History of Corsets

Corsets Before 1500

We can not be sure whether corsets existed before 1500, as information on them is unreliable. A lot of books say that Cretan women used the corset c. 2000 BC as they made idols in the shape of a corset. The idols were originally two round pots bottom to bottom with the handle on the top pot being the nose on the idols and the edge line of bottom to bottom being the waist. The shape was traditional for idols and not the shape of Cretan women. The detail of the idols tell us that the old Cretan idols wore big loincloths, and the later idols have a tunic of open lace and a loincloth. The corset-shaped figure of the idols was a primitive Cretan style.

Some virgins from 15th century wore a long tight lace outfit, but it was only a dress, not a corset.

Iron Corset Covers, about 1500

Iron corsets are Victorian Era corset covers that were made of metal. There are several that can be found in museum collections today.

It is sometimes claimed that these corsets were the everyday wear of women and girls throughout Europe in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, they are more likely to be orthopedic instruments used by a very few women whose posture was not considered acceptable by the health and beauty standards of the time.

It seems likely that the Iron Corset was originally a type of armour worn only by men.

Later the “iron corset” was used by both men and women, but only on dress occasions. Both thee iron and the dress were heavy, and the iron was padded underneath like armour. The silk of that time was extremely expensive but of poor quality and it did not stretch well. It looked beautiful on the shining metal though. The iron corset also worked as a bulletproof waistcoat, as assassination by a knife in the heart was a common risk.

The padded “iron corset” and armour was known as a corset on women, and a waistcoat (vest) on men.

Corset Stays, 1550 to 1890

Stays are an old type of corset. A stay is worn over the dress or skirt and is laced to the waist, as opposed to a more conventional corset which extends below the hips. Typically stays were made by hand in 1860 or earlier in some countries. Over time, stays became shorter and shorter, eventually evolving into an early form of brassiere.

A set of stays has a shoulder strap opposed to a waist cincher.

Victorian Corsets, 1831 – 1901

When most people think of a corset they have an idea of a “Victorian corset”; however, the British Victorian era comprised of a long period of changes in culture and fashion from 1837 to 1901. During that time many styles of corsets were in use. The most ubiquitous feature was the “horizontal waist” which was common from about 1850 to 1899. The “Victorian corsets” for sale today are most likely New Look corsets.

The S-Curve Corset (1900) and the Straight-fronted Corset, 1903 – 1912
The straight-front corset (also known as the swan-bill corset and the s-curve corset) was a type of corset worn from the start of the nineteenth century until around 1907. Its name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk that was used down the center of the front.

It was the most complicated shape of corset ever made, with high-quality corsets consisting of up to 48 intricately curved and shaped pieces. The straight-front corset was intended to be less injurious to the wearers’ health than other corsets; but, when worn too tight, these corsets were the most uncomfortable and harmful style of corset to ever have been widely popular. The silhouette given by the straight-front corset is familiar from the Gibson Girl of the period.

The straight-front corset was popularised by Inez Gaches-Sarraute who was a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. The style was probably the result of several like-minded corsetieres and medical professionals. It was intended to create fewer health problems and to be less constricting than previous types of corsets. The hourglass corset “suppressed the bust”, and the spoon busk, which often curved inwards for part of its length, “forced the organs downwards” claimed Gaches-Sarraute in her 1900 study Le Corset: Etude Physiologique and Pratique (The Corset: A Physiological and Practical Study).

Gaches-Sarraute suggested a corset that: freed the bust by starting below the breasts; supported, rather than constricted, the abdomen with a very rigid, straight busk and inflexible boning.

The first element was not problematic, although in order to create the ‘monobosom’ effect that was fashionable women started wearing bust supporters, the design of which eventually lead to the brassiere.

The second feature created more problems, though. When the straight-front corset was worn laced moderately tight, very little pressure was placed on the abdomen and some of the compression was transferred to the sides of the waist, where boning was lighter. However, because of the extreme rigidity at the front of the corset, it was possible to achieve greater reductions on waist size than with the hourglass corset. When tightlaced, the straight-front corset put a great deal of pressure on the lower abdomen. This caused the S-curve silhouette: the wearer’s hips were thrust back, giving a deep curve to her lower back, and her chest was thrust forward. In most cases, tightlacing in a straight-front corset caused lower back pain, breathing difficulties, and knee problems (through hyperextension).

The Pipe-Shape corsets, 1912 – 1928?

Pipe-shape was a name sometimes given to a type of corset in fashion from 1908 to 1920. It helped to give the slender, straight silhouette that was a reaction to the exaggerated curves of the S-shape corset.

The pipe-shape corset should not be confused with the pipe-stem waist, which is sometimes found on other corsets, particularly the hourglass corset.

Modern History

The corset fell from fashion in the 1920s in Europe and America, replaced by girdles and elastic brassieres, but survived as an article of costume. Originally an item of lingerie, the corset has become a popular item of outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures.

There was a brief revival of the corset in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of the waist cincher. This was used to give the hourglass figure dictated by Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’. However, use of the waist cincher was restricted to haute couture, and most women continued to use girdles. This revival was brief, as the New Look gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.

Since the late 1980s, the corset has experienced periodic revivals, which have usually originated in haute couture and which have occasionally trickled through to mainstream fashion. These revivals focus on the corset as an item of outerwear rather than underwear. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the Autumn 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!, the costumes for which featured many corsets. Even more recently Kylie Minogue has onece again raised peoples interest in corsets by wearing one for her 2005 tour.

The majority of garments sold as corsets during these recent revivals cannot really be counted as corsets at all. While they often feature lacing and boning, and generally mimic a historical style of corset, they have very little effect on the shape of the wearer’s body. This is not the case with the Vollers corsets that we stock.

Satria Permadi

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