A Short History of Underwear Part 5: Women’s Corsetry #1 – 2000BC – 1790

A Short History of Underwear Part 5:  Women’s Corsetry #1 – 2000BC – 1790

Say the word “corset” and all kinds of images spring to mind: from sexy or fetishist lingerie to nightmare-inducing days of old where women were tight-laced within an inch of their lives (literally!) to fit with the dictates of the fashions of the time and even as a symbol of society’s morality.

There is, however, much more to the story. Not even originally used primarily to narrow the waist, its primary function in earlier times was to change or enhance the body’s shape, particularly support and position the breasts.

The word “corset” comes from 12th Century France, and meant a “laced bodice”.  A corset was commonly referred to as “stays” from about 1600 to the 1900s.

The earliest images of the corset date from Crete in 2000BC. At that time it was worn as a snug but not tight outer-garment to support the mid-section.

The corset became very popular in Italy in the early 1500s and was brought to the French Court by Catherine de Medici. It consisted at that time of a tight, elongated under-bodice, and was worn with a farthingale: a device worn under skirts to hold them in a stiff cone shape. The corset had shoulder straps and was of an inverted cone shape to oppose the conical shape of the skirts. Made of an iron frame covered in velvet, its purpose was to flatten the bodice (including the breasts) to push the breasts up and enhance the bust where they were pushed out from the top of the bodice. Narrowing of the waist was of little to no concern.

By the mid-1500s the corset had made its way into fashion throughout the rest of Europe and Britain and was more comfortably made of whalebone and wood.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, corsets were made of a  very stiff whalebone. A “busk” was worn, constructed of a mixture of whalebone, wood, ivory, horn or metal to stiffen the front of the bodice, and was removable from the “stays”, which were made of multiple layers of linen.  While some women found it fashionable to cinch the waist (the queen did so), the emphasis was still on the contrast of the flatness of the bodice and the curving top of the breasts. Others did not wear corsets at all – Mary Queen of Scots is said to have not worn a corset.

During the French Revolution, corsetry spent a time being out of fashion.

In the early 1700s, an inverted conical shape was given to the bodice to contrast with the fullness of the skirts worn below. The corset’s purpose was to raise the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back and improve posture, while only slightly narrowing the waist. Informally, quilted linen “jumps” were worn to give slight support. Only partially boned, they were less restrictive and more comfortable.

Corsetry was about to change by the 1790s…

 Next Week – Corsetry Part 2 – 1796 – 1875