Here you find an adviser and guide about corset wearing, figure training and tightlacing on the topic “What is a corset?”
Which associations do you have when you hear the word ‘corset’? Maybe fainting, discomfort, agony, etc.? Unfortunately this is the case with many people. The following compilation of questions and answers, based on my own experiences, is to do away with the corset’s negative reputation, to list its positive effects and to inform you about the practical use of corsets today, in our time. After having read this information you should associate corsets with elegance, grace and attractivity.
What is a corset?
A corset is a stiff garment belonging to the undergarment, which fits tightly to the upper body and is intended to shape it according to the fashion line in force at the time. Therefore, the corset changed shape and cut several times over the centuries; the stiffening methods changed with the progress of technology.
The corset has been part of female undergarments for a long time now; it has a long tradition. It has been worn since the 15th century; and it is still worn today, although not by many women. The corset’s great period was around the turn of the century, during the so-called ‘Belle Epoque’, about 130 years ago. In the 1950ies it was a very fashionable garment, as well.
Corsets are usually made of firm materials (such as satin, brocade or cotton) and embrace the torso from the hips up to the bosom. Wrinkles in the material are prevented by flexible busks. A robust front clasp makes it possible to put the corset on and pull it off fast. The lacing is at the back; it functions just like the lacing of shoes or boots.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Greek figure was the ideal that every woman wanted to achieve (high round breasts, long shapely limbs). Her soft, light muslin dress clung to the body and showed every contour. Therefore, all superfluous undergarments that could spoil the silhouette were abandoned, including the whalebone stiffened laced bodice. In France, where the social order had been completely overthrown with the consequence of the loss of morals, this fashion was followed more than in England. However, there are very many references in English and French literature, on the one hand to the use, on the other hand to the abandonment of the laced bodice, so that one can assume that both may have occurred. The young girls and women with a pretty figure will probably have dispensed with it. Those who were not so fortunate had to resort to something in order to be able to wear the simple dresses and to keep their excess pounds in check.
Many of the simple muslin dresses of the 1800’s were attached to a cotton lining with two separate pieces that crossed and fastened under the breasts in the front. This acted as a kind of brassiere and was often the only kind of bodice worn. But in many cases this was not enough. In England, the whalebone stiffened laced bodice of the late 18th century continued to be worn. Sometimes, to suit the prevailing fashion, they were pulled up over the hips, with the pendants replaced by gussets. For the very slender it was reinforced with padding, and for the stronger figures it was heavily stiffened with whalebone. Since this long corset was mostly seen only in caricatures at the time, we can assume that it was not an elegant garment, but a tool for controlling unfashionable figures. Many experiments seem to have been made to achieve the true Grecian form, including a long knitted corset of silk or cotton. It is interesting to note that in France the old name corps had almost disappeared, and henceforth all kinds of tight-fitting undergarments were called corsets, a custom copied in England, although the old name stays was also retained. In French and English ladies' journals around 1809-1810, there was an outcry against the return of the corset: a longer torso, more substantial dresses, and a more accentuated waist of dresses made it more popular again.
A new type of corset began to take shape, completely different from its predecessor, the whalebone stiffened laced bodice. Now the emphasis was no longer on a stiff, straight torso, but on curved, sinuous lines that emanated from a narrow waist. Again, it started with a simple bodice made of strong cotton material (jean or later called coutil). As long as the waist was still high, two pieces were enough for the front and two pieces for the back, the middle front sometimes curved, the back front was usually adjusted. The breasts were given roundness by two or more gussets inserted at the top of the corset on each front. The hips were also fitted by one or more gussets inserted at the bottom of each side.
As the waist gradually became longer and more accentuated, additional parts were added, or, from about 1835, a so-called basque-shaped part, which enclosed the hips. At first, while the dress was still slim, this bodice was quite long in the hips, but it became shorter as the dress increased in fullness, and by mid-century it was sometimes very short indeed. A wide busk was used at the front, and narrow whalebones at the back. For stronger figures, side ones could be added, as well as additional whalebone bars. It was usually laced in the back and had shoulder straps until the 40s. Although there were some modern tailors who specialized in making corsets (corsetière), they were often made at home, and patterns and instructions for making them can be found in ladies' magazines until the late 1860s. These corsets followed the modern silhouette, the waist was cut much longer in the 40s and then much shorter again in the 50s and 60s.
With the industrial development in the 19th century, many inventions emerged that helped the corsetière: Metal eyelets in 1828, the first steel front closure (front-busk-fastening) in 1829, many ideas for lacing and unlacing. In 1832, Jean Werly, a Frenchman, applied for a patent for woven corsets. They were made on a loom, with shaping gussets incorporated into the weaving process. These corsets, usually made of white cotton and only lightly stiffened, were comfortable to wear and therefore very popular. They were worn until 1889.
In the late 1840s, in France, where lighter corsets were preferred, a new cut was introduced - a corset without gussets, made of 7 to 13 separate pieces, each shaped in to the waist. In the 1860s, when the crinoline was at its widest, and the main function of the corset was to narrow the waist, this type of corset, quite short in cut, became very popular, although worn more on the Continent than in England. Mid-19th century bodices are only slightly stiffened with whalebone, but are stiffened by cording and quilting. Because they were worn over petticoats and crinoline, the front busk and back whalebone stays were very curved toward the waist. White corsets were considered more ladylike, although gray, ash, red and later black were considered more economical. They were mostly made of coutil and usually lined in white.
When in the early 1870s the bustle replaced the crinoline, and the dress began to shape and accentuate the figure at the front and hips, the real time of the corset arrived. People could no longer get by with a homemade item, and the corset industry experienced a huge boom. Around this time, women’s magazines began to give more details and illustrations of various clothing items, as well as advice on corsets, which was quite rare until then. From them you can see the great variety of corset types that now emerged, all made to follow the new line of dresses in which the bodice included the hips, this bodice bodice required a corset that in fact became almost a true bodice. Great was the number of inventions, but the problem was to keep the corset from shifting and folding, and the whalebones from breaking at the waist, which they often did because of the exaggerated curve between the breasts, the incredibly narrow waist and hips.
Various methods of stiffening with whalebone were tried, steel was more commonly used. The demand for whalebone was so great that it became a rare and expensive item and various substitutes, such as cane, had to be used. The two main types of corset making: gusset and basque on the one hand, and one-off on the other, continued to coexist. In the late 60s, the process of steam molding was introduced: When the corset was finished, it was very much starched and dried in shape on a metal mannequin. In 1873, a molded busk appeared, narrow at the top, bending at the waist and tapering into a pear shape at the bottom. It was called spoon busk and was used in modern corsets until 1889. Steam shaping, the spoon busk, and more whalebone and cording, made the corset much heavier and uncomfortable. One model from the early 1980s had twenty molded pieces and 16 whalebone bars on each side, plus the spoon busk.
Although corsets usually had a front closure, there were some that had only one lacing, either in the front or in the back. This was to allow an uninterrupted line under the tight-fitting corsage of the dress. The corset was worn over the petticoats, which were attached to a shaped band to avoid any unnecessary girth at the waist. Sometimes they were also attached to a band that was fastened to the bottom of the corset. Garters only appeared in the late 80s, but by the end of the century they were attached to a separate band looped around the waist. Although they solved the problem of keeping the stockings up, they created a new one: the petticoats now had to be worn over the corsets and this often came into conflict with the dress line.
The corset had now become a very elegant item in the ladies wardrobe and much care was taken in its design and manufacture. There are some lovely examples of the 80s made of black satin combined with yellow, blue, pink or green. The bars were held in their positions by varied embroidery. The most expensive ones were made of satin, for example, a white satin wedding corset decorated with orange flowers. Unmodern models, usually in gray or ash color with cording instead of whalebone, continued to be made for the cheaper trade, workhouses or welfare institutions.
In the late 1880s, the silhouette changed. It became harder and less rounded and the waist (body) became longer, which was known as the Louis XV line. Rows of cording, or short cross bars of whalebone, worked into the top of the corset tightened the contours of the bust. The front steel bar became narrow again and, although still curved over the abdomen, lost the concave curve at the waist. The corset was made according to the same principles as before, but more use was made of elastic inserts. The value of elasticity in corsets had long been appreciated, but the quality was still poor and as a corset material it was not used until the 1920s. The best corsets were made of colored silk, satin or silk brocade, the cheaper ones usually of gray, ash or black coutil, they were always lined. The great development of the corset trade now began to affect the quality of materials and manufacturing. The corsetière could now make an elegant model that fit like a glove and could shape even the most difficult figure as desired.