History of Corsets

The corset is a close-fitting undergarment and is frequently hooked in front and laced in the back. It can cover from above the bust to below the hips, and garters can be attached.

The exact origins of the corset are lost in antiquity, but the ancient Greeks certainly wore a style of corset. Undergarments which pulled in and accentuated the waist were worn by the wealthy in France in the 1300s and 1400s, and their popularity spread to other countries.

The corset, containing the French word corps for body, is a cinching garment that encases the middle torso to either push up or flatten the breasts, or to hug the waist into shape, or both.

The wearing of corsets became widespread in the 1500s and 1600s, as many Renaissance portraits will show. However these corsets, examples of which survive, were particularly rigid and uncomfortable, and made from materials such as iron or wood, as well as whalebone, which became the main agent for providing the constricting tightness in later centuries. The fashion started in Spain, and during a period in which Spain fell under the rule of another country, a Spanish queen was said to have promised her people that she would not loosen her corsets until Spain was free. It sounds risible now, but given the corsets of those days, it was a promise to inspire respect.

French fashion was more to the fore towards the end of the 17th century, and corsets became more elaborate, and an essential part of the ‘look’ of voluminous richly fabriced skirts, lots of petticoats, and a slender waist held in by a corset which also pushed up the breasts to give an enticing, strapless decolletage to any woman attending a social occasion. Corsets were worn by the boys and girls of wealthy families, and for outdoor activities such as horseback riding.

In the 1700s corsets were long and stiff, strengthened with cane and whalebone, and worn by children of both sexes from as young as 7 or 8 years. Extreme tight lacing became popular toward the end of the 18th century, and the satirical English poet Alexander Pope mentions corsets in his masterpiece, ‘The Rape of the Lock’:

…the Petticoat.
Oft have we known that sev’nfold Fence to fail;
Tho’ stiff with Hoops, and arm’d with Ribs of Whale.
Form a strong Line about the Silver Bound,
And guard the wide Circumference around.

And later…

All side in Parties, and begin th’ Attack;
Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack;

However, the French Revolution was accompanied by a diminution in the popularity of tight lacing in France at least, as it was seen as a symbol of decadent aristocracy, and hence as literally life-threatening for the wearer. Napoleon even desribed the corset as ‘the murderer of the human race’ (tactfully forgetting himself). The change spread outside France, and in the middle to late 1790s, corsets were short, or were abandoned altogether.

In the first decade of the 19th century, long and tight corsets made a spirited comeback. During the Regency dandies such as Beau Brummel wore corsets to give the slim waisted look popular amongst the fashionable males of that period, as it had been amongst French and Spanish men of 250 years before. In the 1830s corsets were more widely available because of the reduction in clothing costs occasioned by the industrial revolution, and were better tailored to to shape the body, little whalebone being employed after 1850.

The corset returned to the centre of fashion in the 1860s, and etchings of the demi-monde at race meetings of this decade show that corsets were universal for women. In the mid 1870s long corsets were seen as performing a disciplinary, as well as a fashion, function, as they made the wearer more decorous in their movements, and more restrained generally. The corset came into full flower in the 1880s and 1890s, being worn over a petticoat, and made in beatiful materials such as silk and satin, richly decorated with frills and applique.

The recently discovered disciplinary function of the corset was still to the fore, and the ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ advised, ‘if you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and feelings, lace her tight’. As so many women in the 20th century have realised, this applies equally well to boys.

Corsets continued to be worn by men, supposedly for reasons of health, such as support for a bad back, and were recommended for men who were overweight to give them a trimmer figure. John F. Kennedy, the American president, always wore a plain masculine corset, because he suffered from a chronic bad back.

In the years before the First World War, corsets were long and straight, and not padded (as the 1890s corsets had been). This gave women a slimmer, less feminine figure, which carried over into the twenties, when feminine curves were definitely out, and even the breasts were flattened to produce a slender look. Corsets were often made of rubber, and the invention of the Lastex process by Dunlop rubber in the 1930s led to the invention of the modern two-way-stretch panty girdle, which is much more commonly used as a domestic discipline garment these days than the old fashioned lace-up corset.

Related to the girdle was the liberty bodice, a fleecy vest for girls reinforced with elastic. It was very snug and warm, and well known to British girls from the 40s to the 60s, and there was a letter in the March issue about a boy being made to wear his sister’s liberty bodice.

Today, the corset is making a comeback in some quarters. I cannot say that young people’s fashions of the last thirty years have met with much approval from me, but I do like the ‘gothik’ look which has been popular amongst girls in the last ten years or so. You do see some really beautiful black or purple petticoats, often hand made by the wearer, and old fashioned corsets are certainly an integral part of the whole look. The whole effect can be just stunning, and very like the most gorgeous female fashions of the Victorian age.

Girdles, and later panty girdles, were introduced in the 1920s as garments less severe than the corset, and having the added effect of shaping the abdomen and buttocks. Rather rigid at first, they became elasticated in the 1930s, and often had a circle of suspenders for stocking attachment around the base. They were almost universally worn by adult women up until the late 1960s. Panty girdles were a legged style, and a much more suitable garment for the disciplining and training of males, since they gave the wife or mother absolute control over the male’s body.

It is fair to say that corsets will never vanish, and will be fashionable from time to time, although never again to the extent they were in the Victorian age. And husbands who misbehave, who will not help their wives around the house, or, even worse, are guilty of infidelity, will continue to find themselves locked into tight, long legged panty girdles, with the wonderfully and deliciously beneficial effects that I am sure all my readers understand.

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