Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The History of Corsets by Susan Horsnell

I often wonder how women of the past coped on days where the temperature hits 100 degrees or more.

All those layers and layers of clothing. And, to make things even worse, they were strapped into unyielding corsets which prevented anything other than shallow breathing. I can't begin to imagine how the bones must have rubbed their skin raw. Thank heavens they are a garment of the past, although some women do choose to wear them as a fashion accessory. All I can say is: Why?

Thinking about this got me wondering about the garment my mother called 'stays'.

The following is a brief history of Corsets.

The corset has been an important article of clothing for several centuries, evolving as fashion trends have changed. Women, as well as some men, have used it to change the appearance of their bodies.

16th - 17th CENTURY
The corset first became popular in sixteenth-century Europe, some were actually steel and iron!, 
16th Century Iron Corset
reaching the zenith of its popularity in the Victorian era. The earliest image of a possible corset was made ca. 2000 BC. The image is of a Cretan woman, and the article of clothing depicted might be perceived as a corset; however, it is worn as an outer-garment. While the corset has typically been worn as an undergarment, it has occasionally been used as an outer-garment; corsets as outer-garments can be seen in the national dress of many European countries.

The term "corset" is attested from 1300, coming from the French "corset" which meant "a kind of laced bodice." The term "stays" was frequently used in English from c. 1600 until the early twentieth century.

18th - 19th CENTURY

The most common type of corset in the 1700s was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a
1891 Wedding Corset
contrast between a rigid quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and heavy full skirts below.

The primary purpose of 18th-century stays was to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture to help a woman stand straight, with the shoulders down and back, and only slightly narrow the waist, creating a 'V' shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn; however, 'jumps' of quilted linen were also worn instead of stays for informal situations. Jumps were only partially boned, did little for one's posture, but did add some support. Both garments were considered undergarments, and would be seen only under very limited circumstances. Well-fitting eighteenth-century corsets were quite comfortable, did not restrict breathing, and allowed women to work, although they did restrict bending at the waist, forcing one to protect one's back by lifting with the legs.

The corset became less constricting with the advent of the high-waisted empire style (around 1796) which de-emphasized the natural waist. Some form of corset was still worn by most women of the time but these were often "short stays" (i.e. they did not extend very far below the breasts). By contrast, corsets intended to exert serious body-shaping force (as in the Victorian era) were "long" (extending down to and beyond the natural waist), laced in back, and stiffened with boning.


When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to
achieve the same effect. The focus of the fashionable silhouette of the mid- and late 19th century was an hourglass figure with a tiny waist. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tight lacing first became popular. The corset differed from the earlier stays in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer's measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.

I, for one, am very glad they are no longer worn as an every day garment.

Until next time, Stay Safe


Western Historical Romance Author


Alison E. Bruce said...

I tried on a corset (over my clothes) at a museum. Very claustrophobic. I didn't even attempt to cinch it in.

My mother's girdle was bad enough. She developed a remarkable talent for being able to remove bra and girdle in the car without removing her outer clothes. She do this on the way home from parties. (Not while driving, of course.)

Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Never wore a corset....not old enough,but I would like to shoot whoever designed those horrid girdles we were forced to wear in the stocking era. I developed a rash between my thighs that felt like I was rubbing sandpaper together. I personally think anything invented for pain is made by a man who hated his mother...like those horrid high heels or BRAS or that matter. Thanks for the great post to remind me why I hate people like Isaac Mizrahi.lol

Kaye Spencer said...

And let us not forget the evil that is pantyhose...

Kathy Fischer-Brown said...

When I was a theater major, we did a few period plays and I had the good fortune to wear one. It had hooks and eyes on the front and the back laced up. While not totally uncomfortable, it does amazing things for one's posture and the look under a Victorian or 17th century costume was amazing. Still, I'm happy not to be forced into one under my t-shirts and tank tops :-)

Linda Banche said...

Part of the reason for the corset was to make clothes fit better. Also to help bear the weight of the clothes, which in Georgian and Victorian times were quite heavy.