History Of The Corset
In essence, Corsets have been worn for thousands of years, and the concept of restricting the waist and shaping the female figure is an ancient one. Evidence of similar garments have been dated to as early as 2000BC, but the popularity of modern style corsets didn’t really begin until the 16th Century, and has, in one way or another, continued until the present day. I will look at the changing style of the corset from then until now.
The 16th Century saw the beginning of the popularity of Corsetry which had evolved from the French “cotte” of the previous century.
Some of the earlier types of corset were extremely uncomfortable to wear, as the boning was often made of iron, however, as their popularity grew, production methods changed somewhat to allow for more comfort, and the iron was replaced with wood or whalebone, and the cut of the pattern was altered to allow for more movement of the legs, and comfort while sitting down.
Even as the technology improved, the corset remained to be a controversial item of clothing, and some women blatently refused to follow the fashion and wear one. Mary, Queen of Scots was one of the most famous to refuse to wear a corset.
The 16th Century period style corsets are often referred to as either Tudor or Elizabethan, named after the types of royalty on the throne. You will find this is true throughout the historical periods.
The typical features of the 16th Century corset included short sleeves, which could be detatched in some cases, and a squared neckline, to allow the garment to remain unseen underneath the cut of the dresses that were fashoinable at the time. The corset was designed to flatten the stomach, and push up the breasts, giving an enhanced decollette. Typically, the body was longer at the front, and shorter at the sides to accommodate for leg movement. There were also a lot of corsets that were front laced to allow ladies to dress themselves, as well as allowing easy access to replace the front busks, which got tired easily.
In terms of shape and structure, the 17th Century corsets were very similar to the previous century. There was a change in the neckline, which became wider to accommodate the off the shoulder dresses that were in fashion at the time, and other minor alterations to the design, such as wider armhole to allow for the sleeves of the bodice to move freely. As the corset was still a piece of underwear, it would be scandelous to have it on show, therefore minor changes were made to allow it to remain unseen under the period’s fashionable dresses.
There was the introduction of a bit more curvature to the corset, with the waist getting smaller and the introduction of a peplum waist, or a slight flair at the waist.
Typically, the corsets of the 18th century evolved into a more pointed V- shaped design than the previos century, although the overall design remained similar.
Their main purpose was to lift and shape the breasts, reduce the waist and promote good posture. There was a slight narrowing at the waist, hence the “V” shape and it still remained to be worn as a piece of underwear, only seen in extreme circumstances.
18th Century corsets were very comfortable to wear, with little restriction, however they did restrict bending at the waist. Obviously, this is better for the back, so was seen as a positive side effect.
19th Century corsets’ main purpose was now to support and shape the breasts. While they still slimmed the midriff, this was not the prime purpose. The waistline had risen to just below the bust line, and by the 1930’s, the corset had taken on a more voluptuous, hourglass shape. Interestingly, the hourglass shape of the 19th Century is the most common type of corset shape that is used today. It was also during the 1930’s that the word “corset” was used in English to describe the garment. The body of the corset was lengthier than previous centuries and no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist.
Thanks to the industrial revolution, corsets had began to be mass produced, and as a result, were cheaper to buy. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer’s measurements, there was also a thriving market for the cheaper, mass-produced corsets.
This is partly why they became so popular, as they were no longer a luxury item, restricted to the upper class. The use of spiral steels also meant that the shape of the corset was more feminine than ever, and highlighted a women’s assetts while making her waist appear tiny. It was during the mid 1800’s that tightlacing and waist training became popular, with females everywhere trying to achieve a more attractive shape.
The corset changed a lot within the 20th century. Technology was fast adapting, and newer and better ideas kept emerging. The corset evolved to be more of an underbust garment designed mainly to reduce the midriff and hips, and create a long, thin shape. The corset was very long, and went all the way to the tops of the thighs, which restricted movement a great deal, and forced wearers to take small, dainty steps. This allowed them to appear more ladylike, but severely limited their day to day activities.
In 1913, Fed up with the boning poking into her, British socialite Mary Phelps Jacob invented the first brassiere, which she fashioned out of two handkerchiefs and pink ribbons. It was a hit and requests came pouring in for more brassieres.
This invention impacted the development of the corset further, and by the 1950’s, girdles and high waisted pants replaced many corsets. Basques became popular, as seen in the pin ups of that time, and they were generally a more comfortable, less rigid piece of underwear, although they were mainly worn for show.
Interestingly, this is when the innitial Burlesque/ Cabaret era became popular, with women feeling empowered and no longer ashamed to be seen in the near nude. Coincidentally, both of the wars during the first half of the century had encouraged people to live a little, and have more fun, and for the first time, corsets alone were beginning to be accepted as outerwear.
During the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the corset trends seemed to revert to those of the Victorian period, thanks to their curvy shape and waist reducing capabilities. After the 60’s and 70’s, people were generally more liberated, and while still shocking, corsets could be worn as outerwear in some social circles.
Interestingly, the general style of the modern corset, right through to modern day has remained to be the victorian style, with the hourglass shape, ample bust and small waist. It has also remained to be strapless, and to lace at the back.
Not many changes have occurred to the original pattern, although modern versions may have a lower bustline, or be adapted to be underbust varieties, as bras have replaced the need for up top support.
Corsets remain to be a popular choice, even among the women of today. While it may no longer be worn for every day wear, the corset is used to glamourise an outift, and is often worn for special occaisions.
Waist training is still practiced, although is not the primary reason for wearing a corset these days.
Thanks to modern day technology, corsets can now be mass produced and sold relatively cheaply, so most women own at least one. Unfortunately due to such a mass scale of production, corsets tend to be made to set sizes, from substandard materials, and as such don’t flatter the shape, or last more than a few wears. However, quality corsets are still made by hand, with quality materials, and typically cost at least a couple of hundred pounds.
There are two main markets for corsets in the modern day: Bridal and Couture.
The Bridal market, as the name suggests is aimed at brides and bridesmaids, and the Couture market is more aimed at Cabaret performers and fans alike.
Corsetry in Bridalwear is growing ever popular as the corset gives the bride a more flattering shape for her wedding day, and those all important photos!
It also gives more support to the bustier ladies, as many wedding dresses are now strapless.
Typically, the Victorian corset is the featured type, but there can also be Elizabethan variations. Naturally, both have evolved to fit the purpose: the Victorian styles are usually altered to be shorter in the body to allow for ease of movement and comfort throughout the day, and the Elizabethan variations often have the straps removed, for a squared bustline and accentuated V shaped waist.
Depending on the dress designer, and the client’s bodyshape, both periods can be combined to get the curvacious shape as well as the straight looking bustline.
Some designers make a feature of the corset, and show the stitching and boning channels as part of the overall design, whereas other designers choose to be more discreet with the structure of the dress, and apply a beautifully ornate fabric over the top to conceal the boning and general construction.
Cabarets have been steadily increasing in popularity in Britain since the start of the 21st Century, and saw a big boom in around 2006 with the launch of Club Noir, which holds various events and performances in venues around Glasgow and the rest of the UK.
Corsets have proved to be an essential part of the costume for most of the performers, and are often used in a number of acts. Because of this, they are typically custom made to be true to size, or even slightly slack, so that they can be swiftly changed between acts without causing a sudden rush of blood to the head- which can happen while waist training, or simply wearing a tight corset.
The corsets themselves are usually adorned with appliques and crystals, and the fabrics are usually lustrous and shiny. Typically, the corset type used is Victorian, with a slightly more plummeting bustline and often suspender hooks along the bottom. The Victorian corset is the best choice for this particular market because it accentuates curves and gives a beautiful hourglass shape.
Overbust corsets are the most popular style, however some performers prefer an underbust corset, as this can be coupled with lots of different styles of bra for a new look at every curtain. This requirement for individuality often spills over, and the artists often customise the garments to ensure that theirs is one of a kind.
It isn’t only the performers who create the demand for corsets- the audience are often encouraged to dress to impress when attending the shows, so any cabaret fans who are true to the cause often have at least one variation in their wardrobe!
While the mass production of corsets is reducing the need for skilled corseteers, there are many designers who utilise this piece of clothing in their fashion collections each year. This is probably because there are still people out there who strive for quality garments, rather than cheap imitations.
Due to the increase in popularity, and the ever growing number of celebrities who want to make a statement by wearing a corset, there will always be a demand for them. Rihanna and Lady Gaga are among a long line of pop stars who have boldly used corsets to attract attention, although their choice of materials and decorations were more shocking than the garment itself.
While Mr Pearl may not be the most famous corseteer, he certainly is one of the most talented.
As corsetry is his speciality, he has been commissioned to help many big named designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Lacroix with their projects and collections.
He has an 18 inch trained waist, and wears a corset himself 24/7.
He has had years of experience fashioning corsets and stays, and hand finishes his corsets, so its no surprise that he is Dita Von Tease’s favourite corseteer.
Dita isn’t his only fan, as a collection of celebrity models include Kylie, Beyonce and Jerry Hall.
Vivienne Westwood, who rose to fame because of the punk era and her collaboration with The Sex Pistols has had a career spanning over half a century. She has used corsetry within her collections to represent sex, bondage, restraint and fetish for many years, and enjoys using the garments to evoke shock and intrigue.
She has received an OBE and then later a DBE from the Queen for her services to fashion.
This highly decorative beaded corset dress, titled “the Queen of Sheba” was designed by Westwood, and comissioned by Mr Pearl. The Victorian shape gives a curvacious shape with a large bust and hips, creating the classic hourglass shape. The subtle shade differences between the hand sewn pearls show a naked females torso and muscle contours, and is topped off with anatomically correct nipples. It has been worn by Linda Evangelista and Demi moore.
Westwood is also one of the only modern designers to feature Elizabethan style corsets in her collections, and often focuses on the pattern of the fabric for a high level of detail. She likes to use tartan fabrics, as well as high quality silks and velvets, and the combination of sturdy construction and quality fabrics make for truly unique corsets.
Jean Paul Gaultier
Jean Paul Gaultier is one of the most famous fashion designers of modern times, so it is extremely surprising to know that he had absolutely no formal training in this area. Instead, he landed a job with Pierre Cardin because he repeatedly sent in sketches of design ideas and inspiration. Even in his early years, he designed unusual, extremely shaped clothes.
When it comes to corsetry, Gaultier typically uses the Victorian style, although he has a tandancy to alter the shape to make an obscure feature of a certain body part. For example, the Conical corset made famous by Madonna in the early 1990’s is more or less a Victorian style, but the bottom has been straightened to allow for freedom of movement, and the cups have been made into elongated conical shapes that are totally unnatural.
In general, the distortion of the female form is quite obvious in many of Gaultier’s corset designs, which is why he also likes to use Edwardian corset styles- they tend to highlight the hip area.
Gaultier is also very brave when it comes to construction materials, often opting for metallic fabrics, or crafting designs from pieces of real metal. These are quite popular within the Steampunk movement, but not many people can afford such extravagant pieces.
As with so many of his corset creations, the trusty Mr Pearl is usually always on hand to advise on pattern creation and construction.
What is your favourite period style of corset?
The Future of Corsetry?
I don’t think that the corset will fade away any time soon. With such a boom in popularity, due to the Cabaret revival as well as the surge in popularity within Bridalwear design alone, I believe that the corset will remain to be a part of the fashion for centuries to come. There is also the influence of pop stars and other celebrities; for as long as there is a corset worn anywhere on a red carpet, they will remain to be desired by the general public.
Whether the art of Corsetry will remain to be is another question. Due to the mass production of corsets, and the desire to get a bargain, I think that the art of corsetry may die out. As sewing machines and computer aided machines get more and more complex, there will be a limited need for skilled corseteers. I can only hope that there will remain to be a few die hard fans who can appreciate the difference between a hand crafted, perfectly fitted corset, and a cheap synthetic imitation.
Hopefully, the designs of Gautier, Westwood and Mr Pearl will continue to inspire the masses, and encourage the desire for quality corsets.
© 2013 Lynsey Harte