The Corset: Fashion, Freedom and Feminism

Woman wearing a corset
Adaora Elliott

Corsets have been a popular item of clothing for a long time yet there are so many misconceptions about them. Adaora Elliott works to clear up some of those misconceptions and talk about the true history of the corset.

Corsets have evolved and changed over the centuries. They were originally known as ‘a pair of bodys’ in the late 16th century and were simple bodices stiffened with reeds or whalebone, and a busk reinforced with either wood, horn, whalebone, metal or ivory. They were the uniform of aristocrats but over time they became common for all women – even farmer’s wives wore corsets.

Men have also historically worn corsets, especially during the early 1800s when a wasp waist figure was particularly in fashion. Over the 17th and 18th centuries, they became known by many names, such as ‘stays’, ‘jumps’, and ‘trusses’, only becoming known as ‘corsets’ in the early 19th century when gussets were added to make more room in the bust.

Corsets were support garments, used to spread out the weight of heavy attire like crinolines, stiff underskirts, and bustles, padded undergarments both used to help a skirt keep its shape. They were also used for aesthetic purposes to display a torso with a certain shape and sometimes for medical purposes to keep an upright posture.

Freedom of movement was a considerable aspect of a well-made corset

Despite some beliefs about the restrictive nature of corsets, they were worn during various vigorous activities and 19th-century sports corsets were used during tennis, cycling, and horseback riding and even as maternity wear. Freedom of movement was a considerable aspect of a well-made corset, these were working garments, everyone from laborers to nobles wore them if you were having trouble moving or breathing  in them; that was generally a sign that you were wearing it wrong.

The most common silhouette the corset set out to achieve and likely the one we think of was one of a reduced waist and exaggerated hips and bust. But during some periods, like the Tudor era, they were to achieve the exact opposite: flattening out the body to create a tubular look.

Whether they were used to cinch the waist or not, these changes were not supposed to be drastic. Musicals like SIX promote the notion that the ideal cinched waist was 9 inches and others believe 16 inches. But studies into 16-18th century corsets and dresses show that the most common corsets had 20-26 inch waists, with some being 30 inches and very few with waists smaller than 19 inches.

Even the idea that women fainted all the time from the tightness of their corsets appears to be a myth. This came from misunderstandings of the Victorian day beds ‘fainting couches’, made to imitate those found in Ancient Rome.

So how did this idea that corsets were restrictive, horrifying, dangerous garments become so popular? Why does popular media like Enola Holmes and Brigderton make them seem so terrible?

Most likely this comes from the fact that most corsets in media are not custom-made to fit anymore and so are actively uncomfortable to the people wearing them, especially actresses who often complain of such. There was also a disproportionate amount of reporting on the practice of ‘Tight-lacing’ which is exactly as it sounds .

Dress reformers saw tight-lacing as a sign of moral indecency

Tight-lacing was evidently very damaging to internal organs, but it was also extremely uncommon and rather scandalous. Dress reformers saw tight-lacing as a sign of moral indecency and saw women who did this as vapid slaves to fashion, putting their health on the line for vanity.

19th-century dress reformers were mainly reacting to reports of tight-lacing but they campaigned against all corsets, believing that a change in fashion would change women’s position in society and that women’s fashion was a “male conspiracy” made to “make women subservient”. Despite these protests and arguments very little changed about women’s undergarments until the 20th century.

This was the end for the corset as a serious piece of everyday wear

Firstly, during WWI more women worked in heavy industry in mechanics, munitions, driving and nursing, so they were better served with different undergarments. The ‘bra’ as we know it has been invented and reinvented myriad different times in every point of history and on every continent. But in 1914, Polly Phelps Jacob patented the ‘brassiere’ and it took off amongst The Allies, especially after she sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in 1917. This was the end for the corset as a serious piece of everyday wear.

Secondly, there was Christian Dior’s ‘waspie’ waist cincher in the 40s-50s which brought the corset back into the world of haute couture. This received pushback from female Parliament members as corsetry had been banned under rationing during WWII.

It became a staple of modern fashion trends

Vivienne Westwood’s use of the corset throughout the 80s and 90s pushed the corset as a piece of fashion outerwear. Alongside the release of Moulin Rouge! (2001), it became a staple of modern fashion trends.

‘Corset’ now refers to any garment that resembles a traditional corset even when they no longer fulfil their original purposes of waist training, changing the body shape or supporting other items of clothing. With the re-emergence of corsets in recent years came the revival of old myths and talking points. Some women in the 1800s clearly thought that corsets were subjugating and problematic but with their lack of purpose now, does this legacy still hold up?

From a modern perspective, corsets were seen to police people and especially women’s bodies, push a certain fashionable body shape onto women in every time period since its inception and used to define what femininity looked like.

In the late 19th century American artist Charles Gibson penned his ideal feminine body called the ‘Gibson Girl’ which he saw as a composite of “thousands of American girls” who was a fragile and voluptuous but not lewd figure held in place by an exaggerated swan-bill corset.

We don’t have these same connotations today

American women abolitionists and members of the Temperance (anti-alcohol) Movement of the late 1800s thought that a corset was necessary to maintain a good upright figure necessary for a moral and well-ordered society. In this way, they were used as status signifiers and were symbols of respectability. When looking at the issues that judging people on their ‘respectability’, class or other material outer signifiers which socially pressures people to present a certain way, this can certainly be problematic. But we don’t have these same connotations today.

Today, most people wear corsets like any other trend. We watch Urban Outfitters cycle through the different colours every few weeks, or get an Instagram ad for a floral corset top from Cider and see every different style of imitation corset from the bustier to the bralette to the waist-cinching belts, and that is the main problem with modern corsets.

The biggest pushers of corset tops are fast fashion brands which are notoriously terrible for the environment, global workers’ rights and even consumer safety. Unless it comes from an actual corsetier, any corset top you see is bound to be made in an unethical way, they are a problem only in so much as the entire modern fashion industry is problematic but have mainly left their less than stellar reputation in the mythical past.

Adaora Elliott

Featured image courtesy of Jonathan Mendoza via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article image 1 courtesy of @sixthemusical via Instagram. No changes were made to these images.

In article image 2 courtesy of @urbanoutfitters via Instagram. No changes were made to these images.

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