Corset History

The true origin of the corset is unclear, but the corset has been an important article of clothing for centuries. Though more commonly used by women, men have also used corsets throughout history to support or change their bodies appearance.

The earliest known image of a possible corset was made c. 1600 BC. The image is of a Cretan woman, and the article of clothing depicted might be perceived as a corset worn as an outer-garment. Throughout history the corset has had its place in both roles (undergarment and outer-garment) depending on the time period.
The term “corset” is attested as coming from the French “corset” which meant “a kind of laced bodice, ” in 1300 AD.   The term “stays” was frequently used in English from c. 1600 AD until the early twentieth century.

c. 1600 BC, the earliest known image of a corset, which might be perceived as a corset worn as an outer-garment.Retouched: Snake Goddess - Heraklion Achaeological Museum

16th and 17th Centuries

Corset History

The corset as an undergarment had its origin in Italy, and was introduced by Catherine de Medici into France in the 1500s, where the women of the French court embraced it. This type of corset was a tight, elongated bodice that was worn underneath the clothing. The women of the French court saw this corset as “indispensable to the beauty of the female figure.”
By the middle of the sixteenth century, corsets were a commonly worn garment among European and British women. The garments gradually began to incorporate the use of a “busk,” a long, flat piece of whalebone or wood sewn into a casing on the corset in order to maintain its stiff shape. The front of the corset was typically covered by a “stomacher,” a stiff, V-shaped structure that was worn on the abdomen for decorative purposes.

In the Elizabethan era, whalebone (baleen) was frequently used in corsets so bodices could maintain their stiff appearance. A busk, typically made of wood, horn, ivory, metal, or whalebone, was added to stiffen the front of the bodice. It was then carved and shaped into a thin knife shape and inserted into the Elizabethan bodice, then fastened and held into place by laces, so that the busk could be easily removed and replaced. During this period, the busk was often used for special occasions and events. Since the mid-Victorian period, the busk has been made of steel and consists of two parts, one for each side. One side has studs and the other eyes so that the corset can be easily fastened and unfastened from the front. During the late 1500s, when whalebone was used at the sides and back of the corset, the corset was laced up at the front. Eventually, the lacing came to be done at the back of the corset.

The corset as an undergarment had its origin in Italy, and was introduced by Catherine de Medici into France in the 1500s.

18th and Early 19th Centuries

Corset History

The most common type of corset in the 1700s was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a 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.

By 1800, the corset had become primarily a method of supporting the breasts, as the waist was raised to just under the bust line. Corsets still slimmed the torso but this was not their primary purpose.
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.

The most common type of corset in the 1700s was an inverted conical shape, worn to create a contrast between the torso and the waist.

Transition to the Victorian

Corset History

When the waistline returned to its natural position during the 1830s, the corset reappeared and served the dual purpose of supporting the breasts and narrowing the waist. However, it had changed its shape to the hourglass silhouette that is even now considered typical both for corsets and for Victorian fashion. At the same time, the term corset was first used for this garment in English. In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately.

In 1839, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Werly made a patent for women’s corsets made on the loom. This type of corset was popular until 1890 when machine-made corsets gained popularity.  Before this, all corsets were handmade – and, typically, homemade.

In 1839, Frenchman Jean Werly made a patent for women’s corsets made on the loom.Met Museum C.I.37.45.93

The Victorian Corset

Corset History

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 tightlacing 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.

Tightlacing was most likely the cause of indigestion but rarely the cause for a plethora of ailments associated with tight corseting.

Late 19th Century

Corset History

In the late 19th century concern about reports of tight-lacing caused a movement for rational dress. Some doctors were found to support the theory that corsetry was injurious to health (particularly during pregnancy) and women who did tight lacing were condemned for vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. In reality, tight corseting was most likely the cause of indigestion and constipation but rarely the cause for a plethora of ailments associated with tight corseting at the time.

In part as a response to the perceived dangers of tight-lacing, but also due to women’s increasing interest in outdoor activities, “health corsets” became popular during the late 19th century. In 1884, A German physician, Dr. Gustav Jaeger (1832-1917) came up with wool sanitary corsets, described as flexible and elastic. They were also durable and respondent to movements. Dr. Jaeger claimed that the wool had curing capabilities and that it had cured him of his chronic health problems: excess of weight and indigestion. Another was created in 1887, a dermathistic corset with leather facing. It was marketed towards women who wanted better health and enjoyed a vigorous lifestyle.

1900 illustration contrasting the old Victorian corseted silhouette with the new Edwardian "S-bend" corseted silhouetteLadies Home Journal, Oct 1900 via Wikipedia

The Edwardian Corset

Corset History

The straight-front corset, also known as the swan-bill corset, the S-bend corset or the health corset, was worn from circa 1900 to the early 1910s. Its name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset. This corset forced the torso forward and made the hips jut out in back.

The straight-front corset was popularized by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. It was intended to be less injurious to wearers’ health than other corsets in that it exerted less pressure on the stomach area. However, any benefits to the stomach were more than counterbalanced by injury caused to the back due to the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer. At this time, the bust lowered and corsets provided much less support for the breasts.

By ca. 1908 corsets began to fall from favor as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form. Early forms of brassieres were introduced and the girdle soon took the place of the corset which was more concerned with reducing the hips rather than the waist.

From 1908 to 1914, the fashionable narrow-hipped and narrow-skirted silhouette necessitated the lengthening of the corset at its lower edge. A new type of corset covered the thighs and changed the position of the hip, making the waist appear higher and wider. The new fashion was considered uncomfortable, cumbersome, and furthermore required the use of strips of elastic fabric. The development of rubberized elastic materials in 1911 helped the girdle replace the corset.

A return to waist nipping corsets in 1939 caused a stir in fashion circles but World War II ended their return.Condé Nast | Horst P. Horst - Mainbocher Corset 1939

After World War I

Corset History

Shortly after the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This step liberated some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships. The corset, which had been made using steel stays since the 1860s, further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles which also used less steel in their construction. However, body shaping undergarments were often called corsets and continued to be worn well into the 1920s.
Changes in the economy after World War I also changed women’s roles in society. In the early 20th century, a young woman would typically have started wearing a corset at about 15 years old, and live at home until she married around age 18. After the war, more young women sought an education, and in the Western world, marriage was delayed until they reached their middle to late 20s. Only overweight or pregnant women might choose to wear a corset, typically an under-bust corset.

However, these garments were better known as girdles with the express purpose of reducing the hips in size. A return to waist nipping corsets in 1939 caused a stir in fashion circles but World War II ended their return.

In the 1990s, fetish fashion became popular and corsets made something of a recovery, often worn as outer- rather than undergarments. By 2010, the corset had recovered a new popularity in fashion. Today, corsets are continuing to regain popularity as both outerwear and underwear.

Combining modern technology with the high standards and exemplary quality of yester-year's handmade garmentsJet d'Ivorie, by Carol Stella

21st Century

Corset History

In 2016, Carol Stella created Remote Corsetry, revolutionizing the availability of bespoke corsets. Combining the greatest advantages of modern technology to reach a larger cross-section of clients, with the high standards and exemplary quality of yester-year’s handmade garments, Champagne Corsets & Designs tailors a new era of fashion, fit and style heretofore unknown to much of the population.

*Primary source: Wikipedia, Abridged History of Corsets