Fashion history reveals the first recorded corset originated from Crete in Greece, worn by the Minoan people. Images on ancient pottery show both women and men sporting form fitting belts and vests with leather rings or straps that constrict and shape the waist. Culturally, this showed a women’s ideal shape, accentuating the beauty of her curves and often exposing bare breasts. Both Minoan men and women wanted a small waist. As children, both genders wore a girdle around their waists that was tightened as they grew in order to stop growth in the waist area. Grecian women wore an elaborate, stiff girdle called a zona on the outside of their garments to shape the waist and lift support the breasts.
Historians are unsure if women wore corsets during the Middle Ages as it is thought that they usually covered from head to toe in a modest way. Tunics and long clothing were usually worn and did not accentuate a womens curves that greatly worn more for comfort rather than fashion. The idea prevailed that the body was sinful, so dresses were usually loose and flowing. During the 12th century, an illustration of a demon wearing a corset might suggests the supposed cultural profanity in the garment. Instead of a separate support garment, bones or wooden slats were most likely sewn into the actual gown if needed. Although, it is assumed that the use of breastplates as armour may have been the models for the corsets in the later centuries. During the gothic period of the 1300's, experts speculate that bandages may have been used to slim the waist underneath long and tight fitting clothes. At the end of the 1400's, front laced bodices were worn, stiffened with strengthened fabric and sometimes even with brass wires.
The 'cotte', a tight fitting garment whose name meant 'on the rib', was first worn in France during the 15th century. During this time, the wealthy French women were known to desire a thinner wastline, using stiffened linen undergarments, tightened by front or back laces, known as stays or bodies to achieve the look. In the 1400's century, Agnes Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, started a trend when she wore a gown in the French court which fully exposed her breasts. After this appearance, many French women opened their bodices to reveal their breast, also cutting their gowns to show their lower back.
During the 1500's, French aristocrat Catherine de Medici made an influential mark in fashion by banning 'thick waists' at court. This promoted the wearing of corsets by wealthy women in the public view. Instead of shaping clothes to the body, as had been done throughout the Middle Ages, the body began to conform to the fashionable shape of the clothing worn. Bodices became a separate article of underclothing, laced together at the front or back. For corsets that were tied up at the front, a decorated fabric panel called the 'stomacher' was attached to conceal the laces. In Spain, corsets were supported in the front by a vertically placed wooden or bone rod known as a 'busk', which produced a flat shape, and was reinforced elsewhere with whalebone stays. The busk was often used for special occasions and events, and was sometimes presented to a suitor as a prize when he was interested in a female. Even men sported polished and decorated breastplates to show their wealth. Many other countries developed their corsets off the Spanish style. In England, the "Tudor Corset" utilized iron corset covers for both men and women, while France, Germany and Italy preferred a less stiff style to eventuate a wider hip. Queen Elizabeth I created the "Elizabethan Corset", inspired by the Tudor, but with a less rigid (using whalebone) and emphasized waist. Corsets were often worn with a 'farthingale' that held out skirts in a stiff shape, turning the upper torso into an inverted cone shape. Some corsets had shoulder straps that ended in flaps at the waist, flattening the waist, and in doing so, pushed the breasts upwards. This created a looked that emphasised the flatness of the front bodice and the curving tops of the breasts that peeked over the top of the corsets.
Corsets in the 17th century were mostly made from linen and bones, with reeds, bents or whalebones. The neckline of the corsets ranged from high neck to very low. At a time where a prominent bust was desired, corsets helped to accentuate the bust and put more emphasis on the décolletage. Important people of the era such as Queen Mary II, Henrietta Maria and the wife of Charles I of England are depicted in many paintings with fully bare breasts. Exposing the breasts was regarded amongst the aristocracy and upper classes as a status symbol and a sign of beauty. Corsets sometimes came with attached sleeves, and lacing became a very decorative feature of the corsets, some women adding ribbons for extra accents. During this time the corset had transformed into a fabric bodice that was mounted on a heavily boned lining. The front of the corset contained a long pointed busk, the lower edge would have been tabbed, it would have laced in the back. From records there are mentions of health concerns for young girls that began to “tight lace” to follow fashion. Later in the period the dresses themselves were boned, it is doubtful that women wore corsets and a boned dress together.
The 1700’s brought on an even more constricting shape. During this time the corset was made from stiff material, in which rows were closely stitched encasing whalebone, cane or hemp like materials. The design itself were long-waisted and cut with a narrow back, wide front, and shoulder straps; the most fashionable stays pulled the shoulders back until the shoulder blades almost touched. The resulting silhouette, with shoulders thrown back, very erect posture and a high, full bosom, is a characteristic of this period. The corsets often included tabs, formed by making cuts from the lower edge to the waistband that spread when on the body, giving hips more room and comfort. The corsets were often highly decorated, with finely stitched tunnels for boning, and precious silk brocade and gold trims. . It might be surprising to those of the 21st century that busters were around for many years before coming into fashion in modern times, dating back to the late 18th century to where corsets light grew shorter and shorter and dress waistlines rose higher and higher.
Early 19th century stays were long, soft and came in a more natural shape, reflecting the fashion of the era, high waisted and long flowing dress made from fine silk and muslins. These corsets or stays were made of sateen, cotton, silk or linen, containing minimal, as support was achieved through quilting/cording and by stays. Made out of ivory, whalebone, steel or wood, women would often receive them as gifts from their husbands, along with hand carved love poems and pictures on them. During the mid-19th century, heavily boned rigid corsetry with tight lacing became popular to achieve a small waist. Bodices began to be tighter fitting, and skirts were full and bell shape which created the illusion of a smaller waist. It was not uncommon by the 1860’s for corsets to be boned with as many as 60 whalebones and some corsets of the era had over 100 bones in them. A major innovation in 19th century corsetry was the introduction of the front fastening busk in 1848. This allowed a woman to have independence and put on her corset easily by herself. The new busk was gently curved to follow the natural posture and lines of the body for comfort rather than the stiff busk popular in the early part of the century.
Edwardian Era (1904-1911)
In this era, the ideal shape of a women changed, therefore it was necessary for corsets to be majorly redesigned. Small waists still remained popular, but the fashionable silhouette had changed. Corsets forced shoulders upright and formed a long sloping bust that ended with a graceful curve over the hips, creating the famous "Gibson Girl" look. The body shape created was called the S-Bend, as the curves of a lady's figure resembled the curves of the letter S. Unlike the curve bust of the Victorian era that began to be seen as unhealthy, the new straight busk did not harm any of the woman's internal organs, and only gave her a more upright posture. This straight busk meant that the corsets fabric was cut on the bias and had diagonal seaming to force the torso to sit upright against the busk. Edwardian corsets were still made in the traditional corset fabrics such as coutil, jean, sateen and batiste but silk became more popular as corsets started be to be thought more of as lingerie rather than a utilitarian garment. Corsets of this period could be trimmed in ribbons and bows, wide lace edging, decorative flossing.
The Teens (1912-1919)
Corsets during this time period still used a straight busk and straight front, but their function was not to compress the waist to exaggerate the bust and hips, but to minimise the abdomen and hips. A top heavy appearance was sought after, as women wanted their bust to be emphasised, and the rest of their torso to measure in the same line. To achieve this, corsets no longer came up to support the breasts but ended just below the bust line. The actual waist of the corset was placed just above natural level onto the lower ribcage so that extreme waist shrinking was impossible. To achieve the shape, corsets were cut longer and straighter in the body and hip than earlier corsets had been. Some early long line corsets were very long, often ending at mid-thigh, creating the basis of what was later known as the girdle. Boning was still used, but minimally.
Due to the lack of supplies after the War, women's fashion began to evolve into simpler lines. Looser shapes, with a straight silhouette from shoulder to hem became the norm. Whilst flapper style dresses allowed more freedom of movement, a new style of corsetry was required. To achieve the desired boyish look of that time, corsets were designed to slim the hips and thighs as much as possible, worn under the bust to the mid-thigh. The corset also had a number of garters for connecting to stockings. During the summertime, coutil, silk brocade and Batiste summer corsets were worn, with included panels of cotton sateen or woven elastics for extra movement. Corsets were fastened at the front or the back. A variety of corset styles were available, such as 'hip confiners' and 'sports corsets'. These simpler styles were designed for a lower bust line, with lighter boning at the front and back.
By the 1930's, slightly more fitted silhouettes emerged. Women still wanted to have slim hips, but now desired a more prominent waistline. Garments continued to have a dropped and were often cut with angled seams, and wider hemlines, incorporating gores, godets and pleats. Corsets continued to be mid-thigh length, but began to include built in brassieres, evolving into all in one foundation garment. These full body corsets usually had side hook and eye fastenings and hidden heavily boned inner girdles or belts. Fabrics used included coutil, rayons, cottons, woven elastics, and cotton covered rubber. With World War II declared in 1939, the fashion industry was deeply affected by fabric shortenings. Luxurious fabrics used in previous centuries were now hard to come by. People were forced to make do with what they had. Zippers were prohibited and hook and eyes closures were limited, so corsetieres turned to lace up fastenings and elastic fabric. When the war ended in 1945, it was time for a breath of fresh air after years of going without. Although rationing continued in most countries, by 1947 Christian Dior was able to revolutionise fashion by launching his New Look collection in Paris. The collection was a huge success, and would be copied all over the world. The wide hemlines, nipped waists and feminine designs were in complete contrast to the frugal cut and finishing of the fashions during war time
Corsetry during the 1950's saw the girdle become commonly worn by females. The girdle was constructed out of nylon and latex rubber, and provided the firm outline required by fashion. Strategic panels were placed in order to smooth the stomach and give flat line and a flat bottom, contrasting the breasts from the rest of the figure. During this time, advancements in textiles manufacturing meant that elastic materials had the ability to stretch in more than one direction, allowing garments to be well fitted without boning. Pointed breasts were achieved by wearing circular stitched bras. Besides the aesthetic look achieved by wearing a girdle, women were warned about the dangers of not wearing a girdle after childbirth. Those who didn’t wear a girdle were seen as having little self-respect, even wearing them during performing or exercise was a necessity. Lacing was largely done away with, and women either zipped themselves into garments, tugged themselves into elastic girdles or fastened the garment using hooks and eyes.
The 1980's was a relatively prosperous time for the world. Designers had a lot of freedom as celebrities and supermodels emerged wearing designer names. The 80's saw the return of the corset, but this time as a part of the outer design of apparel, worn by famously by popular culture icons, such as Madonna, who wore corsetry design by Jean Paul Gaultier for her many stage performances. In the 90's ranges of controlling slips were introduced to the public, which similar to corsets, were worn to slim the figure, and are argued to eliminate any visible panty line underneath tight fitting clothes. Although some major retailers still offered corset options in their stores, the majority of women chose to wear comfortable underwear separates.
In todays society, corsets are usually reserved for costume, stage performance or waist training, yet some still purchase them for the uses that they were designed for hundreds of years ago. Stars such as Beyonce, Shikara and Lady Gaga wear corsets for their on-stage productions to add drama and femininity to their act. High fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander use corsets in their collections. Corsets are seen in stage plays, operas etc. Among many celebrities, reality star Kim Kardashion uses a waist trainer to achieve a small waist. With the comfort of normal underwear, and a wider acceptance of all body types, wearing corsets to achieve one particular body shape is not as important to modern day women as it was to women centuries before, and for that, I'm thankful.