When people think of corset lingerie, they typically think of terrifying pieces of clothing that women were forced to wear in the old days to strangle their waists into painfully small shapes to conform with the society at the time. People may also think of corsets as torture devices that deformed the ribcage, displaced internal organs, imposed various ailments on the women who wore them, left women in a constant state of breathlessness and discomfort, and even caused death. Are any of these common beliefs even true? Not by a long shot.
Corsets have a long history and have been worn for a long time. Actually, a very long time, with the first corset-like pieces of clothing being depicted in remnants of art from the Minoan civilization which flourished from between 3,000 B.C.E. to 1,000 B.C.E., which would be 5,000 to 3,000 years ago. In these ancient art pieces, women seemed to wear almost armor-like metal plates on their bodies which defined their waists and extenuated their breasts1. Throughout the Middle-Ages, corsetry was not the most popular, but it did continuously appear and disappear throughout the years, and the type of corsetry used was used both by women and men.
Only around the 15th century did corsets become a regular piece of fashion. The corsets of this era were not as elaborate as what comes to our minds. Instead, they were made of bodices that were made especially stiff with paste and were known in their own day not as corsets but as a “pair of bodies”1. In the 16th century, laces finally became associated with the bodice, making it appear much more like the corset that springs to our minds. These kinds of corsets were stiffened with various materials such as wood, horn, or bone. Depending on whether the laces were on the front or the back of the corset, the item of clothing may have looked different. For example, if the laces were on the front, an ornamental panel was slipped over the laces in order to cover them, this panel known as the stomacher.
In Spain, a special addition to the corset was made, known as the busk, which was a wooden rod placed at the front of the corset to give it support. The busk is significant because it remained in fashion for a long time while other parts of the corset’s designed continue to change throughout history. In the early days of corsets, the garments were typically only worn by the aristocracy and nobility, but by the 18th century, upper-middle class or bourgeois women started to wear them as well, though these corsets were made of less expensive materials. Sometimes, these women even made their own corsets. As for the corset supports, instead of bone or horn, they would often use reeds.
Directly after the French Revolution, corsets fell out of fashion for a number of years before becoming all the rage yet again in 18151. However, a major change was made to corsets once they made their resurgence: instead of being shaped as an inverted triangle, they started to embrace the hourglass shape. In the 19th century, working-class women were able to afford the previously bourgeois corsets thanks to the invention of the sewing machine which was able to move corsets into mass production. During this period, corsets were molded into their desired shape with steam, and whalebone and metal were often used for support.
Corsets remained popular until the 1920s when the natural figure took the spotlight. However, corsets didn’t disappear entirely. During this time, some innovations were made on corsets, such as making them more flexible and reducing the number of support rods, or bones. In the 1950s, a different kind of corset became quite popular, known as the bustier or waspie, designed to cinch and smooth the waist. Girdles, which did not cinch the waist as much, were also favored during this time. At the end of the 1950s, corsets mainly remained popular as alternative fashion, a niche in which it still remains today.
It was only in the 17th century that myths about corset lingerie started to arise, such as a whole variety of health issues that would occur by wearing corsets. Most of these were completely false. A common belief still held even today is that women who wore corsets couldn’t breathe and would faint regularly. Another belief is that women in corsets could barely move and could not sit down. It doesn’t seem like much would have been accomplished in the last 500 years if everyone was occupied with fainting, immobile women all the time.
In reality, women found corset lingerie comfortable when they were made appropriately and to fit the woman’s body shape. The only time when women had problems with fainting in relation to wearing corsets is when they practiced tight lacing. Tight lacing was a type of extreme corseting in which the laces of the corset are pulled too tight in order to make the waist as small as possible. Tight lacing was never in fashion among the masses, and was usually only done by a small number of women or used for extremely special occasions such as balls.
Rather than being death traps that strangled women to death, corset lingerie actually had some benefits for the women that wore them. For example, since bras did not really exist hundreds of years ago, corsets were the garment to provide breast support. More than that, they provided back support which was very useful especially to the working woman who would spend much of her time gardening, plowing fields, working in factories, or doing housework, all of which would require the working woman to hunch for long periods of time.
Dispelling Corset Myths
Women were obviously not made immobile by corsets if they had so much work to do. Even beyond work, women enjoyed perfectly mobile lifestyles while wearing corsets. They were able to go biking, dancing, skating, horseback riding, and even mountaineering. Corsets were not always just for women either. Some men, especially in the 19th century, wore corsets to improve their posture and give them a more ideal male shape, and of course, men who were on the heartier side would wear corsets to slim down. Sometimes children would also be allowed to wear corsets in order to correct posture and ensure a straight spine in adulthood. Also, corsets were not called corsets until the 19th century. Before that time, they were known as “stays”.
1 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, July 14). Corset. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/corset.