History of Corsets
Although there are multiple opinions regarding when bone support corsets became popular in Europe and who popularized them, we typically see them in their earliest forms in the late 16th century near the turn of the century in the High Elizabethan period. Before this, women wore soft bodied petticoats or ‘curdles’ that laced up along the bust. 16th century pairs of bodies were very different to how one may view a modern corset. Instead of the ideal hourglass silhouette you may imagine when you think of a corset, these corsets reflected the ideal body shape of the time – a long conical shaped torso. These 16th century corsets were originally called ‘pairs of bodies’ since they were made of two pieces of fabric sewn together at the front and the back. Since they were yet to be strong enough to do any form of tightlacing or constricting of the waist, they were simply meant to be for support and structure of the wearer. By the end of the 16th century, the corset, or ‘bodies’ had become a staple piece in an aristocratic woman’s wardrobe.
What many also forget or do not realize is that men wore corsets throughout history too. In the 16th century, the ideal body shape for men was similar to women. To achieve this silhouette, men adopted a support garment of their own, then known as the girdle.
In a time when bras were not yet created, people needed supportive undergarments. Versions of the corset throughout history were seen exactly as that - undergarments. These undergarments were very supportive for the breasts and backs of women, and often protected their body against the heavy weight of the many hoopskirts and petticoats worn above. Men also used the corset for support, adopting specially made corsets into their military uniforms, as well as sporting events such as horseback riding and weightlifting.
As well as being supportive, the corset was also used to achieve the fashionable silhouette of a certain period. In a time when the participation in fashion trends was very important, especially to the aristocrats, the corset helped one express themselves, show their status, and achieve prestige within society through their clothing.
There were many versions of a corset throughout history. Bone support garments were worn for hundreds of years up until very recently. As fashionable silhouettes throughout history were not based on size (like today) but rather shape, everyone could be ‘fashionable’ through wearing the proper undergarments. ‘Size’ was not nearly as important as ‘shape’ and ‘proportion’ throughout history, and the ideal ‘size’ varied greatly throughout the years. With the right amount of padding and well fitted undergarments, almost everyone could achieve the fashionable silhouette.
The ideal body shape and what was considered the ‘fashionable silhouette’ varied greatly throughout the past 500 years. The ideal body silhouette would change along with the everchanging fashion trends, therefore changing the construction and purpose of the corset. Some corsets were specially made to lift the bust, while others focused on the rigidity of the torso, and so on.
By the 1630s, these boned undergarments began their transition from being referred to as ‘bodies’ to now ‘stays’. These early ‘smooth covered stays’ were usually fully boned down the fronts of these garments, with the backs and sides of the garments housing little to no bones. It is in the 17th century where the stays truly become an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe. The 18th century stays were broad at the chest, tapering down around the waist, creating a conical shapes torso. 18th century stays were fully boned and very rigid, forcing the wearer to practice good posture. These garments changed drastically in style in the beginning of the 19th century. As time progressed into the regency period and fashions were more flowy, the stays became softer and more natural in shape. Instead of being boned, cording and a thick wooden front busk stabilized the garment. Moving into the later end of the 1800s, the term ‘corset’ was now frequently used to describe a boned garment. When you think of a corset, this is the typical silhouette you may think of – an hourglass figure. As fashions changed yet again from flowy to tight, Victorian corsets and proper placement of padding helped the woman achieve the ideal hourglass silhouette.
In my opinion, the main factor in why the style of corsets changed so much throughout history is due to the changes in the ideal fashionable silhouette, as well as style of dress of a specific period. Depending on what was popular or considered ‘fashionable’ during a specific time period, the corset changed in order to help ladies achieve this ideal body shape, as well as being a support garment.