The Corset – Ouch

Hey do you remember the corset which eventually led to the brassiere for Ladies? Do you know that the first brassiere did not appear on the market until 1914? And then it took many years before they became acceptable, popular and even available to the average lady in need of one. Let us ‘explore’ the corset and the brassiere in the following paragraphs. You might, as I did, find the topic to be fascinating.

History of the corset – A corset is a close-fitting piece of clothing that has been stiffened by various means in order to shape a woman’s torso to conform to the fashionable silhouette of the time. The term “corset” only came into use during the 19th century; before that, such a garment was usually referred to as a pair of bodies, a stiff bodice, a pair of stays or, simply, stays. In French 18th century texts you can find the term corset as a lightly stiffened bodice with tie-on sleeves, whereas proper stays are called corps.

The origins of the corset are unknown. From the early 16th century, corset-shaped cages of iron are preserved, but it’s almost certain that they had nothing to do with normal clothing. Theories run from early fetish accessories to brute attempts at orthopaedics. Judging from contemporary depictions, stiffened bodices must have been worn around 1530 because the straight, conical line of the torso seen e.g. in portraits of Venetian ladies or Eleanora di Toledo could not have been achieved otherwise. The neckline is relatively high and the chest pressed flat rather than pushed up.

The Corset – Better

In the 18th century, stays are definitely underwear. Only in case of the Robe à l’Allemande, the stiff bodice survived until about 1730, in case of the French court robe even longer. The shape of stays is not much different from that of the 17th century: Conical, pressing the breast up and together, with tabs over the hips. The tabs are formed by cuts from the lower edge up to the waistline that spread when the stays are worn, giving the hips room. They prevent the waistband of the skirt from crawling under the stays, and the waistline of the stays from digging into the flesh.

There are stays that lace at the back and those that lace across a stiff stomacher in front Examples that lace both back and front (but not over a stomacher) are quite rare. Stays that lace in front only are even rarer and so far only known from the region of Southern Germany. In all these cases, spiral lacing is used.

From 1794, the waist moved higher and arrived just under the bust around 1796. A new kind of corset is needed: The torso, hidden under flowing muslin, doesn’t need shaping anymore. The breasts still need lifting, but they’re supposed to stay apart. To achieve this, cups are employed for the first time. The busk, which in the 17th century had served to keep the front of the stays straight, now came back into use to keep the cups apart. The shape follows the natural form of the body and widens over the hips by means of triangular inserts.

The Corset – Oops

Since slender figures could keep the bust in shape with the help of only a firm bodice lining, it is mainly stout and over-endowed ones who wear corsets or short stays which already looked like early bras. Therefore, not many corsets from that time have been preserved. Unlike the earlier ones, they tend to be plain and functional. Maybe the fact that they contained less boning led people to refer to them by the (French) term for lightly boned bodices, corset. This is just a theory, but it would explain why the earlier term corps/stays had been replaced with corset by the 1820s.


When the waist moves back to its natural place during the 1820s, corsets become more popular again. Until the 1840s, well-shaped figures can do without one without drawing looks. In 1828, lacing eyelets with hammered-in metal grommets are invented (until then, eyelets had been stitched). A year later, the planchet came in: Two metal strips, one with little mushroom-shaped heads, the other with eyelets, used to close and open the corset in front without having to undo the lacing every time. This busk, as it is called in English, makes it possible to change the lacing completely: Both ends of the cord are threaded through the eyelets crosswise and knotted together at the end. At waist level, one loop is formed on either side and used to pull the lacing tight. This kind of lacing is still used today.

Around the middle of the 18th century, corsets become mandatory again. The shape is already the famous hourglass that we associate with corsets today. While tailors still experiment with complex, strange and unusual patterns – the shape is still relatively new, after all – the look stays rather plain. From about 1860, when some patterns have caught on, more emphasis is placed on beautiful fabrics and elegant lines again. From the years around 1870-90, a large number of meticulously made corsets has been preserved, partially embroidered and with satin top fabric in various of colours.

Until c. 1870, the crinoline hid anything from the waist down, so corsets ended not much below the waist. Later, dresses closely hug the figure at least in front, so corsets become longer. This development reached a peak around 1880, when the fashionable silhouette hugged the hips on all sides. The belly is tamed, but not flattened, by a new kind of busk: The pear-shaped spoon busk (see right corset in the picture above) bends inwards to compress the stomach region, then outwards over the belly, an in again over the lower abdomen. If laced tightly, a spoon busk forces the soft bits (i.e. fat as well as inner organs) downwards – and during the 1890s, tight-lacing becomes so popular that physicians sound the alarm again.


This unnatural posture makes the originally well-meant corset even more uncomfortable and harmful than any before, causing much damage to the musculoskeletal system. It reaches way down around the hips and for the first time and has long elastic strips sewn to the lower edge with clips on the end to hold the stockings up. Since there still is a long shift between the corset and the stockings, the shift must be pulled and bunched up to fasten the clips to the stockings – yet another source of discomfort that may have led to the demise of first the shift, then the corset. 

The rise of women’s lib, the rational dress movement and progressive designers saw to it that this fashion did not prevail for long: Even before the beginning of WWI, the corset has begun its downslide. Fashion now permits women to wear elegant dresses without a corset. Nevertheless, corsets were still worn for a few years more, but both the S-line and tight-lacing disappear. Elastic inserts give more room for movement – and they have to, because post-1910 corsets reach so far down that they would otherwise prevent the wearer from sitting and walking. The so-called war crinoline (1915/16) with its high waists and flared skirts made even those unnecessary.


1920s to 1950s – One could say that the corsets slid downwards and became more elastic. The straight, waist-less Garçonne fashion of the 1920s favoured only lightly stiffened hip girdles partly made of elastic. They were not supposed to constrict the waist, but to control the belly and hips. The chest was supported (and, if necessary, reduced to a boyish look) by a bra. Girdle and bra persevered through the 30s and 40s as well.

Men’s Corsets

It was Dior’s “New Style” that put the waist back onto centre stage. His models emphasise an extremely small waist and wide hips, so that corsets, or at least a watered-down version of them, see a short-lived renaissance. In the 1950s, elastic girdles without any boning come back, only to be washed away by the flower-power 60s and 70s.

Today – Corsets have probably been worn for erotic purposes during all that time, even while they had been gone from fashion. Only in the 1980s, Madonna brought them back into public attention with the help of her favourite designer, Gaultier – as top garment. Her version, however, was more like a tight bodice than a proper corset. Nowadays, real corsets are only rarely worn. Sometimes a celebrity or lover of historical fashion may wear it visibly as a fashion statement, but mostly, it still is worn underneath for erotic reasons. Whether they be waist-cinchers, under-bust, half-bust or full-bust: The basic shape is still the same as 1860-80, only that they usually don’t compress the waist nearly as much.


Male in decorative Corset

Most legends of course are about impossibly small waists. The “oldest” and most extreme one is the one that asserts that Katerina de’ Medici, Queen of France in the late 16th century, required her ladies-in-waiting to have 13 inch waists. Someone who doesn’t use inches in everyday life will first try to convert that into centimetres and then start to wonder which inch they should use since there were so many different units of that name.

Some early photographs show women – mostly actresses – with extreme waists. In some cases, the rigid, artificial-looking posture shows that this was not their normal state. Retouching was used extensively in those days and brought forth masters of the art. Porn photographs of the time show women who would not be considered slender by modern standards. Sometimes you find quotes from late 19th century magazines reporting that a lady died after having taken a fall in the street. A broken rib was pressed inwards by the tightly laced corset, causing it to puncture a lung or the liver. I have even seen a contemporary magazine which reported the story and therefore believed it – until I found the same story, slightly altered, quoted from a different magazine, from a different year. I am now convinced that we’re dealing with an urban legend.

More Comfortable

The Brassiere – “When I made my debut,” recalled Caresse Crosby in her autobiography, The Passionate Years, “girlish figures were being encased in a sort of boxlike armor of whalebone and pink cordage. This contraption ran from the knee to under the armpit. Over the top of it was hooked a corset-cover of muslin or silk.”

Although she would later gain a reputation as a sexually liberated woman, Caresse Crosby did not invent the brassiere in order to promote a sample of what would become her chosen name. One evening her bulky corset-cover was showing over her décolletage as well as hampering her freedom of movement. She demanded two silk handkerchiefs, a length of pink ribbon, and a needle and thread from her maid and constructed the first modern bra on the spot. It was not a lifting and shaping types that would later be designed but rather a way to squash the bust line flat against the chest, as was considered proper for an unmarried lady of the day.

The backless brassiere was a relief from her confining undergarments. She showed it to her friends in secret and they begged to have one also. She hired a patent lawyer and set about securing rights to the backless brassiere. A US Patent was granted in 1914. After her attempt to sell her bras to the finer stores of New York failed a family friend offered to negotiate the sale of the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. When she was offered $1500 for it she thought it a magnificent sum and sold. Estimates are that Warner made $15 million from the invention over the next 30 years.

Much much Better

(Thus was the introduction of the brassiere or bra. I often wondered why in God’s name did they put the @#%$* snap at the back and out of reach under most circumstances. CAPER)


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