Corsets : A Short History Lesson – Ancient History

Over the next few blog entries we will look at the history of corsets, why and how women wore them, how this translates to the modern woman, and lastly how to pick the style and fit that is correct for you.

To begin to understand corsets historically, we should first step back and look at undergarments in general. Throughout history undergarments were used for three main reasons; first, a layer of protection against the elements. Secondly, to support and shape the cut of clothing. Thirdly, for cleanliness.

I will assume that the idea of layering clothing to keep warm isn’t a foreign concept to most readers, so I will focus on the remaining ideas. Even today women still rely on undergarments to shape our bodies for clothing. Throughout history the silhouette of a women has been many shapes, all achieved by a variety of stays. Making women’s undergarments a worldwide moneymaker, then and now, all in order to achieve a desired shape.

Cleanliness is perhaps harder for modern readers to understand. Historically, undergarments protected the skin from the outer clothing, and the reverse. People did not bath as often as we do, nor did they wash their clothing as often. It was common that no outer-clothing would come into contact with the skin, keeping the fabrics cleaner. This idea was widely practiced in degrees (and depended greatly on class), up to the 1900’s.

So how far back in history can we trace the concept of the corset or stays? Within the Medieval period art depicted slim waistlines that suggest corsets. Many historians believe that perhaps tight banding was used. The undergarments would have been made of natural materials which are often not preserved. Recently the discovery of 15th century undergarments in Austria has shed a little more light on the subject. The items have the familiar shape of modern undergarments. It’s is more probably that the tight fitting bodice of the gowns did the shaping and not additional undergarments.medieval lingerie

It isn’t until the end of the Middle Ages, that evidence of stays that begin to resemble the corset appear. Stiffened with whalebone, leather or wood. These may have been referred to as “bodies” made in two parts and likely in the shape of an underbust. Paintings from this time still show natural shaped silhouettes for women and their clothing. By the 1500’s the cone shaped torso and smaller waist is beginning to appear in fashion plates and paintings. By the 1600’s we begin to see the shape many of us are familiar with from Elizabeth I reign. At this time the corset had transformed into a heavily boned object. 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-waisting 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 characteristic of this period.

Skirts were worn over small, domed hoops in the 1730s and early 1740s, which were displaced for formal court wear by side hoops or panniers which later widened to as much as three feet to either side at the French court of Marie Antoinette. The chemise or smock had full sleeves early in the period and tight, elbow-length sleeves in the 1740s as the sleeves of the gown narrowed. Drawers were not worn in this period. Woolen waistcoats were worn over the corset and under the gown for warmth, as were petticoats quilted with wool batting. Free-hanging pockets were tied around the waist and were accessed through pocket slits in the gown or petticoat. Loose gowns, sometimes with a wrapped or surplice front closure, were worn over the chemise, petticoat and corset for at-home wear.

In the next blog we will look at the use of the corset in the 1800 – 1900’s.


Sources:  The History of Underclothes by C. Willett Cunnington, PhiIlis Cunnington


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