Tag Archives: Historical Fashion

Corset History: Were they really that small, restrictive, and unhealthy

civil war dress

This week we take a break from historical facts and look at some good ol’ common sense facts about corsets.

I can not tell you how often I hear these questions when I’m out wearing or selling my corsets. Women ask if it is safe to wear a corset, if they will be able to breathe and eat, if they will be able to go to the bathroom, the list goes on and on. I reply, with the only thing that is uncomfortable do in a corset that is made well and fits you well is; chug beer and sneeze. Sneezing causes fast expansion and is slightly uncomfy in a corset, chugging beer or any fizzy drink for that matter just makes for a lot of carbonation in the belly that has no where to go.

I was reminded today by one of my other favorite sites HistoricalSewing.com that this is an issue we still need to address. That women and men still carry around the perception that wearing a corset is somehow dangerous and slightly like a straight jacket. That Victorians wanted tiny little waists and fainted all the time because of those tightly laced corsets.

I direct you to her blog as I could say it simply no better than she does, Dispelling the Myth of the Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Waist

This is a topic I will be coming back to, I think that it is so very important to be educated on how a corset should fit and why it should fit that way. I spend a lot of time with women and men making sure they get the right fit. But for now we need to understand the past and how it changes our perceptions of corsets today.


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.

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