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History of Corsets for Women

Updated on June 28, 2016
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Women's fashion styles are of great interest to Phyllis. The drastic changes that women have had to endure for fashion is phenomenal.


Joined: 6 years agoFollowers: 743Articles: 138

1892 Women's fashion shaped by a corset ~

1892 fashion plate 2.
1892 fashion plate 2. | Source

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 early days often retired to their bedrooms in the middle of the day to remove clothing and lie down for awhile. 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 breath 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.

1890 Corset ~

Illustration of an 1890 corset
Illustration of an 1890 corset | Source

Corset Construction ~

Corsets are usually made of a flexible material 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 ~

Iron corset. Did any woman ever wear those?
Iron corset. Did any woman ever wear those? | Source

Lacing ~

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 bed post 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 wasp waist, c. 1900 ~

Émilie Marie Bouchaud, 1874 - 1939
Émilie Marie Bouchaud, 1874 - 1939 | Source

History ~

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 ~

Catherine de' Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559. Wife of King Henry II.
Catherine de' Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559. Wife of King Henry II. | Source

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 ~

French farthingale.
French farthingale. | Source

Late 18th to early 19th centuries ~

The high-waisted 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 ~

Empire dress fashion, Regency short stays circa 1810.
Empire dress fashion, Regency short stays circa 1810. | Source

Victorian Corset ~

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 ~

1859 Corset with Crinoline
1859 Corset with Crinoline | Source

Edwardian Corset ~

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.

Edwardian S-Bend Corset ~

1900 illustration showing the "New Figure".
1900 illustration showing the "New Figure". | Source

Note from author ~

Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.

I write on several different subjects, all evergreen articles. You can read more about me and see more articles I wrote by clicking on my name by the small picture of me at the top right of this page.

Blessings and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.

Phyllis Doyle Burns - Lantern Carrier, Spiritual Mentor
~ ~ ~ ~

© 2012 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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    • rlaha profile image

      rlaha 4 years ago from Spartanburg, SC

      This is interesting because it explains why women have always been obsessed with their body image. They strive to have curves or strive to be thin. Whatever the era, women always have a problem with their body image. I voted this hub up and interesting. Thank you for sharing this.

    • StellaSee profile image

      StellaSee 4 years ago from California

      Ahaha~ that's so funny how people thought the Edwardian Corset would be considered 'better for the woman's health.' Thanks for sharing this! I learned something new today.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 4 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Thank goodness I was around then. Those poor must have deformed in some way. Great hub I enjoyed reading. Vote up and interesting, Joyce.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      rlaha, you bring up a very interesting point. Women have always been obsessed with their body image. Is it society that dictates how women should look? Is it the way men want women to look? Or is it just that women have always wanted to be in the highest fashion mode? That would make a good hub to delve into.

      Thanks for the visit and reading and thank you so much for the votes. I appreciate your interest and support.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      StellaSee, yes it is quite funny that the Edwardian corset was meant to be "healthier" for the woman. How could they think that bending a woman's body in an unnatural form could ever be healthy -- or comfortable?

      Thank you so much for the visit, reading, and your comment. I appreciate your "support" - HaHaHa.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Joyce. It is always good to have you stop by. I agree with you, it is fortunate we were not around back then. Good heavens, can you imagine wearing that kind of constricting clothing? Thank goodness we are women of freedom and independence.

      Thank you so much for your comments and votes. I so appreciate that.

    • rlaha profile image

      rlaha 4 years ago from Spartanburg, SC

      Hi Phyllis. To answer your questions I think it would be that women would want to be thin or curvy, and because they strive to look that way, the men also think that it is "normal" for women to be skinny or curvy. Yes I think it would be a wonderful hub to write or read. If you write one I will be looking to read it. :).

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi rlaha. I wonder though...over time what is considered attractive figures of women has changed drastically. If you look at women in paintings by the Old Masters, the figure is fuller and more voluptuous than today's accepted attractive figure. Then there were eras, like the 'Twiggy Era' when skinny, really skinny, was all the rage. Many women of the younger generation today think that actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, Mae West, were fat -- when actually in their own time, those actresses were considered to be gorgeous with beautiful figures. There is so much emphasis today on exercising vigorously to have the 'perfect' rock hard body.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      From ancient time women are wearing very uncomfortable things to make them attractive. In china, women never change the size of their shoes they wore when they were children. This is to make their feet small which is considered attractive according to traditional Chinese society.

      I have seen women wearing corsets in movies based in periods. They look attractive but the uncomfortableness shows clearly.

      Thanks for sharing the history.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Vinaya, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I have read about the women in China keeping their feet small. At one time a Chinese woman with normal size feet was considered very unattractive. The women who kept their feet in tiny shoes must have suffered great pain.

      It is always good to have you stop by. I love your Valentine's Day hub, it is so lovely and timeless.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi, Phyllis - voted up! I love fashion history and hope you don't mind if I link this one to my Victorian hub. I can't imagine wearing those things, especially in summer.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Dolores. Thanks for stopping by and for the votes - I appreciate that. Of course, it would be nice if you link this to your Victorian hub, I will do the same in this hub and link to yours. After I submitted this hub, I found yours on swimsuit history and was delighted to read it. Fashion history is a fascinating subject to research and write about.

    • rlaha profile image

      rlaha 4 years ago from Spartanburg, SC

      Hi Phyllis. Yes, and also it makes you wonder what the "perfect body" in each era was. I was reading in some article once that in the 1800s it was the fashion to be fat. The fatter you were the more beautiful you were considered. Then in the 1900s it became the opposite where the skinnier you were with more leg showing, the more beautiful you were. It's confusing.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I guess the best thing to do is just be happy with what makes one feel good. Thanks for the comments and return visits, rlaha.

    • plussize-lingerie profile image

      David Taylor 4 years ago from UK

      That's such an interesting history lesson. We sell them, but I've never thought to research their actual history.

      Thankfully these days, I think they are more worn from choice than from such "enforced" fashion. Or at least, I hope so!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      plussize-lingerie, I am so glad you stopped by. 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. I am tempted to get one for myself just for special times -- if that special time ever comes my way.

      Thank you for stopping by and for your comments.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      ...hard to believe Phyllis in this day and age of the history of corsets but you have put together a definitive hub subject on a world class level and will be proudly promoted and posted on my Facebook page with a direct link back here - I have created a new FB group called LET'S JUST TALK MUSIC AND CINEMA - and in the first week we already have 78 members and having a lot of fun - I would be honored if you would like to join - just go to my FB page if you're interested - my name is Colin Stewart with the same profile photo and just click the group title for a link. lake erie time ontario canada 12:28am and sending you warm wishes and good energy

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Well thank you so very much for the wonderful compliment, Colin. I am humbled by your comment. Thank you also for sharing on FB.

      I will love to join your group on Music and Cinema. Thank you for the invite.

      Walk in Peace and Harmony and warm wishes, good energy to you, too.

    • adriatk profile image

      adriatk 4 years ago from USA

      I think corsets are degrading to women's body image, much like today's desire to be extremely thin. It just goes to show that women have always sought to modify their bodies. They have been insecure about their natural shape for centuries.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thanks adriatk for the visit and the comment.

    • daisydayz profile image

      Chantele Cross-Jones 4 years ago from Cardiff

      Great hub, very informative! I am a fashion journalist most of the time, so these kind of hubs really interest me!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you daisydayz, for your visit and comment. I had great fun researching for this hub and learned a lot of things I never knew before. Being a fashion journalist must lead you to very interesting times in the history of fashion.

      I have a friend in Cardiff and keep in touch with him often. It seems like a lovely place to live, full of ancient history and beauty. It is nice to meet you.

    • Cassidy 3 years ago

      I'm actually a little bit depressed that this post is being called well-researched and "definitive". I'm sorry, because you seem like a truly nice person, but this is tremendously exaggerated and full of myths.

      - Corsets are not "torturous contraptions" that cause great pain and suffering, let alone deformity.

      - The main point of the corset was not just to narrow the waist, but to round it (making it appear smaller), and to support the bust and the weight of the clothing.

      - Nobody was lacing down to 14", and I think you'll have a very, very tough time trying to find an extant adult's corset that size.

      - Corsets were not short after about 1810, even though the waist was high

      - Gone With the Wind is not an historical source, and contains a lot of the Victorian fetishization that was popular in the mid-20th century.

      - The s-bend corset really does not affect the posture that much; a great deal of its effect comes from padding.

      I'd be happy to have more of a conversation on this and share some of my sources with you if you'd like.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hello Cassidy,

      Thank you for stopping by and reading my hub. Firstly, I apologize for being so late in reply to you. I have been taking classes/courses, have nightly homework, and many other issues that have drawn me away from HubPages for awhile. Yet, your comments do require some time, attention, and to address your concerns. Since you took the time to read and comment on my hub, it is only right that I reply to you.

      Although I appreciate your reading and commenting, I am sorry that this article would depress you, yet I am not sorry I wrote it. That you state it is "tremendously exaggerated and full of myths" is certainly not true.

      I did heavy research on the history of corsets and spent many days on it. I did not use myths as a statement of fact, nor did I exaggerate on any of the information I provided -- so, your assumption was not my intention.

      I will reply to your statements in the same order you wrote them.

      - Corsets are not "torturous contraptions" that cause great pain and suffering, let alone deformity.

      MY REPLY: If you are referring to the corset fashions of today, I agree with you. The corset of today is a popular fashion for women. They are lovely and enhance the figure without pain or discomfort. For personal/private purposes, corsets and other intimate apparel enhance a relationship by accentuating feminine qualities. In the last paragraph of my hub, I wrote: "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."

      Now, let's go back to the days when corsets were a source of discomfort, pain, and "torture" for women. Torture in this sense

      meaning difficulty in breathing, discomfort from forcing the body into an unnatural posture, restriction of movement, and fainting from lack of oxygen to the lungs. I recall my grandmother talking about how uncomfortable her corset made her feel and how sore she was when the corset was removed. I also recall grandmother saying that her mother often fainted because she could not breath fully, and sometimes fainted when the corset was removed and her body rebelled against the unnatural position it had been forced into.

      As for deformity, this word is defined as:

      de·for·mi·ty (Bing Dictionary)

      disfigurement: the condition of being disfigured or badly formed

      structural change from normal: a permanent change from normal body structure

      something with shape far from normal: something that has a shape not normal for its kind or nature

      Synonyms: disfigurement, malformation, distortion, abnormality, misshapenness, irregularity

      I use the word deform in my hub in the sense that the corset was purposely used to reshape a body into an unnatural position, or to deform/distort the natural shape of the woman wearing it -- and this was done to conform to what fashion magazines, and society termed a flattering, womanly shape.

      - The main point of the corset was not just to narrow the waist, but to round it (making it appear smaller), and to support the bust and the weight of the clothing.

      MY REPLY: I disagree. The main point of the corset was to make a woman look more "beautiful and voluptuous". Catherine de' Medici, the wife of King Henry II of France, actually enforced a ban on thick waists when attending court during the 1550's. Any woman of the aristocracy had to appear in court with small waists, the corset being the primary means of shaping the body.

      The purpose of corsets changed with time and the popular fashion of the day. In the 16th to 18th centuries the "payre of bodies" a type of corset, forced the upper torso in a cylinder shape, which flattened the bust and pushed the breasts up. The torso was then rigid and flat, while the breasts swelled up over the top of the corset.

      The weight of clothing was supported by farthingales, bustles, and crinolines, which held the fabric of the skirts out away from the body.

      - Nobody was lacing down to 14", and I think you'll have a very, very tough time trying to find an extant adult's corset that size.

      MY REPLY: I disagree. Emilie Marie Bouchaud, the famous actress and singer commonly known as Polaire, had a 14" waist. This was possible because she had her corset laced tightly enough to reduce her waist size. There are some photographs of Polaire at Emilie marie bouchaud / Tumblr which you can refer to if you like.

      - Corsets were not short after about 1810, even though the waist was high

      MY REPLY: I disagree. When the high-waisted empire style dress became popular in the late 1700s, emphasis on a tiny small waist was not the focus. Short stays (corsets) were worn to support the breasts, giving a more softened look to a woman's figure. These corsets ended just below the bust line.

      - Gone With the Wind is not an historical source, and contains a lot of the Victorian fetishization that was popular in the mid-20th century.

      MY REPLY: I agree that the movie "Gone With The Wind" is not an historical source, nor did I say it was. What I wrote was "Scarlet

      O'Hara in her lovely dress at the barbecue is a fine example of this style fashion." and "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."

      Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone With The Wind, was a fourth-generation Atlantan. Her GGG-grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, fought in the American Revolution, his son was in the War of 1812, her g-grandfather, Russell Mitchell, fought in the Civil War -- so, Margaret Mitchell was very aware of the history of her homeland and the people. Mitchell paid great attention to details of how life was during the time of Gone With The Wind, and fashion was one aspect of the details.

      The video I chose, does show how corsets were worn and how they were tightened with the aid of another person. It is not meant to be an historical fact, rather it is an example of a fact.

      - The s-bend corset really does not affect the posture that much; a great deal of its effect comes from padding.

      MY REPLY: Some of the effect of a larger derriere did come from padding, however, most of the padding was the women's own rump which was forced further back and extra body fat pushed down to add to the size of the rump. The corset actually did affect the posture greatly. In the center front of the corset was a very rigid straight busk, which forced the upper part of the torso forward and caused the hips to protrude. Inez Gaches-Sarraute was a corsetier who had a degree in medicine. She was the one who encouraged the wearing of the S-bend corset because she thought it was less injurious to the health of the wearer. Yet, the benefit of causing less pressure on the abdomen, caused a negative effect on the posture, which was a sway-back shape, unnatural and distorted.

      Again, Cassidy, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my hub. You are more than welcome to comment on my reply. If you still disagree with me, that is your prerogative. I did heavy research and stand by my work.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 3 years ago

      @Phyllis Doyle ive always been fascinated by corsets and the history behind them. I enjoyed your opinions on them and how you thought they were tortuous. So may agree some may dosagree. Voted up and sharing !

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Torrilynn, thank you for the visit, read and comments. I know everyone has their own opinion and that is ok with with me. The corsets of today are lovely, alluring and very feminine. Corsets of the past were, in my opinion, not made for comfort. Thanks again for your visits and votes -- it is much appreciated.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Nicely researched hub with illustrations/photos to match. It's amazing what women throughout history have put their bodies through. We still do it with high heels. Voted up and more!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      FlourishAnyway, thank you so much for the comments and votes -- it is much appreciated. Yes, we still do the high heel thing to our poor feet. I rarely wear mine anymore, but just cannot let them go.

    • Asi 24 months ago

      I loved this, it was amazing to see the evolution of the corset. I notice that on the contrary of people imagine, the women's fashion wasn't imposed by men. I am a male myself and i say women shouldn't wear unconfortable clothing. I am all to women wearing what makes them feel confortable and easy to moove, i mean i love fashion and i find very beautifull clothing that doesn't need to hurt women. Instead of high heels, tenis, instead of corsets, large shirts, why not?

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 24 months ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Well ... why not? Big shirts are great. Thanks for the visit and comment, Asi.

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