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The History of the Corset, a Garment Fraught with Misconceptions

Often demonized as patriarchal torture devices, these garments were seen as a practicality in their day.

history of the corset
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  • 1899 stereoscope card originally captioned: Reducing the Surplus. "Now, Pull Hard!"Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With the popularity of the period drama Bridgerton and the reappearance of the corset in several fashion lines, I find myself reconsidering the narratives and myths that commonly surround this garment. I’m particularly struck by the image of Kiera Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean, fainting and taking a sharp plunge into the ocean, as well as Vivien Leigh ordering to be laced in more tightly before the barbecue at Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind

While I’m not about to hold the corset up as some kind of great liberator, as it was one of many societal expectations for women of past time periods, I do have a (whale)bone or two to pick with the common misconceptions surrounding the garment. Modern media depictions of the corset show it to be a torture device foisted upon women by the patriarchy, used to keep them slender and relatively immobile. 

Let’s start there: women were not the only ones who wore corsets. 

Corsets: They Weren’t Just for Women

history of the corset
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  • 1893 advertisement for men's corsets.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Yes, like high heels before them, men commonly wore corsets in the 1800s. The fashion standards of the era were as high for them as they were for the average woman, and the form-fitting coats and trousers that were considered chic at the time led men to adopt the same undergarments in order to present a slim waist. This trend was prevalent throughout the 19th century; companies went so far as to design and offer men an everyday corset.

Origins of the Corset

During the Regency era, women commonly wore "stays." Stays are occasionally referred to as corsets, but there are a few key differences. Stays were often made of cotton, linen, silk, or sateen, and had very little boning. They had shoulder straps, and support came from the quilting in the pattern, as well as from a long, stiff busk (which was often made of wood or bone and looked something like a ruler) inserted into the front. These garments often had higher waistlines to accommodate the empire waist that was popular at that time. The main purpose of the garment was to support the bust while flattening the stomach and hips—similar to the shapewear that would become popular in the 1920s (and remain popular long after). 

Related: Coco Chanel’s Legacy, From Iconic Fashion Designer to Nazi Collaborator

The average Victorian corset, the front-opening variety that many of us are familiar with, was initially patented in 1848 by a man named Joseph Cooper. His revolutionary design included a front-fastening busk, allowing the corset to be taken on and off without being unlaced at the back. This was crucial for people who didn’t have anyone to help them in and out of these garments every day. 

Because people did wear corsets every day. While the societal standards for women’s beauty are not anything to glorify, it is important to remember that people lived their lives in these garments. In order to do that, one had to be able to move—to pick things up, to bend over to some degree, and tend to children. Not only did the women of upper classes wear them, but the average working woman was expected to as well. It was a foundational garment then in the way that the bra is often considered a foundational garment now. 

history of the corset
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  • 1886 corset advertisement, emphasizing the garment's benefits for health and comfort.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Unlike a bra, however, something was always worn between the corset and the body. One of my biggest pet peeves in period films is when someone removes their corset and the camera lingers on the markings that the boning leaves behind on their skin. Of course it’s going to leave a mark like that—the costume designer didn't give them a shift to wear underneath. The average Victorian woman would never put a corset on without something underneath it—whether it be a chemise, a shift, or some combination of the two (some undergarments had a camisole top and bloomer-like bottoms, similar to the rompers of today). These garments were typically made of lighter fabrics similar to stays, but included whalebone to provide a more rigid structure. 

Just as sports bras today are designed for support and ease of movement while exercising, women in the Victorian era had a different type of corset for sports. Could they jump a hurdle while wearing one? Doubtful. I can’t jump a hurdle when I’m not. But Victorian women weren’t idle simply because they were laced up. They engaged in archery, bicycle riding, tennis—all while wearing a corset and a skirt. These sports corsets were modified and "ventilated," with space between the whalebone and cotton to allow better ease of movement.

The Victorian era saw not only the rise of the corset, but the invention of the crinoline  in the late 1840s. This spring hoop was made of light metal springs and gave women the desired bell shape that was fashionable at the time. Rather than having to pile on what would sometimes amount to 14 pounds of petticoat resting around their waists, Victorian women tied on a crinoline hoop, which gave them more ease of movement. These bell shapes and the padding of hips and shoulders also created the illusion of much smaller waists—an image that is often attributed to tight-lacing corsets. The crinoline hoop would go out of style by the 1870s, but its design would evolve with the rise of single- and double-bustles in the 1880s and ‘90s. 

What is Tight-Lacing?

history of the corset
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  • Illustration from 1905.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tight-lacing: the root of several corsetry misconceptions.

This is one of the most heavily perpetuated corset stereotypes across media. In any book, film, or television show set between the 1600s and the 1800s, writers and directors seem to necessitate a scene where a young woman holds onto something and winces as her overbearing mother tugs angrily at the strings of her corset, because she is a ruthless husband hunter and her daughter must make a fruitful match. Bridgerton is guilty of this—a show set in the Regency era, when the stays were designed for support and garment flow, not for bust-pushing and flaunting of the natural waist. Stays couldn’t even be tight-laced—there was no boning besides the boning in the busk at the very front. 

When you’re lacing your shoes, do you tighten them to the point that you can’t walk? Probably not—you leave a little wiggle room. Much was the same with the average woman and her corset. Tight-lacing corsets was not the historical norm. While tight-lacing did briefly exist in fashion, it was not a widely held practice. The topic actually arose at a critical point during the Women’s Rights Movement, swelling in the midst of a broader conversation about dress reform. Arguments against tight-lacing came from both the supporters and the nay-sayers of the Women’s Rights Movement.

history of the corset
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  • 1920s satirical cartoon, originally captioned: "A cutting wind, or the fatal effects of tight-lacing".

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Supporters of the Women’s Rights Movement viewed the removal of the corset as a hallmark of freedom. They believed that by removing not only the corset, but petticoats and crinolines entirely, and adopting lighter underclothes, women would have even better ease of movement. This reform movement also saw the introduction of bloomers, which got their name from their proponent, women's rights activist Amelia Bloomer. These were a bifurcated billowing dress-pant. While they were not revealing, the idea of women wearing trousers was still highly controversial. The style was condemned by both men and women, and fell out of fashion rather quickly.

Related: 8 Little-Known Women's History Month Facts

On the other hand, tight-lacing could be seen as a bold act of defiance against the patriarchy. In the later years of the Victorian era, priests held tight-lacing up as a hallmark of vanity and moral indecency. Newspapers and journalists seized on the trend, drawing up satirical articles and cartoons around the topic, condemning women that laced their corsets tightly. Doctors claimed that organs were shifted permanently as a result, that tight-lacing caused tuberculosis, compromised fertility, and made women generally weak. While it's extremely unlikely that the average woman would have suffered ill health effects from her corsets, this idea has been perpetuated in modern discussions of corsetry. 

Corsets in Decline

Corsets continued to be the foundational garment of choice in the early 1900s, through much of the Edwardian era. The patent that we know for the modern bra, or brassiere as it was called then, was filed on November 3rd, 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacobs. There were a combination of factors that led to this development. 

For one, fashion trends had shifted to include lower necklines, sleeker silhouettes (bye bye, bustle), and flowing materials. This made the bulkier corset structure unseemly under some garments. 

Another factor contributing to the decline of corsetry was the First World War. By the early 20th century, steel had replaced whalebone as the boning element in most corsets; a fair amount of it was also needed for the corset’s frame. In 1917, America's War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets, as steel was badly needed. Women were eager to support the war effort, and brassieres were becoming increasingly more fashionable as it was. It’s said that 28,000 tons of steel were diverted from corsetry to the war effort—enough to make two battleships.

Related: These 17 Photos Show How Great-Grandpa Got Ready For WWI

One of the final things that pushed the corset out of style was the rise of flapper fashion in the 1920s. While the shifting fashion trends of the prior era had been focused on accentuating certain parts of the female form, flapper fashion emphasized androgyny and therefore often held a slim, straight silhouette. It removed the need for the S-Shape or the hourglass figure—it was all about looking like your best rectangle. Many of the corset-like undergarments or girdles seen in advertisements from the 1920s are intended to flatten any curves, or reduce the shape of a woman’s stomach or hips.

This lack of a tailored flair ultimately led to the dismissal of the corset and led to the rise of shapewear. We still have altered versions of these garments today that actually emphasize curves. However, the general goal is still the same: to either emphasize or draw attention away from certain parts of the body.

Are they comfortable? Definitely not. 

Could I jump a hurdle in one? We've already established that I cannot jump a hurdle. 

But the idea of the corset hasn’t disappeared altogether—it’s just evolved. 

Media Depictions of Corsets

history of the corset
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  • A scene from 'Bridgerton'.

    Photo Credit: Netflix

Actors and models often state that their corsetry was so uncomfortable that they suffered debilitating side effects (Cara Delevingne said that she lost her voice, Dakota Fanning said that she fainted during her first fitting, and Lily James said that she had to go on a liquid diet while wearing her tight-fitting dress on the set of Cinderella). I’m not discounting their experiences. It’s important to note that corsets can be impeding garments if they’re not made to fit the body properly, and if the body isn’t given time to adjust to them.

In a sense, corsets are like breaking in a pair of shoes—just as you sometimes have to endure blisters before your new footwear feels comfortable, corsets require an adjustment period to achieve optimal performance. With tight shooting schedules, it may not be possible for the actor to have this adjustment period, but if that’s the case, the costuming department should work with them to ensure that they can work comfortably in an unfamiliar garment—whether that’s to alter the design, or to work with the actor to find a happy medium. 

The stereotypes about this garment are only amplified when people in our era do have detrimental experiences in them, and when the misconceptions are continually perpetuated across film and television (Bridgerton...I’m looking at you). 

So, the next time you watch The Alienist, The Prestige, The Favourite, Cinderella (2015), Pirates of the Caribbean, or any of the other numerous movies or shows that come to mind that bolster these misconceptions...give the lacing and placement a second thought.