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A History of the Corset

Updated on October 21, 2010

The corset is a a close-fitting undergarment of cotton or linen, stiffened with bands of bone or metal and fastened by lacings or hooks. The importance of corsets, also called "stays" has depended on the vagaries of fashion, and at times they have produced considerable distortion of the female figure.

Corsets for men have probably been in existence for about 200 years, sometimes to achieve a fashionable silhouette but more usually to give support.

There is no evidence to suggest that before the 1500s anything more than bands of cloth or leather were used to "improve" the natural shape of the female figure; well-tailored dresses and padding sufficed. The heavy Renaissance silhouette required stiffening of the bodice by a busk, a piece of wood or metal inserted between the layers of the bodice, extending downward from the bust.

After the separation of the bodice and skirt in the 16th century, the bodice extended below the waist and was then further stiffened by a buckram interlining and by the insertion of whalebones and of lacing at back and front.

The very long, stiff stays of the Elizabethan period gave way in the 17th century to shorter, softer stays to achieve the fashionable rounded silhouette. As the waistline was gradually lowered, the stays were lengthened so that by 1700 the waist was well below its normal position. The stays, although completely composed of whalebone held between parallel lines of hand stitching, now fitted more closely to the body, with tabs splaying out over the hips. By this time stay-making had become a highly skilled craft.

The stays of the 18th century differed from those of the previous century more in detail than in overall design. A more shapely figure was achieved by placing the bones diagonally at the front to narrow the waist, with a few horizontal bones below the bust to give it roundness.

During the Directoire period in France, interest in antiquity brought about admiration for the natural body shape, and by 1800 most stiff corsets were discarded. The novelty of no support inevitably waned, and the unstiffened bodice that gave some support to the bust soon became lightly boned to emphasize small waists. The number of bones and the complexity of cut increased as the waistline dropped and as wider skirts threw increasing emphasis upon the highly molded, curved torso. The adoption of the bustle in the 1870's brought rigid corsets with tight lacing once more into prominence.

A corset of remarkably complex construction was required to achieve the famous "S" curve of the Gay Nineties (nostalgic term that refers to the decade of the 1890s). During World War I, small waists went out of fashion, and corsets became less confining. The new ideal in the 1920's, a tubular torso, required compression of the bust, which was flattened by bands to achieve the boyish look that accompanied bobbed hair. Curves reappeared in the 1930's. The elasticized girdle outmoded the corset, and the bust was given increased prominence by the brassiere, a separate garment.


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