised to create a top heavy silhouette. Corsets during this time were not required to cinch the waist and exaggerate the hips and bust, but rather to smooth the body line and emphasize the bust. A straight busk was still used to flatten the front of the body, the waistline was raised to sit at the bottom of the ribcage and the corset was cut to provide a relatively straight line all the way down to the hip.
As the 20th century progressed women became more active, and tightly laced, boned corsets became too restricting and began to fall out of favour. The advent of WWI and the redistribution of steel used for boning to the war effort continued the decline of the corsets popularity. While women did continue to control and shape their bodies it was to a lesser extent and often achieved through elasticated girdles and newly popular bras.
The Flapper styles of the 1920s required a slim, boyish silhouette so corsets were used to slim the hips and sometimes flatten the bust. They had lighter boning, if any and were made from lighter fabrics that allowed for a greater freedom of movement than corsets of the previous decades. As elastic fabrics became more accessible corsets lost their boning completely and transformed into what we now call a girdle.
The corset had a revival in the 1930s when the hourglass waist returned to fashion however WWII interrupted this resurgence. Christian Dior’s post-war ‘New Look‘, with its small waists and flared skirts, briefly brought corsets back into fashion, but by the 1950s the girdle and bra combination had taken over the job of shaping and smoothing the body and the traditional corset fell right out of fashion.
The shock tactics of the Punk movement in the 1970s saw older Victorian style corsets, traditionaly only ever worn as underwear, debut as outwear – a look which was taken up by designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier who showed the look on the runway. As the century progressed into the 80s, pop stars like Madonna took the corset and made it part of popular culture, however it was never again the essential part of a woman’s wardrobe that it had once been.
While traditional corset makers do exist and thrive in the 21st century, these traditional corsets with their spring steel bones and lacing tend to be worn by hard core believers, historical re-enactors, fetishists and performers, rather than the everyday fashionista. A large number of ‘corsets’ are available on the modern fashion marketplace, however these are not true corsets. They tend to mimic the look of a corset but do not manipulate the wearers body to the same extent that their ancestors did. Modern ‘corsets’ tend to have less, lighter boning and are often made from stretch fabrics, and while they can smooth the figure they do not take inches off the waist like the traditional corset does. Traditional corsetry will no doubt continue to be popular on the fringes of fashion and on the stage, however, given the modern acceptance of all body shapes and the availability of very comfortable underwear and lingerie it is unlikely that the corset will ever become an integral part of the female wardrobe in the near future.
Origins of the name: The name corset comes from the Old French word corps for bodice and the diminutive of body – et. First used in common language in the 1800s.
Some random facts:
- throughout history men have been known to wear corsets too
- Catherine de Medici is often credited with introducing the corset to Europe after she banned ‘thick waists’ from the French court in the 16th century
- decorative busks were often given to men by women as a love token or prize
- the whalebone used for boning is not actually bone at all. It is called baleen and is the made from keratin rather than bone. It is found around the upper jaws of baleen whales and is the way in which they filter feed. It is a strong but flexible material that can be cut into narrow strips and is perfect for boning.
Corsets in the modern marketplace
While traditional corsets do still exist in the 21st century they are rarely seen in the fashion marketplace. There are garments that are called corsets on the market, however while these pieces resemble the look of a corset, they do not have they same level of boning and do not cinch the waist or manipulate the body to the same extent that their ancestors did. Thanks to this relaxed approach to boning, modern fashion corsets are quite comfortable and often quite beautiful. They are available in various fabrics, various colours and various price points, and are generally designed to be worn as underwear – whether or not they are seen by anyone else is entirely up to the wearer.
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