History of Corsets: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

Written by: Laraib Javed



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Short Answer: History of Corsets: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

Corsets have been a popular fashion item for centuries, worn by women for a variety of reasons. Whether it's to achieve a particular silhouette or to enhance their posture, corsets have been a significant part of fashion history. But where did they come from, and how did they evolve into the garments we know today?

In this article, we will explore the rich History of Corsets that has evolved over time, from its origins in ancient Greece to its role in Victorian fashion and today's modern era.

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Early Corsets: From Greek Goddesses to Medieval Europe

Minoans and their use of corset-like garments

The Minoans, an ancient civilization that existed on the island of Crete from around 3000 BCE to 1100 BCE, were known for their sophisticated and elaborate fashion sense. They were one of the first cultures to use corset-like garments, which they called a "strophe." The stropion was a simple garment made of linen or wool that was wrapped around the midsection and tied tightly to create a slimming effect.

Corsets in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, women also wore corset-like garments called "apodeme." The apodeme was made of linen and was wrapped around the midsection, then tied tightly to create a slimming effect. However, unlike the strophic of the Minoans, the apodeme did not lift the breasts.

Evolution of Corsets: 16th - Century to modern day


Corsets during the mid-16th century

Corsets were first used in Italy during the mid-16th century. They were initially designed to be worn as an undergarment and were made of a stiff material that would hold the body in place. The purpose of the corset was to create a slender waistline and an elongated torso, giving women a more elegant and refined appearance.

Catherine de Medici was an Italian noblewoman who became the Queen of France in the mid-16th century. It is said that she introduced the corset to France, as a way to enhance women's figures and improve their posture.

The corset quickly became popular among French women, and it was soon seen as a symbol of high fashion and social status.

Corsets were worn both as undergarments and outer garments to flatten the stomach and emphasize the fullness of the skirts and chest. In cases where corsets were worn as outer garments, decorative "stomachers" were worn over the laces on the front.

The shape of corsets was achieved using whalebone or other sturdy materials laced through the fabric. Throughout these centuries, the primary goal of corsets was to shape a prominent chest while slimming the stomach and waist for women.

Corsets in the 17th century

During this period, corsets were primarily used to create a conical torso shape, flattening the bust and emphasizing a small waist.

In the early 17th century, corsets had a slightly high waistline, emphasizing the bust and creating a cone shape. These corsets were made from stiff material, usually whalebone or steel, and were tightly laced to create a slender figure.

Women wore these corsets under their gowns, which were also constructed to highlight the bust and the high waistline.

The Long and Rounded Front Corset

As the 17th century progressed, the waistline of the corset dropped slightly, and the shape of the corset evolved into a long and rounded front. This shape was achieved by padding the corset at the front and using curved bones instead of flat ones. The neckline also changed, becoming round and open, emphasizing the neck and shoulders.

Corsets in the 18th century

During the 18th century, there was a popular type of undergarment known as a pair of stays. These stays had a long torso, shoulder straps, and were boned and laced.

 They were primarily intended to shape the torso into a fashionable long conical shape while lifting and suppressing the bust, rather than reducing the waist size.

The stays had tabs at the base of the garment, allowing the hips more room and comfort while pulling in the waist and pushing up the bust. It was essential that the stays were tailored to fit the individual and provided support rather than restriction.

To maintain a straight and upright posture, a stay busk, which was a piece of wood, was often placed into a pocket on the front of the stays.

The stay busk typically extended from the bust to the pubic bone, making it challenging to bend over.

Corsets in the 19th century

Corsets in the 19th early century were simpler and designed to support the breasts just under the bust and create a columnar shape by using cording and a center busk. As the century progressed, the fashionable waistline gradually dropped back to its natural position, and corsets were widened at the hip and bust line to create an hourglass figure.

During the mid-19th century, corsets laced up the back and had busk to create the flat front and upright posture required by fashion and decorum. It was typically made of ivory, wood, bone, or metal and was bent to fit the curve of the wearer's waist to bosom.

In Margaret Swan's picture from c. 1857, we see how the new fashion moves the waist to the natural waistline. The corset is shorter and creates a rounded bosom and a short, narrow, defined waist. Fuller skirts, padding, and wide sleeves further emphasized this shape in fashionable dress.

In 1879, the metal "spoon" busk was invented for corsets. Its unique spoon shape allowed for more comfortable and efficient compression of the abdomen, which helped control bulging. This invention was a significant development in corsetry, as it improved the wearer's comfort while still providing the desired hourglass figure.

In addition to the spoon busk, a new method of steam-molding corsets was patented in 1868. This technique made it possible to stiffen corsets into the curvaceous hourglass shape that was popular in the late 19th century, particularly during the 1870s and 1880s.

The steam-molding method allowed for corsets to be molded and shaped to fit the wearer's body, resulting in a more comfortable and personalized fit.

Overall, these two innovations greatly impacted the design and construction of corsets in the late 19th century, improving both the wearer's comfort and the fashion ability of the garment.

Corset in 20th century

The fashion silhouette has undergone significant changes throughout history. In the early 20th century, the S-curve silhouette was popular, created by a straight-fronted corset that pushed the hips back and allowed the bosom to hang low.

By the 1920s, the columnar silhouette emerged, where dresses appeared to be two-dimensional and hung from the shoulders. This silhouette necessitated the development of the brassiere to support the bosom.

In the 1930s, the silhouette regained some structure, with evening dresses clinging to the curves of the female body and suits for day wear being carefully tailored.

The 1947 introduction of Christian Dior's "New Look" brought back the structured silhouette of the 19th century with sloped shoulders, a constricted waist, and padded hips. The undergarments created to achieve this silhouette included the narrow waist cincher and a reinforced brassiere.

In the 1960s and '70s, the ideal silhouette shifted towards a slender body, and girdles became obsolete.

In the 1980s, there was a brief return to shoulder pads and a flattered waistline, but the ideal body shape remains tall, slender, and adolescent.

Historicist revivals in the 1990s have brought variations to the silhouette, but the revealed body continues to dominate fashion.

The modern-day corsets

In recent years, corsets have undergone a transformation, shifting from functional to fashionable.

One of the most significant drivers of the corset trend is its use in film and television. Historical dramas like "Bridgerton" and "Outlander" have brought the corset back into the mainstream. The costumes in these productions are often made with modern materials, which make them more comfortable to wear while still retaining the classic silhouette.

Corsets for Men History, Modern Styles, and Choosing the right corset

Corset fashion has also been popularized by celebrities, influencers, and social media. Kim Kardashian, for example, has been known to wear corsets for both formal events and casual outings.

The modern-day corset comes in a variety of styles, from the classic overbust corset to the more modern waist trainer. Waist trainers, in particular, have become popular in recent years due to their ability to compress the waist and create a more defined silhouette.

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