A BRIEF OUTLINE OF THE HISTORY OF WOMEN’S CORSETS 1791-1970
(AS COMPILED BY "HIX", FROM VARIOUS SOURCES)
From 1794 to 1800, corsets were short and not universally worn. "Corsettes" about six inches long were most used. From 1800 to 1811 corsets became longer and from then to the end of the period retreated to again becoming quite short. The "Long Corset" was made of jean or buckram, well stiffened with whalebone. It extended downward to cover the hips and upward to push up the breasts. Sometimes the edge was vandyked, but as an alternative, padded, cup-shaped supports for the breast were also used to ease the rigidity of the bosom. The corset was laced up behind, with a sturdy whalebone or steel front busk. As in previous years, the eyelet holes for the laces were not fitted with metal protectors, but were simply oversewn.
Back-laced short corsets were equally rigid, the fashion being to have relatively small hips and a full bosom. There were sometimes bitter complaints: "By the newly invented corsets we see in eight out of ten women, the hips are squeezed into a circumference little more than the waist and the bosom is shoved up to the chin, making a sort of fleshy shelf, disgusting to the beholder and most certainly incommodious to the wearer."
The fashion magazines of the day have a number of advertisements for stays. In 1807, "The long elastic cotton stay obviates every objection complained of in patent stays by not being subjected to the disagreeable necessity of lacing under the arm or having knitted gores, but being adapted to give the wearer the true Grecian form." Another maker assures us that at four pounds ready money, he has succeeded in five thousand cases in "removing with perfect ease the fullness of the stomach and bowels." We also learn: "The present mode of bracing the digestive portions of the body in what is called Long Stays compasses into form the chaos of the flesh."
To apply effectively the new short stay, a mother is advised to have her daughter lie face down on the floor so that, by having a foot in the small of her back, the mother can secure a firm purchase on the laces.
The "Divorce Corset" appeared in 1816. The name is misleading…it was merely a device to separate one breast from the other. It consisted of a triangular piece of iron or steel, padded and with curved sides, the point projecting upward between the breasts, thrusting them apart to produce somewhat the same effect as that of a modern brassiere.
The "Pregnant Stay" was described in 1811 as ‘completely enveloping the body from the shoulders to below the hips and elaborately boned so as to compress and reduce to the shape desired the natural prominence of the female figure in a state of fruitfulness.
Tight-lacing became progressively more severe, partly to accentuate the much admired small waist and partly as a moral restraint correcting the looser habits of the Regency. Some lamented the change; "Ladies are implored to retain something of the ease and grace attached to the once dominant Grecian costume, against all the newly sprung up Goths And Vandals in the shape of Staymakers who have just armed themselves with whalebone, steel and buckram to the utter destruction of all native-born fine forms." (1824)
At Paris, they recommend the corsets of Delacroix, fitted with paddings to fill up any deficiency. Young ladies may be seen with their breasts displaced by being pushed up too high, and frightful wrinkles established between the bosom and the shoulders; a ridiculous fashion by means of which the body resembles that of an Ant, with a slender tube uniting the bust. To the haunches, which are stuffed out beyond all proportion." (1826)
That the habit was spreading to the middle class may be gathered from a letter written by a tradesman in 1828: "My daughters are living instances of the baleful consequences of the dreadful fashion of squeezing the waist until the body resembles that of an Ant. Their stays are bound with iron in the holes through which the laces are drawn, so as to bear the tremendous tugging which is intended to reduce so an important part of the human frame to a third of its natural proportions. They are unable to stand, sit or walk as a woman used to do. To expect them to stoop would be absurd. My daughter Margaret made the experiment the other day…..her stays gave way with a tremendous explosion, and down she fell upon the ground. I thought she had snapped in two." He adds: "My daughters are always complaining of pains in the stomach."
A "Book of The Toilette" (1837) informs us "Women who wear very tight stays complain that they cannot sit or stand upright without them. Indeed, many are compelled to wear night stays in bed. When a young lady spends a quarter of an hour lacing her stays as tightly as possible, pauses to catch her breath, and then resumes the task with might and main until perhaps after a third of fourth effort she at last succeeds in lacing herself into an impossible shape and sits down covered with perspiration, then it is that the effect of the stays is not only injurious to the shape, but is calculated to produce the most serious health consequences."
Demi-corsets, some eight or ten inches in length, with light whalebones, were worn when performing household tasks during the day. When arrayed in her best, or "dress" stays, she could bend only at her peril.
Tightlacing was sternly condemned, especially with regard to stays which produced downward lacing pressure, "producing injurious pressing upon those forms given women as fountains of nourishment for their offspring."
The current fashion in corsets was described: "The modern stay extends not only over the bosom, but also all over the abdomen and back, down to the hips. Besides being garnished with whalebone, to say nothing of an immense wooden, metal or whalebone busk, passing in front of the stays from the top to the bottom. They have been growing in length by degrees.
The gait of our women has become generally stiff and awkward, there being no bend or elasticity of the body on account of the rigid form of the stays." Back lacing was the standard for these stays.
Day corsets of the 1840s had shoulder straps and were shaped to the breasts. In the next decade, the shaping diminished and the straps were dispensed with. Stays with front fastenings were displayed at the great London Exhibition of 1851 and gradually became the accepted model. In 1850, the first elastic lacings were introduced, and the elastic bodice with front fastening in 1854. Non-elastic garments, however, continued to be what the vast majority of women wore. An English advertisement of the day offered "100 patterns for stays for ladies and 50 for children, seven Shillings for an eighteen-inch waist, rising Sixpence an inch."
In the early 1850s, the fashion for cage crinoline overshadowed the functions of the corset, and tight-lacing subsided greatly in order that nothing might detract from the importance of the cage. However, when crinolines began to shrink in the 1860s, the small waist once more became a desirable feature and the spotlight of sexual attraction concentrated on it. The corset resumed its grasp with redoubled force. From the highly imaginative tightlacing correspondence in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1866) we learn of an unidentified English boarding school, supposedly referred to by its students as the "Whalebone House Establishment", where stays were compulsory and were sealed up by the Mistress for all except one hour per week. They were removed for that single hour on Saturdays for the purpose of ablutions. By such rigorous means, a waist of 23 inches at the age of fifteen could be reduced in two years to thirteen inches.
In an era when no well-bred woman would think of appearing in public uncorseted, there undoubtedly were upper-class girls’ boarding schools where the wearing of corsets was, if not compulsory, at least strongly encouraged. It is very unlikely however, that this corseting was practiced to anywhere near the extent of the apocryphal "Whalebone House Establishment."
From that same Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine source we have a letter supposedly written by a "mother’ urging that daughters should be made to sleep in their stays, "which carries no hardship beyond an occasional fainting fit." A tight-lacing enthusiast declares: "Everyone must admit that a slender waist is a great acquisition; the so-called evil of tightlacing is so much cant. To me, the sensation is superb, and I am never prouder than when I survey the fascinating undulations that Art affords to Nature." Unlike much of the correspondence, this letter, and the one following, appear to have a certain ring of truth to them. This other correspondent avers that tightlacing produces delicious sensations, half pleasure, half pain." Obviously, to the writer the corset was both an instrument of auto-eroticism and a means of gratifying perhaps unadmitted masochistic desires.
The use of costly materials such as silk and lace for undergarments came more and more into use, making them more and more discreetly sexually attractive. The fascination of underclothes became so marked, in fact, that by 1875 the outer dress itself came to imitate them, and in the "cuirrase bodice" mode, the ballroom debutante seemed to b clad only in corsets and petticoats, suggesting that the wearer had forgotten some portion of her toilette. "Few husbands or fathers would allow their wives or daughters to appear in public thus undressed," complained the contemporary press.
In the late 1860s there is considerable surviving evidence that a waist measurement of 18 to 21 inches was not merely a fashionable aspiration, but was frequently achieved. An 1867 means of achieving such minimal waist was Thomson’s "Glove Fitting Corset" in which the front fastenings were held together by a spring latch. Or, alternatively, by the "French" back-fastening corset with a long, heavy, steel busk down the front.
The corset was fairly short until 1875, when the long corset combined with tight-lacing to provide the long, slender figure demanded by a change in dress design. At this period, the corset was "discovered" to serve a double purpose. In addition to its well-known effect on the male libido, it had also, it seems, a moral function. It was claimed to be "an ever-present monitor, indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint. It is evidence of a well-disciplined mind and well-regulated feelings." Supposedly the ingenious contrivance of cloth and whalebone would inflame the passions of one sex while restraining the other, thereby bringing man to his knees while woman remained stiffly erect. (It would have been difficult for her to do otherwise.)
The swan-bill corset for wearing under the cuirrasse bodice of 1876 and subsequent years had a long, front-fastening busk, terminating below in a powerful curved end. "It seems that figures, as they advance in years, develop unduly, and require a strong busk to hold them down."
With the sheath-like dresses at the close of this period, back-fastening corsets were sometimes used, as the front fastenings tended to interfere with the close fit of the bodice. Such corsets might be covered with black satin and edged with a bertha of lace so that a camisole could be omitted, while, to save bulk, the over-petticoat buttoned directly on to the corset.
In 1866, hose supporters attached to the bottom of the corset and clipping on to the stockings began to take the place of elastic roll garters, being made (1882) of "satin and elastic, with gilt clips on a shaped belt fitting to the corset."
The corset continued to be long-waisted during the 1880s and was often of elegant materials such as silk, satin and brocade, and of a great variety of colors. An "evening corset" in "apricot and peacock blue satin" (1886), was perhaps a choice example. In the 1890’s, yellow was a favorite color. Also,1890’s corsets were often decorated with lace frills and colored rosettes.
During the 1890’s, the corset assumed a somewhat shortened form, combined with a very considerable degree of tight-lacing. It was a girl’s ambition to have, at marriage, a waist measurement not exceeding the number of years of her age, and to marry before she was twenty-one. The huge sleeves of the period helped to create the illusion: "Nothing could be more becoming to the figure than a waist which looks infinitesimal." (1892) And: "In spite of the bicycle craze, girls pull themselves in a the waist while they pad their hips and busts to make themselves look as much like an hourglass as possible." (1896)
Some defining pictures of the nineteenth century
"Fashion decrees that very large hips and great splendor of figure should prevail, but also superimposes a distinctly diminutive waist." (1900) "The stays are, of course, straight-fronted, giving support but leaving the figure graceful and supple, while narrowing the back in a most surprising manner. It holds women in in the right places, but allows the chest to expand." (1901)
For Edwardian modes, the new straight-fronted corset was essential in supplying that "solidity of figure" which was so admired. "It is the feature of these stays that while they flatten the figure below, they lend fullness to the chest, thereby immeasurably improving the charm of the silhouette. A good waistline is, after all, very much a matter of one’s corset."
In 1902, the new look, which has been immortalized by artist Charles Dana Gibson in his "Gibson Girls" drawings, presented "an upright poise of the shoulders, long sloping bust, with a straight front line and a graceful curve over the hips; the waist held in well below the figure, the chest carried well forward and the shoulders down; the waist long in front and short behind."
"Everyone has rushed into the straight-fronted corsets, too often with deplorable results."
"Corsets are getting longer and longer below the waist and shorter and shorter above it." (1905) "The corsetieres of Paris bring the corset nearly halfway to the knees, making it difficult, if not impossible, to sit comfortably."
"For women of normal height, corsets measuring twenty to twenty-five inches around the waist will do quite nicely. It is the roundness of the waist and the curve of the hips; the way the figure is held in below the waist and carried up above it that counts." (1906)
Alas, fashion is notoriously inconstant, and the very next year, 1907, a willowy shape was dawning so that "hips are often a thorn in the minds of women who would dress well."
The corset of 1908 was cut so deep that "to sit down would appear to be an impossibility."
The corset was worn lower and longer over the hips. It was intricately boned, and laced or hooked in front. Knitted silk tricot was introduced, and about this time the corset cover began to be replaced by the 'combinations,' which was basically a corset cover combined with drawers.
The corset, conforming to the long narrow line of the dress, was very straight in front with two center hose supporters holding the straight front line rigid. A long, back-lacing, front hooked, pinched-in waist garment of the period was described as "fitting the figure, not shaping it."
Batiste and coutille were the most popular corset fabrics and brocades the loveliest but costliest. Coutille (present day jean or denim) was the heaviest, strongest and least flexible of the materials, but a very good coutille corset could be bought for three to five dollars. However, one could pay thirty-five to fifty dollars (very, very expensive in terms of the time) for a garment of brocade with lace, ribbon and extensive handwork. Only the fashionable woman of wealth could afford such a garment. More white was sold than any other color, but pink, blue, yellow and flesh tones were also used.
The corset did not change significantly between 1910 and the onset of The Great War in 1914, but the war started to loosen the grip of the corset on its way to near extinction. The demand for women to replace a male population which had left business and industry for war service demanded looser, less constricting female fashions. With the war’s end, the age of the "Flapper" began and the introduction of new elastic fabrics further loosened the grasp of boned undergarments. When the Flapper era passed into history with the 1930’s, roundness of shape began to creep back into fashion, culminating in the attempts of Paris designers to re-introduce the wasp waist in 1939. The onset of World War II soon stopped this attempt in its tracks.
With the war’s end in 1945, it took until the "New Look" of 1947 to introduce the age of power-net and spandex, with boning of any sort eventually being dispensed with. Boned, back-lacing corsets and corselettes continued to be available for a time, filling a shrinking market niche for older, corset-oriented women, until by 1970, lack of demand caused them to disappear even from the popular Sears and other mail-order catalogs.
Corsets, of course, are, and probably always will be, available for those who want them badly enough, but by 1980 the only U.S. sources were surgical supply houses, fetishist dealers, theatrical costumers and imports from a dwindling handful of European makers. These garments were necessarily expensive due to their limited appeal to the general population. After reigning supreme for over a century, the corset as we know it disappeared for all practical purposes. In an "emancipated" Women’s-Lib world, it is not likely to return.
1990’s (into the New Millennium) Postscript
With the success of the "Sexual Revolution" has come a modest revival in corset interest. Many of the same women who might have shunned corsetry (or any restrictive undergarments ) as being "repressive" or indicative of weakness in another time, i.e. during the heyday of the recent Feminist movement, now understand the sense of power on their behalf that the corset evokes and how it can represent the pride and strength of women.
Of course, the corset has lost none of its erotic appeal, particularly to men, and the majority of the membership of corset-oriented organizations are males. However, some women, aware of its potential for sexual arousal, have acquired a corset or two for "special occasions" even though they consider it impractical for daily business wear. Other women, although with no great interest in corsetry themselves, corset to accommodate the desires of their male companions. Though still expensive, the supply situation has eased greatly, with several; U.S. makers entering the field, and an increasing number of dealers distributing the wares of thriving British and European manufacturers.
It is only a shadow of its former self, true, but, none-the-less, the corset lives on in the hearts of its hard-core admirers, and certainly makes itself known in fashion and film!
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