A History of Corsets for Women
1892 Women's Fashion Shaped by a Corset
Corsets: Attractive or Torturous?
The corset was considered a great asset to make women more attractive and curvaceous. Yet, it was a torturous contraption that often caused women to faint and possibly deform their bodies. No wonder women in the early days often retired to their bedrooms in the middle of the day to remove clothing and lie down for a while. No wonder establishments and homes often provided a “fainting room.”
As in Gone With The Wind, Scarlet and the other women at all-day summer gatherings languished in rooms set up with many beds and couches where they could undress, relax, and breath normally for a few hours.
When wearing a tightly laced corset the waist became tiny, which made the woman's body look more voluptuous. The negative side of this caused the woman to breathe with the top part of the lungs, which caused irregular, heavy breathing which caused the bosom to heave rapidly at times.
This was also considered attractive—to see a woman's bosom heaving up and down and caught the attention of men. Little did the men realize the woman was probably in pain or finding it difficult to breath. This also caused mucous to collect in the bottom part of the lungs, causing a persistent cough.
Corsets are usually made of a flexible material and then stiffened with boning which is inserted into channels sewn in the cloth. Sometimes leather is used for the corset— yes, corsets are still made today. Today's corsets are made mostly for fashion and giving the woman more sexual appeal, but these are not as constrictive as the corsets of times past.
Sometimes, for health reasons and body support, a medical corset made to individual specifications is worn. Warehouse workers, both men and women, often wear an elastic support, much like a corset, around the waist to give support to the lower back when lifting and bending often.
In the 19th century, the boning that stiffened the corset was made from elephant, moose, or whalebone. Ivory, wood, or cane was also used, but not as often. Then there came the metal ribs or stays which really made the corset stiff. How nice that must have been. In the late 16th century there were corsets of iron. Good grief!
Iron Corset From the Late 16th Century
As if the boning (ribs, stays) were not enough, someone decided to put in laces from top to bottom on the corset. After the woman put on the corset over her chemise, these laces were carefully and evenly tightened until the waist was as small as the woman could tolerate, sometimes as small as 14" . . . ouch!
The more affluent woman would have a back laced corset that her maid would tighten for her as the woman held on to a bedpost or other immovable object with all her strength. The knee of the maid was sometimes pressed against the woman's backside so the laces could be pulled as tightly as possible.
Singer and actress Polaire (Émilie Marie Bouchaud) was famous for her tiny waist of just fourteen inches—made possible by tight lacing of her corset.
French Actress Polaire Showing Off Her Waist, c. 1900
History and Invention
Some scholars attributed the invention of the corset to Catherine de' Medici, the wife of King Henry II of France. This has been debated, but Catherine did enforce a ban on thick waists when attending court during the 1550s. Other research found that in early Crete times there is evidence of corsets being worn. Women suffered to have beautiful voluptuous bodies for a period of almost 350 years—the corset being the primary means of support and shaping.
In the early 16th century the corset, known as "stays" then, was a simple bodice with tabs at the waist. These stays were stiffened with horn, buckram, and whalebone. A busk (center front) was made of ivory, wood, or metal. These corsets with busks were laced in the back and were originally used only by women of the aristocracy.
Catherine de' Medici
16th to 18th Centuries
The earliest corsets were called "payre of bodies" (pair of bodies, or bodice) and were usually worn with a farthingale (hoop or frame), that held the skirts out and away from the body.
This payre of bodies forced the upper torso into the shape of a cylinder. This flattened the bust and pushed the breasts up. This provided less emphasis of the smallness of the waist and more focus on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and curving mounds of the breasts seductively showing over the top of the corset.
The 18th century saw a change in the shape a woman could achieve with stays that gave an inverted conical shape. This fashion created a contrast between a rigid cylindrical torso above heavy full skirts below. The purpose was to raise and shape the breast.
The predominant form of stays in the 18th-century 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.
Women also had the option of wearing a “jump” made of quilted linen during informal times. The jump was only partially boned, added a little support, and was much more comfortable.
This was far less confining, did not restrict breathing, and allowed more ease of movement. It did restrict bending at the waist, which did help when lifting, for it forced the woman to lift with the legs and thereby protecting the back.
French Farthingale Circa 1580
Late 18th to Early 19th Centuries
The high-waist empire style dress totally took focus off the waist and created a very soft and feminine look. Stays were still worn, yet they were quite short and ended just below the bust line.
With the waist of dresses being raised to just under the bust line, the corset became more of a means to support the breasts. This more relaxed and softly feminine style did not last long when there was a transition to the Victorian style of dress.
Short Stays Corset for the Empire Dress Fashion
When fashion dropped the waistline back down to the natural position, the corset came back. It’s function then was to support the breasts and narrow the waist. The purpose was to achieve an hourglass figure. In the 1840s and 1850s, the corset became longer and flared out, ending several inches below the waist. It created an exaggerated curvaceous figure which became possible with tight lacing. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure.
Scarlet O'Hara in her lovely dress with green floral on white and yards upon yards of fabric for the extremely full skirt was a highlight of the barbecue in the opening of Gone With The Wind. Her dress was a fine example of this fashion style.
In the late 19th century concern about physical problems associated with tight lacing caused a movement for rational dress. Some doctors were found to support the theory that corsets were injurious to health, especially during pregnancy.
Corset With Crinoline, 1859 Fashion
From about 1900 to early 1910, the straight front corset was considered better for the woman’s health. Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine, was influential in the popularity of this corset style. It was referred to as the “S-Bend,” or health corset.
The very rigid, straight busk in the center front forced the bust forward and the hips back, giving the appearance of a smaller waist. This was intended to exert less pressure on the stomach area. In reality, any benefit to the stomach area was offset by the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer. By 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. Ah, yes—the girdle and brassiere! Now that brought about another form of torture for many women. You know, under all these contraptions, a woman’s body is still going to be the way it is meant to be—soft and natural.
I am not against the corset fashions of today. I think the corsets of today are lovely and very flattering to a woman's figure—and not torturous. Some of the ads I see have such pretty and very feminine corsets.
© 2012 Phyllis Doyle Burns