Tying Up the History of Corsetry
I never knew corsets, thankfully. Neither did my mother, though the corset’s successor, the aptly named foundation garment known as the girdle, was certainly a staple of women in mid-twentieth century America. The latter may have been uncomfortable, but the former was worse. Corsets were a torture device that deformed women’s bodies while molding them into socially acceptable sexual shapes at the same time doing their best to blockade the sexuality they worked so hard to produce.
A corset is an undergarment that shapes the torso, most often cinching the waist and uplifting or flattening the breasts depending on the preference of the time. Though they have changed shape over the hundreds of years they have been in use, corsets have been around nearly from the beginning of human time. Their roots may go back as far as Neolithic times. Archaeological drawings discovered in Norfolk, England show women wearing bodices made from animal hides that laced down the front, but whether these were cinched or merely fastened is unknown.
According to Valerie Steele in The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001):
Corsetry was not one monolithic , unchanging experience that all women experienced before being before being liberated by feminism. It was a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times. Some women did experience the corset as an assault on the body. But the corset also had many positive connotations — of social status, of self-discipline, artistry, respectability, beauty, youth and erotic allure. Far from being just a bourgeois Victorian fashion, the corset originated centuries within aristocratic court culture and gradually spread throughout society—to working class women as well as women of the ruling class.
Several sources claim Cretan women used the corset circa 2000 BC, but this is based on somewhat sketchy evidence—idols with figure-8 shapes that the corset produced. Around 1700 BC, their artwork shows that Minoan women used corsets that were fitted and laced or a smaller corselette that left the breasts exposed. And since men were also depicted as having tiny waists, it is believed they used belts to cinch their waists tight.
Since it was common in ancient civilizations for women to take part in strenuous physical activities, supportive garments included the zona for Grecian women while Cretan women wore heavy rings around their waists and bolero jackets to give their breasts support. In Egypt, women wore a band under their bust. Social aspects of corseting could be seen in Roman society where slaves were tightly corseted as an indication of their lowly social status.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, formerly free-flowing dresses began to be replaced by ones utilizing lacing to shape the garments closer to the body. These early lacings forming the bodice were part of the garments known as kirtles. Surcoats—a garment worn much like an overcoat that encased the body snugly was considered so lewd that Charles V of France threatened to excommunicate anyone who dared to wear one—were also introduced in this time period.
Natural fabrics such as silk, brocade, velvet, and damask required supported construction in order to reveal the body’s shape. The first artificial support, made in Italy, was called a coche, and later became known as a busk in England. It lent a smooth, straight, rigid line to the front of the bodice when laced and, in theory, was supposed to allow the wearer entrance and exit from the garment without disturbing the laces. The earliest known busk was made in 1556 from iron.
By the sixteenth century, a tightly corseted costume was upheld as a symbol of position, rank, and wealth, so much so that in the French court, under the influence of Italian-born Catherine de Medici, ladies-in-waiting were instructed to cinch their waists to a size no bigger than thirteen inches around! This court also introduced a steel framework corset, which was often made up of four plates that were connected at the sides and front while leaving the back open. Other changes included the separation of the bodice from the skirt in order to allow the upper body to become stiffer and tighter while the skirt became heavier and fuller.
As things will, the fashions in corsets changed. During the seventeenth century, there was a less extravagant use of fabric along with the embellishment of the busk. The busk supported an under-bodice made of stiffened linen though iron was later added to the wooden busk to reinforce the garment. The busk fit inside the front of the corset and was made from wood, ivory, metal, or whale bone. The busk became a focal point of interest. A young man might carve or purchase an elegant busk as a present for his favored interest. A young woman might use her busk as a flirtatious point of interest or bestow her busk lacings on an admired gentleman.
The advent of the eighteenth century and the reign of King Louis XIV of France saw a newly corseted look with over-the-shoulder straps and long length (extending down to and beyond the natural waist). Its primary purpose of was to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture to help a woman stand straight, with the shoulders down and back, and only slightly narrow the waist, creating a V-shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn.
During the 1830s, the emphasis was again returned to the waistline so the corset served several purposes. They supported the breasts and narrowed the waist, which produced the hourglass silhouette essential to Victorian fashion. Corsets also served what was seen as a medical necessity. It was widely believed that women (upper class women, that is, rather than coarse working women) were physically fragile and required assistance to hold themselves up. Sadly, this was self-fulfilling as young girls of even three and four years would be laced up into bodices. By the time they were teenagers, they literally could not stand or sit for any length of time without the aid of a heavy canvas corset reinforced with steel or whalebone.
But the corset was more than a fashion or physical necessity; it was also deemed a moral one. As women were considered the “weaker sex,” it was believed that not just their bodies needed help, but also their morals. A loose corset was often seen as the sign of a loose woman. The innocence and virtuosity demanded of “respectable” women required constant vigilance: they could not travel anywhere without a chaperone, read unexpurgated books (even Shakespeare was inappropriate except in the Bowdlerized editions), or dress comfortably.
Such rigid lacing even alarmed some of the medical professionals of the day. But not all. An 1853 book titled The Medical Examiner, and Record of Medical Science offers, in its “Medical News” chapter, a page of information on corsets by M. Bouvier. Its purpose is to offer physicians advice on corsets, and it is worth quoting in full:
The Academy of Medical Science . . . feeling with propriety that no subject affecting the health is below consideration, has given its attention to a report from M. Bouvier upon ladies’ stays . . .The report bears especially upon stays without seams and with a mechanical busk. The learned author, who seems to have ransacked both ancient and modern history for information upon so absorbing a matter, arrives at the following conclusions:
The history of the dress of the principal people of antiquity shows that the want of a retentive garment, more or less constricting around the trunk in the females was felt in ancient as well as in modern Europe.
- In other times, as now, women have been disposed to overdue this circular constriction, to the detriment of their health.
- In the history of modern civilization, one sees, after the relinquishment of the ample tunic of the Roman ladies, the figure first simply surrounded in a well-fitting corsage; then inclosed and bound in a sort of cuirass, called “corps à’baleines;” and, lastly, brought out and supported by the present corset, the last form of this special garment.
- Although corsets, when improperly employed, may be prejudicial, yet, when well made and well adjusted, they have not the injurious effects usually ascribed to them.
- It is an error to attribute the constriction of the lower part of the chest to the influence of stays. A constriction is normal, within certain limits, in both sexes, and subject to very from other causes than the pressure exercised by this article of dress.
- There is no proof that the use of corsets produces deformity of the vertebral column.
- Not only should motives deduced from asthetics [sic] and from the social destination of woman induce the physician to permit the use of corsets, under proper restrictions, but, moreover, there are many circumstances, such as the volume of the bosom, the relaxation or the distension of the muscular wall of the abdomen, the habitual bending of the trunk, the laterial deviation of the spine, etc., which give formal indications for the employment of this sort of bandage, whether upon hygienic principles, or as an aid to cure certain lesions.
Guidebooks for those in proper society were popular as well, and Emily Thornwell’s painfully titled The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility, in Manners, Dress, and Conversation, in the Family, in Company, at the Piano Forte, The Table, in the Street, and in Gentlemen's Society. Also a Useful Instructor in Letter Writing, Toilet Preparations, Fancy Needlework, Millinery, Dressmaking, Care of Wardrobe, the Hair, Teeth, Hands, Lips, Complexion, etc. of 1856 also addresses corsets:
Lacing the chest.--When the chest is scientifically laced as tight as can be borne, it often causes the blood to rush to the face, neck, and arms, on taking exercise or remaining in a heated room. Young ladies at parties frequently become so suffused from this cause, that they present the appearance of a washerwoman actively engaged over a tub of hot suds. Tight lacing also causes an extreme heaving of the bosom, resembling the panting of a dying bird.
Effect of tight lacing on the face, neck, arms, shape, and motion of the body, etc..--those who wear very tight stays complain that they cannot sit upright without them; nay, are sometimes compelled to wear them in bed, and this strikingly proves to what an extent braces of any sort weaken the muscles of the trunk. It is this which disposes to lateral curvature of the spine. From these facts, as well as many others, it is evident that tight stays, far from preventing the deformities which an experienced eye might remark among ninety out of every hundred young girls, are, on the contrary, the cause of these deviations.
. . . In many persons, tight stays displace the breast, and produce an ineffaceable and frightful wrinkle [P. 135] between it and the shoulder; and in others, whom nature has not gifted with the plumpness requisite to beauty, such stays make the breasts still flatter and smaller. Generally speaking, tight stays also destroy the firmness of the breast, sometimes prevent the full development of the nipples, and give rise to those indurations [i.e., hardening] of the mammary glands, the cause of which is seldom understood, and which are followed by such dreadful consequences.
They also cause a reddish tinge of the skin, swelling of the neck, etc. A delicate and slender figure is full of beauty in a young person; but suppleness and ease confer an additional charm. Yet most women, eager to be in the extreme of fashion, lace themselves in their stays as tight as possible, and, undergoing innumerable tortures, appear stiff, ungraceful, and ill-tempered. Elegance of shape, dignity of movement, grace of manner, and softness of demeanor, are all sacrificed to foolish caprice.
By the time David Hale Fanning founded the Worcester Corset Company on March 1, 1872, corsets had long been a standard part of women’s fashion. This business was originally an addition to his Worcester Skirt Company but it soon became the sole business. Corsets, at the time, were mostly imported and Fanning found success in developing an American corporation devoted to this undergarment. The Biographical History of Massachusetts: Biographies and Autobiographies (1914) , a work that obviously flatters those included, notes:
Its factory is not only the largest in the world but is one of the best appointed and most sanitary. From the beautiful offices finished in mahogany, to the operatives’ rooms, well lighted and guarded against accidents, it is a model of its kind. Special care has been given to the health of the employees who now number nearly two thousand. The sick are looked after in a hospital ward, where a trained nurse is always in attendance, while fresh air, sightly surroundings and a specially-provided drinking water supply all make for health and happiness. They further indicate Mr. Fanning’s keen appreciation of the needs of working people and his belief that the best results may thus be obtained for the employed as well as the employer.
The man who founded what became one of the best known companies in the world, though it no longer exists having closed its doors in 1950, was born in Griswold, Connecticut, in 1830. In his teen years, he took an oath to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and developed an interest in the bible. He left home at sixteen, worked in factories, as a journeyman in the machinist trade, been a proprietor of a general store and worked as a salesman. When the Civil War broke out he tried to enlist, but failed to meet the physical requirements so he began a business of manufacturing the current fashion trend, the hoop skirt under the name, the Worcester Skirt Company. When that trend faded it mattered little; his involvement with corsets had already solidified.
Despite the accolades written about him, there were dark sides to the business. Female employees, the mainstay of the company as well as its customers, were invariably assigned to the lowest-paying, most tedious jobs. In Gender, Work, and Space (1995), authors Susan Hanson and Geraldine Pratt point out that the city of Worcester was an active site of suffragism and in fact hosted the first national Women’s Rights Convention in October, 1850. A year later, it hosted the second, which was attended by more than 1,000 people including Lucy Stone, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Under one ad for a corset called “the dowager,” is noted:
The connection between early feminism and Worcester’s industrial fortunes were drawn in the caption beneath this Royal Worcester Corset Co. advertisement . . . the caption read: “During the Women’s Suffrage Convention held in Worcester in 1850 women complained they would never be free until they changed their cumbersome mode of dress. After World War I, women bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, and threw away their corsets. The changing styles brought an end to one of Worcester’s most prosperous industries, corset manufacturing.
A play based on the company was produced in 2006 at the then-new Worcester Technical High School’s theatre. It may seem odd, but the connection between the school and the company is that of David Hale Fanning, who founded both. In his review of the play, critic Bill Zdanis wrote:
People-over-profits seems to be the motto of The Royal Worcester Corset Company. At the turn of the last century this company was the largest employer of women in the country and the largest producer of corsets in the world. Yet from our contemporary understanding of early 20th century industry, we know the working conditions were horrendous, pay was minimal, and employee safety was not a key issue for the company’s owners. It seems a little ironic that everyone loves their job so much in this theatrical 1910 experience; yet just one year later, the horrible conflagration in New York known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred—and all the mistreatments and injustices of industrial labor were brought to light.
Today the old Royal Worcester Corset Factory building, having been restored in the mid-1980s, is a historic landmark.
By the beginning of the twentieth century genuine athletics such as tennis were fast on their way to becoming a widespread interest of women. To accommodate the need for freer movement, the corset became lighter, possessed less boning or sometimes, only cording or quilting. In 1910, the first ventilated mesh corset and the “all-elastic-step in” was introduced.
Two new types of corsets were introduced in the early years of the twentieth century: the s-curve corset in 1900 and shortly thereafter, the straight-fronted corset. The latter’s name is derived from the rigid, straight busk used down the center of the front, and was intended to be less constricting and therefore less injurious to the wearers’ health than other corsets.
But when tightly laced, the straight-front corset put a great deal of pressure on the lower abdomen. This caused the S-curve silhouette that characterizes the popular Gibson Girl silhouette of the period; it also caused lower back pain, breathing difficulties, and knee problems for wearers.
Up next was the pipe-shape corset that was in fashion from 1908 to 1920. It helped to give the slender, straight silhouette seen in the flapper era of the 1920s. It is worth noting that this era also saw the beginning of the end for the corset as bras and girdles began to make inroads. Despite the post-World War II fashions of Christian Dior who popularized the “New Look” that required waist cinchers for the necessary hourglass figure—the corset had pretty much died.
And when the 1960s, with its slogan of letting it all hang out figuratively as well as literally, came along it pretty much killed off not only corsets but their offspring, girdles. Today, corsets are mostly limited to the sexual fetish crowd—who has always been supportive of them (so to speak)—and young women who followed Madonn’s lead beginning in the late 1980s. What these women are wearing, though, is not the standard corset. Though most contain lacing and boning and are made to resemble the corsets of old, they are not designed or worn with intent to mold the body into unnatural shapes or thrust the women who choose to wear them back into submissive, manipulative roles. And I would be willing to bet that Ambrose Bierce would be delighted.
Note: Images of various corset wearers, ads, paintings and more can be found at Corset Galleries pages of the Long Island Staylace Association. These can be amusing, appalling, fascinating, hilarious and even repulsive (one image shows an apparently real woman with an inconceivably tiny waist).
Famous tightlacers from the past
Corset Paintings by the Masters
Children and Tightlacing
Book Jackets, Covers and Illustrations
Bookmark specifications: Royal Worcester Corset Co.
Dimensions: 2 1/4” x 2”
Manufacturer: Royal Worcester
Date: Early 20th century
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,000 bookmarks and approximately 1,200 books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) and Book Publicists of Southern California as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.