Love it, hate it, or maintain your indifference toward it: Valentine’s Day is one of the top money-making holidays in the United States. Statistically, ‘romantic’ dinners outrank what people have, the past several years, primarily spent their money on for Valentine’s Day, followed by candy, trips, flowers, jewelry, and, finally, clothing/lingerie.
Keep in mind the term lingerie may include a number of items; historically, it could refer simply to a woman’s night gown, or it could refer to undergarments, in general. In the vein of undergarments, and in the historical realm, one article of clothing that might come to mind is the corset.
Now, just by the mention of the word corset, a variety of thoughts might come to mind: Sensual. Old-fashioned. Alluring. Suffocating. Supportive. Constrictive. Stylish. Outdated. Imprisonment. Liberation. I’ve found that many people’s opinions on the corset tend to be superficial in nature, and that the garment is dismissed as a barbaric, bygone implement of torture-cum-women’s fashion, when in actuality, the history of the corset is far more complex. As noted fashion historian Valerie Steele states in her book The Corset: A Cultural History:
‘Corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all unfortunate women experienced before being liberated… Moreover, women wore different kinds of corsets; they laced their corsets more or less tightly and to different ends.’
How did this mode of fashion even come to be?
The corset’s origins are contested– some historians cite ancient Minoan and Cretan artworks, and the individuals rendered who are wearing some sort of garment that appears to be cinching the wearers’ waists. Corsetry as we know it, however– utilizing stays and lacing– came into existence during the Renaissance (up until this point, dresses were shaped and snugly fitted by use of lacing and specially patterned seams). And, as is the way of many a fashion trend, the aristocracy is to thank– or blame– for this particular style of dress.
What’s a stay? It’s the actual support or stiffened piece that’s been integrated into a garment. Stays can be made of a number of materials– whalebone, steel, buckram (defined in a previous article), wood, etc. The terms stay and corset are used somewhat interchangeably throughout my research, but, for consistency’s sake, I’m going to refer to stays as a part of the entire corset. Nowadays, we primarily find either plastic or steel boning, but corset aficionados will decry the use of plastic boning, as it is terribly flimsy and doesn’t lend itself to true support, rigidness or waist reduction like steel boning does.
Early in the history of the corset, whalebone and buckram were the popular choices for ladies in creating the geometric, cylindrical shape that was popular at the time (see just about any number of, say, sixteenth-century portraits of ladies at court), and while these dresses don’t look particularly comfortable (dressing at this time required layers and layers of both over- AND undergarments), whalebone and buckram stays were still more flexible than their steel counterparts, which would come into popularity in the coming centuries.
Things are really shaping-up!
The style of corsets and how they shaped the body changed greatly over the decades and centuries, from garments that created a geometric, cylindrical look for the torso, to emphasis changing to wasp-waisted styles, hourglass trends, the s-bend, flattened breasts or boosted bosoms, and so forth. Corsets ended at the hip, or sometimes they were contoured down over the hips. Even the ‘waistline’ changed– sometimes the focus was high, low or at the ‘natural’ human waist, and the outer garments followed suit to fit the style that was en vogue at any given time. For a pretty handy and concise timeline of the corset, from the 15th to the 20th century, check-out Fine Arts of San Francisco’s Corsets in Context: A History.
Speaking of the waist– how tiny did those ladies actually get their waists? There are a lot more paintings of women wearing fashions under which they’d wear corsets more than extant versions of said corsets exist. What we do know is that artistic interpretations are greatly exaggerated (the modern Photoshop-crazy media’s historic precursor?), and this includes paintings, fashion illustrations and, of course, all of those cartoons and caricatures criticizing the evils and vanities of the corset.
I’ve seen, with my own eyes, 19th-century ‘Photoshop’, wherein a photograph has been painted to make it appeared that the negative space surrounding a corset-wearer’s waist has been altered to make the wearer appear inches and inches smaller than what the reality is. Overall, our forebears tended to be of a smaller stature and size on all fronts, so it would only be natural for some women’s waist measurements to seem small by today’s standards, although there are records of measurements averaging in the low twenties and up past thirty inches (after being corseted), as opposed to women strangling the ever-loving life out of their innards for an impossibly small waist measurement. So, it’s safe to say that people’s perceptions of the corseted form are skewed by a number of factors. For more information on the subject of size, style and corsets, check-out this article by The Pragmatic Costumer.
The great corset debate: What impact do corsets have on your health?
Modern corset-wearers agree that a well-constructed and properly worn corset, especially one built specifically to your body’s specifications, shouldn’t hurt, although it does, naturally, take some time to get accustomed to. Corsets have been much maligned when it comes to health aspects, and have been blamed for a number of maladies, including, but not limited to: Consumption (i.e. tuberculosis, which is caused by bacteria, by the by), hysteria (Hysteria is also the title of a charming little movie, if you’re unfamiliar with what the misogynistic diagnosis of female hysteria historically and fallaciously entails), scoliosis and melancholy (mostly, I’d probably be melancholy over the lack of bathing that was prevalent back then).
This isn’t to say that corsets didn’t cause any health problems. Restricted breathing was and can be an issue, thus fainting is more likely in particularly tight-laced corset-wearers, and women who had given birth multiple times and who wore corsets tightly post-pregnancy were more likely to suffer from a prolapsed uterus, due to the strain from an unyielding busk pressing down upon the abdomen.
Does caution need to be exercised when donning a corset? Yes, of course. Are all corsets equally as comfortable? No, certainly not. Are corsets directly responsible for bodily infections and mental illness? Also, no.
Today’s shape wear, control top pantyhose , girdles and so forth are really just the modern adaptation and evolution of the corset, for we’re still trying to mold the human silhouette to a desired look. Corsets and their inspired shape do wander in-and-out of mainstream and runway fashion periodically, with designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood and the late, great Alexander McQueen toying with a modern perception and aesthetic for this centuries-old style. There are also corset-style bodices aplenty from all sorts of online vendors (I refer to them as corset-style bodices, for these are corsets in quotation marks, a cheap, corset-esque garment with the aforementioned flimsy plastic boning) and from mall stores like Victoria’s Secret and Hot Topic.
If you’re in the market for a real corset, there are plenty of highly-talented modern corsetières from which to purchase a wide variety of products. RetroFolie produces amazingly beautiful garments utilizing a range of public domain artworks, including a number of art-nouveau-inspired pieces that frankly make me drool. Also, Lovely Rats‘ creations are exquisitely-detailed, sometimes highly whimsical in nature, and totally worth a moment of your time, even if you’re just window-shopping. From a costume design aspect, I’ve used Period Corsets as a resource, for they have many options for specific time periods available, ranging from the 16th century through the 19th century and beyond.
In this day and age, as in the past, women wear corsets as an act of not just beauty and style, but of empowerment– to some, wearing a corset is akin to wearing armor, and to others, they simply like the support this particular garment provides. Corsets have meant many different things to their wearers over the years– sometimes they’re a fashion statement, sometimes a support system, sometimes they assist in medical, orthopedic support of the body. Yes, the original concept was rooted in the style du jour, but eventually, corsets came to represent different ideas and attitudes. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of their history, but hopefully you’ve gained a little something to think about from reading what’s written here!
What’s your take on corsets? Have a picture in a favorite corset that you’d like to share? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Laver, James. Costume & Fashion: Thames and Hudson, 1969, 1996. Print.
Picken, Mary Brooks. A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion: Dover Publications, Inc, 1957, 1985. Print.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.