Corsets – A History Lesson – 1800’s to 1920’s

In today’s blog we look at the corset during the 1800 and early 1900’s. This was a time of popularity and change for the garment known as the corset.

The silhouette below shows the changes in the shape of the corset from 1896 – 1917, the main time period this blog entry will look at.

corset timeline jpg

The 1800’s was a boom time for corsets. For the first time there are recorded adverts, cartoons and writings for male corsets. The Dandy appears on the scene, placing great importance on physical appearance, and leisure. The Dandy often worn a corset to help his figure and to create the smooth lines that were seen as most fashionable during that time. The probable truth is that many a man wore a corset or body belt to keep the smooth lines of men’s clothing in the late 1700 and early 1800’s.

Dandy jpg

King George IV was known to wear a body belt. A replica is shown is his collection of clothing in the London Museum. The piece dates circa 1824 . The replica was made from the original tailors pattern. King George IV was also known to have worn a similar corset in 1821 where he nearly fainted due to severe constriction and heat. You can read more about the making the replica body belt here: Regency Reproductions 

KG Corset jpg

Corsets for men were typically made from a lightweight coutil (cotton). The corsets laced up the back and often had buckled straps at the side to prevent the abdomen bulging.

The shape of the women’s corset changed dramatically during this era. The Regency fashion of this time, with flowing gowns and empire waists, changed the body silhouette. At the beginning of the 1800’s until 1810 the fashionable style of corset tended to be short. During this time the demi-corset is thought to become widespread with the middle classes, it was lighter and shorter, allowing women to have shaping support while doing housework. Think of it as the Regency equivalent to a good bra!  The corset took on the role of supporting the breasts, and no longer slimming the waist. 1850’s ushered in another change in corset construction. Corsets were shaped with bust cups, made with materials still used today; jean and buckram and closed with elastic laces. Elastic thread was often used in the material to give the fabric more stretch.

Regency Corset jpg

Transitioning to the Victorian era the waistline returned to its natural position during the 1830s. The corset once again was used to support and narrow. However, it had changed its shape to the hourglass silhouette that is even now considered typical both for corsets and for Victorian fashion. It is during this period we see the addition of garter clips to the bottoms of corsets. Corsets were now being made in beautiful colors and materials, silks, satins and brocades, not just plain cotton or linen.

Until now corsets tended to be handmade and often custom pieces. In 1839, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Werly patented women’s corsets made on the loom. This type of corset was popular until 1890, when machine-made corsets gained popularity.

In the 1900’s the corset shape differed from the earlier stays in two major ways; first, the corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist, and secondly, the corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped. Spiral steel stays were used that curved with the figure. Between 1910-1919 rust-proof boning and rubber coated spring were introduced, changing corset construction for the modern era.

The 1900’s called for an elongated torso, upright shoulders, long sloping bust and graceful hips. We would recognise this look as “The Gibson Girl”. When the exaggerated shoulders of the late 1800’s went out of fashion, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to achieve the same effect. The focus of the fashionable silhouette of the mid and late 19th century was an hourglass figure.

gibson girl jpg

It is during this time when tight lacing may have been used to achieve the hourglass figure the concern over the health of corsets became a rather large issue. Doctors proclaimed that wearing corsets caused a number of ailments; damage to the heart and lungs, tuberculosis, circulatory damage, indigestion, enlargement or displacement of liver, constipation, undeveloped uterus, prolapsed uterus, gallstones, and muscle atrophy. Sadly, many people still believe that many of the items on that list were actual side effects of corset wearing, and not a lack of medical understanding and product propaganda, but that is a discussion for another blog!

At the time new products popped up to fight the horrors of corset wearing, Health Corsets. In 1884, Dr. Jaeger came up with wool sanitary corsets, described as flexible and elastic. Dr. Jaeger claimed that the wool had curing capabilities and that it had cured him of his chronic health problems: excess of weight and indigestion. Another was created in 1887, a dermathistic corset with leather facing. It was marketed towards women who wanted better health and enjoyed a vigorous lifestyle. Brothers and Doctors, Lucien and Ira De Ver Warner who lectured about the evils of corset, sold the Coraline Health Corset. Made with flexible fibers from the Coraline plant. Their factory of weavers were making 6000 corsets a day, by 1894 they were millionaires.

health corset add jpg

Some women decided to throw out their corsets and be part of the Rational Dress movement. Where women dressed in free-flowing clothing. A similar movement will find a resurgence in the 1920’s.

The Edwardian corset came along by 1902. It’s new straight front, made the shoulders upright, formed a long sloping bust and ended with a graceful curve over the hips. This silhouette popularised by the American artist, Dana Gibson, and portrayed by Miss Camille Clifford, gave rise to the Gibson Girl by 1905. However, by 1907 the corset shape had changed again, trying to disguise the hips instead of accentuate them. By 1918 the corset rested well under the bust and extended to mid-thigh. By this time the corset is beginning to transform into the girdle.

Between 1902-1905 several “Bust Improvers” came on the market. The Neena bust improver was made of cup-shaped perforated metal disks, which promised to give all women the bust of Venus de Milo. The other was referred to as a bust bodice and was worn over the corset and resembled the modern bra. In 1916  a new undergarment was advertised to take the place of the old-fashioned camisole, called the brassiere.

By 1920 the corset as it had been known in years past had mostly fallen out of fashion, it was replaced by looser clothing and the bra. Though many women still wore long line girdles and restrictive compression bras, they were rarely laced and supported by stays. The bras of the 1920s were very tight, compressing the breasts to produce the straight, shapeless form that was fashionable.

The corsets that were still on the market were made of elastic or even rubber. They were used to hide the hips, thighs and tummy. The belt was a common substitute for the corset, were made of elastic and often zipped closed. They allowed the wearer freedom of movement.

In the timeline below you can see how much the lines of fashion changed in the years we looked at in this blog entry. The lines of fashion dictated the quickly changing and sometimes harsh lines of the corset.

dress timelime

From this point in fashion history the story of the corset, becomes the story of the girdle. In our next blog we will look at the comeback of the corset in the 20th century.


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