A Brief History of Corsets from 1750 to 1950
A boned and laced undergarment in the eighteenth century was known as a pair of stays. These garments generally had a long torso and were usually fitted with shoulder straps. The primary purpose of the stays was to shape the torso into the fashionable long conical shape, while lifting and supressing the bust, rather than to reduce the size of the waist. Stays from this period often had tabs at the base of the garment, which were designed to give the hips more room and comfort while pulling in the waist and pushing up the bust. However, stays were made to fit the individual, and were designed to be supportive rather than restrictive.
In order to keep the posture extremely straight and upright, a length of wood called a stay busk was often inserted into a pocket along the front of the stays. This usually extended all the way from the bust to the pubic bone, meaning that bending over was practically impossible. Stay busks were often intricately carved and inscribed with names or dates. Sometimes they were made from whalebone and carved by whalers whilst on their long whale-hunting voyages. They were often given as love tokens because they were positioned close to the heart.
The term ‘corset’ came into use at the beginning of the nineteenth century to describe supportive undergarments, and it was used interchangeably with ‘stays’ for many years. As fashions changed towards the end of the century, and the waistline of ladies dresses rose, the length of the stays became noticeably shorter. Short stays, sometimes with individual bust cups became common around 1800. Most early nineteenth century corsets had shoulder straps.
By about 1830 the waistline in women’s clothing had returned to its natural position, so the longer corset began to be seen once more. This time, its purpose was to create an hourglass figure by pulling in the waist and supporting the bust. Corsets of this period were generally softer and less rigid structures than had been seen in the eighteenth century. Steel stays began to replace the traditional whalebone from the 1830s, and the first front opening corset was patented in 1848, meaning that it was much easier for a woman to put on a corset without assistance.
The wide, full skirts of the mid-Victorian period meant that corsets ended a little below the waist as the hips were hidden by the large skirt. They were no longer made with shoulder straps. Corsets began to be seen as a means to mould the female figure into the desirable hour-glass with an ever-smaller waist rather than as a means of support. Tight-lacing was a term first used in the middle of the century and it became the norm for many women to try and produce an ever smaller waist by lacing the corset as tight as they could stand. When the crinoline went out of fashion to be replaced with narrower gowns designed to incorporate a bustle, corsets became heavier and longer, but with more attention to detail and elegance than had generally been the case.
When the bustle went out of fashion, the shape of the corset changed again. They were harder and less-rounder and were very heavily boned. The spoon busk corset was invented in 1879. The metal spoon shaped busk at the front of the corset was designed to compress the abdomen without creating a bulge of flesh at the bottom of the corset. By the 1880s the corset was a much longer garment that hugged the hips from all sides. Although it was becoming a more restrictive and cumbersome piece of clothing, brightly coloured and intricately embroidered satin corsets were also fashionable about this time.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw the most extreme form of corsetry. The S-bend style corset forced the torso out in front while making the hips jut out behind, which created a very unnatural posture for the wearer. By 1918, the Edwardian fashion for almost impossibly tiny waists had evolved into a trend for long, slim figures and high waists. Consequently, corsets were adapted to achieve this desirable figure. They were cut longer and straighter in the body, and ended just below the bust line, rather than above.
Women’s fashions altered radically in the 1920s, when the loose, low-waisted ‘flapper’ style of dress was in fashion. Corsets at this time were rather like wide belts that fitted tightly across the hips, and were known as corset belts or girdles. Also popular were the corset and bra combination called the corselette. This garment had shoulder straps and light boning and was designed to disguise curves and create the fashionable flat-chested boyish figure. For smaller chested women, the bandeau became popular. This was a tight tube of lace or silky material fitted with straps designed to flatten the chest, and was the precursor to the modern bra.
By the 1950s, bras rather than corsets were generally worn, but long-lined bras were also popular. These garments had additional boned shaping and support down to the waist which helped create a smooth line underneath a dress. Girdles were also worn in preference to a full corset. Worn across the waist, hips and thighs, this figure-control garment helped create a slimmer silhouette.