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HISTORY OF WOMEN’S CORSETS FROM THE 16th to 20th CENTURY

INTRODUCTION:

an example of a ghastly corset originating from France, dated 1580-1600, is pictured in The Kyoto Costume Institute’s (1980) collection publication.  The corset is completely constructed in rusty looking metal or iron designed in leafy openwork.  The front of the corset is made-up of one piece of metal and its shape suggests that it ended under the bust line with two upward points beginning at arm level and extending towards the shoulders.  The back of the corset is made out of two pieces of metal with a V shaped opening in the middle of the back with hinges at the bottom of the V.  The top parts of the V are shaped to cover the shoulder blades.  On one side of the corset there are hinges for opening and closing it and a lever at the bottom for holding it in place when worn (p. 15, Inventory AC 9250-95-45).  It is a relief to hear Tortora & Eubank (2010) state that although there are examples of steel and iron corsets in museums dating back to the 16th century, there is no evidence that they were worn as fashionable dress (Tortora & Eubank, p. 215).

Evolution of Corsets

The precursor of the corset was likely the tightly laced cote worn by women of the Medieval Period (5th to 15th centuries).  The cote is an outerwear bodice with two layers of fabric stiffened by glue (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 215).  In the early 16th century, when corsets first made their appearance in Europe, they were constructed out of stiff material but later on steel stiffeners were sewn into the lining.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, stiffening materials such as steel, whalebone, wood, or cane were inserted into the seams or linings of different types of corsets and bodices (Hansen, 1956, p. 129; Rothstein, 1984, p. 173).  In the 1500-1600s, when fashion dictated rigidity in dress, European women donned a corset or bodice created to flatten the curves by compressing the stomach and the breasts until they almost disappeared.  After the 16th century, women’s corsets and bodices were designed to slim the waist and uplift the breasts so that they would swell out, resembling to some degree, the exaggerated curves of a modern day “Barbie” Doll”.

medieval corsets

Impact of Corsets on Health

In reference to women’s dress before the 19th century, Sichell (1977) states that the human body inside these costumes was subjected to “tortuous aids; nothing was natural or simple, shoulders, waists, stomachs, and hips were constructed, corseted and padded, wired, distorted, molded into man’s fashionable style” (p. 6).  According to Lee (2003), women at that time were slaves to fashion and were certainly misguided souls when it came to the wearing of extreme corsets (p. xi).   There are many anecdotes of women gasping for air and fainting because of their tightly laced corsets.  The corset was undoubtedly a danger to health as it pushed against the rib cage, dug into the stomach, and likely put pressure on the organs.  In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of France, had commented to his physician Corsivart (1755-1821) that the corset “is the murderer of the human race” (in Boucher, n.d., p. 347).

corsets on health

Recent studies support to a certain degree Napoleon’s concern about a possible link between tight corsets and female infertility.  In 1999, C. J. Dickinson, professor emeritus at Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, theorized that close-fitting clothing could cause a painful condition known as endometriosis that strikes about 5.5 million American women.  Lee (2003) summarizes Dickinson as follows:

The endometrium, the tissues like that which lines the uterus, develops into small, usually benign growths outside the uterus, such as the ovaries or on the fallopian tubes.  Since these lesions are actual pieces of uterine lining, they still behave like it, responding to the woman’s monthly cycle and trying to shed, except they have nowhere to go, so the result is often internal bleeding and formation of scar tissue. (p. 225-226).

Lee then makes a case that in India, where women wear loose-fitting clothing; there are far fewer cases of endometriosis in the last thirty years than in America (pp. 225-226).

Other possible side effects of wearing tight-waisted clothing can include breathing problems, achy muscles and joints.  Dr. Octavio Bessa, a physician in Stamford, Connecticut, argues that tight clothing can also create digestive troubles such as heartburn and distension.  Ken Biegeleisen, M.D., a Manhattan vascular specialist, hypothesizes that there may be a link between tight-waisted clothes and the blocking of blood flow that can pool in the veins causing varicose veins, for example (in Lee, p. 224-225).

Women’s Social Status and Corsets

victorian women in corsets

Lee (2003) argues that corsets were a sort of torture chamber imposed on women by men in wicked hopes of making them literally the weaker sex, but that women may possibly have used them to make themselves more powerful (p. xiii).  Kent (1999) reminds us that before the 1900s, women had no legal rights.  Living in a patriarchal society, they were perceived by men as the weaker sex and inferior and subordinate to them.  Married women, in particular, faced restrictions in common law making them the property or “chattels” of their husbands.  This meant that a woman’s body belonged to her husband (Kent, 1999, p. 5, 22, 200, 253).  However, can we really blame men for women’s deforming fashions?  Or, were women victims of their own outlandish trends?   From the 19th century onwards, women began to behave in new and nontraditional ways.  Not only did they demand the right to control their bodies, but also to engage in political and religious debate.  In the early 20th century, emancipated women rid themselves of all constricting forms of dress like the corset to pursue an active lifestyle.

CORSETS DESIGNED TO FLATTEN THE FEMININE CURVES

CORSETS DESIGNED TO FLATTEN THE FEMININE CURVES

The literature on the history of fashion indicates that between 1500 and 1600, court women in Spain, England, and France wore costumes which concealed the feminine curves necessitating the wearing of firm types of laced up corsets or bodices that gave the body an immobile and rigid appearance.

From the 1500s to mid-1600s, Spanish women wore a corset or bodice which compressed the breasts until they almost disappeared and flattened the belly so that it did not swell too much out.  In this type of deforming corset a strong piece of wood, steel, or whalebone (referred to as “busk”) would be sewn into one or more casings provided in the stays and would then be shoved down to the middle of the stomacher to keep it straight.  Steel busks, for instance, could measure half a yard long, forming a vertical line from the bust down over the stomach (Boucher, n.d., p. 227; Durant & Durant, 1961, Part VIII, p. 277; Hansen, 1956, p. 129, 132, 134; Rothstein, 1984, p. 18; Sichell, 1977, p. 52; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 215).

In England, following the coronation of Queen Elizabeth (1553-1603) in 1559, a new era of fashion resembling Spanish styles required court women to wear a corseted bodice which was extremely rigid.  It was stiffened with wooden or whale-bone stays, and usually fastened down the left side by hooks.  According to Harris & Johnston (1971), some women maintained the rigid stomacher when wearing a costume that had puffed sleeves, huge skirts, and high or low cut necklines.  And, in some cases, the pious high Spanish neckline was cut so low that the breasts were exposed (p. 195).

During the early part of the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), courtly French women would wear a tight fitting corset to uplift the breasts (Hanson, 1956, p. 148), but once Louis’ second wife, Mme de Maintenon (1683-1715), set court fashion; she brought new rigidity to court dress.  Female curves were now disciplined with stomachers which flattened the chest like a board (Harris & Johnson, 1971, p. 203).

The trend to distort the body’s curves was short lived in European courts and replaced with corsets that no longer compressed the breasts.

Click here for History of Women’s Corsets Part 2.

Click here for the History of Women’s Corsets Part 3