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Aas far back as 3,000 BC, women’s costumes emphasized the breasts and waist, and in the centuries which followed, women used a variety of corsetry to shape or exaggerate their attributes.

Tortora & Eubank (2010) make reference to figurines dating back to 3,000 BC of Sumerian and Minoan women, who were likely priestesses or goddesses, wearing kaunakes, a type of garment where the waist ends under the breasts and allows the breasts to be exposed. They add that the evidence is not clear as to whether all women bared their breasts (p. 46, 54).  Harris & Johnson (1971) state that Cretan women appear to have worn open fronted bodices which framed their bare breasts, and flounced skirts that swelled their hips out below a tiny waist.  But, they caution that the baring of breasts may have been part of a fertility cult and not a common practice (p. 53).

In the 11th century, the wearing of costumes exposing a woman’s neck, the top of her chest, and cleavage, was common in Europe.  This fashion continued through to the Victorian period (1832-1901).  Some men were grateful of these costumes, but others like Dante and members of the clergy condemned it.  Dante (1266-1321), for instance, denounced the ladies of Florence for public décolleté that “showed the bosom and the breasts” (Durant, 1950, Part IV, p. 834).

In the 1400s, Agnès Sorel (1421-1450), mistress to Charles VII of France (1403-1461), started a fashion trend when she wore décolleté gowns in the French court which fully bared her breasts.  Durant (1953) relates that under the appreciative eyes of Francis I (1494-1547), French women opened their bodices to display their swelling bosoms, and they also cut their gowns in the back almost to the last vertebra.  The ladies, whose natural bust swelled inadequately, would insert an artificial bust or falsie made of wax or cotton in the stays (Part IV, p. 584).  In the 1500s, Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, observed that the ladies “are many times seen to go open-breasted as low as the navel” (Durant, 1961. Part VIII, p. 396).

Women's Corsets

Décolleté was also popular in English courts in the 17th century.  An article on “décolletage” in Wikipedia states that Queen Mary II (1662-1694) and Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), wife of Charles I of England (1600-1649), are depicted in paintings with fully bared breasts.  The article also suggests that displaying the breasts at that time was regarded amongst the aristocracy and upper classes as a status symbol, and as a sign of beauty.

The wasp waist and uplifted bosoms remained popular for several centuries.  For instance, Harris & Johnston (1971) state that up until the early 1800s English women were still gasping in the corset cage that constricted their waists and were fainting in the prison of petticoats that held out their immense skirts (p. 208).   The usage of an artificial bust for small breasted women was maintained.  According to Tortora & Eubank (2010), one disgruntled lover lamented in The Oracle in 1800, that “My Delia’s heart I find so hard, I would she were forgotten.  For how can hearts be adamant when all the breast is cotton” (p. 315).

The introduction of the Empire style dress between 1795 and 1820 brought on sweeping changes to the shape of corsetry.  The high-waist silhouette that reached just below the bust no longer necessitated the wasp-waist corsets.  Fashionable women would now wear a lightweight chemise against the skin made of cotton or linen.  A corset, commonly referred to as a stay, was placed over the chemise.  The corset was cut in a straight line without waistline indentation and it served to push the breasts up and out (Rothestein, 1984, p. 35; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 294-295).

By the mid-1820s the waistline had gradually descended to reach the natural waist.  Women were then wearing corsets with tight lacing around the waist to create the effect of a small waist, and to push out the bosom and flatten the stomach to produce the definitive S-shape curves (Fogg, 2009, p. 11).

According to Hansen (1956), by 1890 corsets were no longer curved and supported with strips of whalebone, steel, or cane.  They were designed with a vertical steel stay which eliminated the abdomen as if by magic and was called the “sans ventre” (p. 49).  Around 1898, skirts flared out into a bell like shape, and the wasp waist became popular again.  Waists were as small as corsets could make them.  Tortora & Eubank (2010) explain that corsets were then shaped to achieve a full curved bust line, narrow-waist, and smooth round hip curve. (p. 387-389).  To make corsets more flexible and lightweight, seamstresses began to use elastic, silk and ribbon with fewer bones (Boucher, n.d., p. 354, 382).

There are several pictures in the Kyoto Costume Institute’s publication for the 18th and 19th centuries of women’s corsets and bodices.  There is, for example, a corset whose frame contains 162 whalebones, dated 1760-1780, as well as full length corsets with a bra shaped top held up with small shoulder straps, dated early 1800s (p. 124-131, 199).  There are two pages of shorter and fancier corsets made out of cotton and satin with steel and whalebones used for the stiffening, dated 1868-1895 (p. 272-273).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000-2013) has interesting pictures of corsets on-line dating back to the 1800s.  See Corset American, 1864-1950 at

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