A Brief History of Corsets
Posted on November 06 2019
When it comes to women’s underpinnings, there’s nothing quite as evocative or controversial as The Corset.
On the one hand, corsets conjure up visions of bodice-ripping period dramas, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. On the other? Total discomfort, and the subjugation of women. So how did our views about one single foundation garment get so darn complicated? Before we go down that Handmaid’s Tail rabbit hole, it’s important to start at the beginning.
What Is A Corset, Anyway?
A corset is a close-fitting bodice that forms the body into an hourglass shape, i.e. big breasts, small waist, bigger bottom. Made from cloth or leather, old school corsetières stiffened their designs with whalebone (today, they use sturdy plastic or steel) and multiple laces that were tugged and tied to achieve the desired shape of the era. Bras would eventually replace corsets as the favoured undergarment providing support from above, rather than from below (more on that later). In the meantime, wealthy women wore the tightest and fanciest corsets relying on their ladies’ maid to get the job done (refer to seasons 1 through 6 of Downton Abbey).
Who Invented The Corset? (And Why??)
What to do with one’s boobs has been an ongoing challenge for active women since the beginning of time. Before bras were invented, ancient Greeks bound theirs with a layer of cloth known as a strophium. No one knows exactly who invented the corset, but it’s main purpose has always been to support one’s tatas, while also giving the illusion of a small waist.
As early as 1600 BC, corsets were worn from childhood until marriage as a way to keep women looking “modest”. On the wedding night, grooms were required to slowly undo each of the up to 50 laces in order to demonstrate self-control. Throughout the Renaissance and well into the modern period, women used corsets to stabilize their breasts.
The rise of the corset began in 1500s France when Anna-Wintour-of-her-day, Catherine de Medici required that every woman in her court wear one. Cathy was rumoured to dislike ‘thick waists’ and no one dared argue. As time went on, the shape of corsets, like fashion itself, evolved to reflect the silhouette-du-jour. Hourglass was popular in the 1800s while the s-bend came into vogue in the early 1900s.
Clermont State Historic Site
Corset-wearing was at its peak in 1850 when a few forward-thinking women started to question why they had to wear them at all. The ideal waist size had reached a numbing 18-inches and corsets were blamed for all sorts of ailments from cancer and misshapen organs to fainting and ‘hysteria’ (which was what doctors diagnosed any woman who spoke her mind at dinner parties). Most of this has been disproved, but constricting one’s waist for up to twelve hours a day might have made women a little cranky.
A movement started calling for women to burn their corsets as a form of emancipation against the status quo (not being allowed to vote, perhaps?). But, alas, it was a rebellion before its time and never took hold.
Why Don’t (Most) Women Wear Corsets Anymore?
A couple of things happened in the early twentieth century that made most women ditch their corsets for good. The first was in 1914. Looking for a smoother look under her clothes, a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob had her maid sew a ‘brassiere’ out of silk scarves. It was so popular among her pals that she patented the idea in 1914. Then along came the Flappers.
These Charleston-loving, gin-swilling gals eschewed curves in favour of a shapeless look that called for smoothing girdles and minimizing bras. By the mid 1920’s corsets and curves had become officially passé.
(Hourglass figures came back into fashion in the 1950s, but by then most women emulated Marilyn Monroe’s curves using tight-fitting girdles and bullet bras.)
The Modern Day Corset
The main goal of a corset has always been to emphasize a woman’s so-called ‘natural curves’, the star (of course) being her breasts. While no longer de rigueur, corsets are still popular among many women seeking that distinct Jessica Rabbit silhouette. Thankfully, most corsets today are made from a more forgiving elastic meaning they’re easier to breathe in, while improving posture and giving the illusion of an hourglass figure. Need a modern day visual? Think Kim Kardashian rocking that very fitted (Thierry Mugler) dress at the 2019 Met Gala (or anywhere, for that matter).
Corsets & Boobs
Corsets, while controversial, can also be things to all body types. If you’ve got big boobs, an overbust corset can both support and push them up. If your breasts are on the smaller side, an overbust can also make them look bigger. And, if you’d prefer to reign in those tatas entirely, there are minimizing styles too. Corsets also come in underbust models that cinch only your mid-section. These are often used for something called ‘waist training’.
What The Heck Is ‘Waist Training’?
The Corset Center
Worn for several hours a day, waist-training corsets purport to shrink the waist over time. Most are now made from light-weight power mesh and hooks instead of laces (so no grunting or ladies maids required), and many women (including most of the Kardashians) swear by them to get their waspy look.
But, according to burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, even a traditional corset is no fast fix saying, “If you pull the strings tight, you instantly have this silhouette and it’s great, but it’s not going to modify your body if you’re not engaged in the serious regimen of it”.
If you’re looking for more about waist training corsets and how to get them off and on, check out these great videos by UK corset-maker What Katie Did.
So Are Corsets Good Or Bad?
That’s entirely up to you. We’re living in crazy times. Women are still under (literal) pressure to change their bodies for public acceptance, while our rights are always on the verge of being revoked. But, (in addition to speaking our mind, playing national-level hockey, leaning in, and heading up countries) we can wear whatever the hell we damn well want.
And that includes corsets (or not).
If 70s Wonder Woman could whup ass in a satin red, white and blue number, who knows what kind of bad guys we could fight today? If cinching your waist to oblivion makes you feel beautiful, confident, and ready-to-take-on-the-world, we say, go’fer.