The History of Corsets

Corsets (also called shapewear, waist trainer, stays, a pair of bodies,etc.) have been an important garment for centuries and have gradually become a fashion clothing. Some people, most are women, use corset to modify their figure. Since the appearance of corset, it experienced many times of popularity and decline. Its closely related to clothing style changed and the background of the times. Let’s explore corset history together.

The origin of the corset

Corsets (stays) became popular in Europe in the 16th century and peaked in the Victorian era. Nowadays, corset are mostly used as underwear and it has occasionally been used as an outer-garment, such as in the national costumes of some European countries.

The word ‘corset’ began to appear around 1300 and is derived from French, meaning a corset with straps. And the first use of corset in the Oxford Chinese Dictionary in 1299 is to describe Edward I’s clothing.

The word ‘stays’ were used frequently from the 17th century until the early 20th century. 

16th and 17th centuries corsets

The use of corsets as underwear originated in Italy and was brought to France by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, so the women of the French court began to accept it. These corsets are very tight and are generally made of multiple layers of fabric, stiffened with adhesive, and strapped. There are even corsets made of steel, worn under the clothes, tightening the waist, and propping up the breasts, binding the upper body into an inverted triangle shape. Due to the strong emphasis on female curves, the French court women regarded the corsets as an indispensable part of creating a perfect figure for women. They would wear this kind of stays with straps on the front and back in public, but it did not become mainstream.

In the mid-16th century, corsets became a common costume worn by European women. Corsets (busk) began to incorporate braces—long, flat baleen or strips of wood sewn into the corset to keep the corset in shape.  The front of the corset was typically covered by a ‘stomacher’, a stiff, and mostly V-shaped structure.

The corsets of the Elizabethan era usually used whale baleen as a support bone, which could keep the shape of the shapewear firm. It was also made of wood, ivory, and metal. During this period, the British “Tudor Corset” was mostly made of steel. While in Germany, softer materials and looser cuts are popular.

The braces are on the back and sides, and the straps are tied in front of the body. During the reign of King Louis XV and the Revolution, corsets experienced a wave of decline, as simple and natural dressing styles were popular in the fashion world at the time.

18th and early 19th centuries corsets

In the 18th century, as fashion entered the Rococo era, women’s clothing emphasized the gorgeous Baroque style, but also paid attention to the modification of the body. Corsets was popular again.

The Corsets at this time have a certain change in appearance from the previous ones. The function of the corset is still to tighten the abdomen, hold up the chest, and help the woman to stand tall and straight. 18th century corsets were relatively comfortable.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the waistline of neoclassical clothing was raised to the bottom of the chest, the main function of the corset became change to support the chest and the corset became shorter and looser. A high-waisted imperial corset appeared (about in 1796), the unrestrained natural waist shape reappears. At this time, most women still wore corsets, but short ones.

In the 1830s, when the waistline returned to its normal position, the corset also took into account the function of supporting the bust and reducing the waistline, and its shape also changed. From the original inverted triangle shape to the hourglass silhouette of the pre-Victorian era. All the bodysuits are all handmade.

The Victorian corset

In the Victorian era, the aesthetic standard of slender waist and big hips reached its peak. Throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the popular body shape was the hourglass figure with a slender waist, and the popularity of corsets reached its peak. The prevailing notion among women at the time was that “pride feels no pain” and they chased ‘good figure’. Victorian corset depart in 2 pieces with eyelets at the edges, tied together with straps, and has a buckle at the front.

In the 1840s and 1850s, waist training corsets (tightlacing) became popular. There are many differences between this corset and the previous ones. The waist is extremely cinched inward, showing an hourglass-shaped exaggerated curve, and it is supported by a spiral steel frame.

‘Health Corset’ became popular in the late nineteenth century as a result of the awareness of the dangers of tight waists and the development of women’s liberation. 

Straight-front corsets are also known as swan-bill corsets, S-Bend S-shaped corsets or Health corsets. This bodysuit causes the wearer to lean forward and upturn the hips, creating an S-shaped figure. It wasn’t until 1908 that people’s preference for corsets waned when corsets began to decline again. The reason is that high waist line and more natural fashion were more popular at that time.

Step into the modern corset

From 1908 to 1914, narrower hips and narrow skirts became popular,  previously cumbersome and uncomfortable fashion changed. It was necessary to make the shape of the corset longer. The new corset appearing to be taller and wider at the waist.

After entering the 1920s, under the influence of the Flapper trend, it gradually turned to the straight silhouette, and relatively practical styles such as “sports corset” and “hip confiners” began to appear. Most of the corsets in this period were also worn under the coat.

Corsets have been made of steel for bracing since the 1860s. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the War Industries Council encouraged women to stop buying corsets to save metal for military production, and the popularity of corsets declined further. After the war, until modern times, more women strive for better education and work, and the age of marriage is delayed beyond the age of 20. Only women who are overweight or pregnant choose to wear corsets, and usually boneless bodysuits.

In the 1930s, girdle belts to reduce waistlines shortly returned to fashion, but World War II brought them down again. It wasn’t until after the war that it made a comeback, and there was a slight resurgence in tights, usually worn as an outer-garment.  Corset bodysuits rebirth in the fashion world in 2010s.

Until today, corsets are still worn by some enthusiasts. Although they are no longer part of women’s daily lives, they have never disappeared from the fashion world.

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