A Short History of Underwear Part 6 – Women’s Corsetry 1796 – 1875

A Short History of Underwear #6 – Corsetry – Part 2 – 1796 – 1875

Fashions changed dramatically in about 1796. A high waisted, “empire” style of ladies’ dress de-emphasised the waist and “stays” became a lot less constrictive. “Short stays”, or a “corsette”, was worn to primarily support the breasts, while still also supporting the back and improving posture. Slight slimming of the upper torso was achieved, though this wasn’t considered to be a priority. The  corsette was about six inches long (15cm).

For a short time between 1800 and 1811, before another short reprieve, corsets lengthened again, to cover the hips and push up the breasts. They were made of heavy duty buckram stiffened with whalebone. Padded cup supports for the breasts were sometimes included, enhancing these as a feature.  With a steel busk at the front, these corsets were laced from behind – not easy to manoeuvre in and out of! The point of these corsets was to minimise the hips dramatically (and uncomfortably) and push the breasts as high as possible – quite a shelf of flesh was achieved in larger breasted women! Some even reached the vicinity of the chin!

In 1811, a pregnancy corset (The “Pregnant Stay”) was produced to enclose the pregnant body from shoulders to hips and compress the shape with elaborate boning. Not good for the health of mother or baby, one would think.   In 1816 the “Divorce Corset” appeared – to lift and separate the breasts, it was a triangular piece of iron, padded and curving at the sides.

By the 1830s, fashion brought the waist back to its natural position. At this time the true corset reappeared and had the dual purpose of breast support and waist narrowing. Herein we see the stereotypical “Victorian” or hourglass corset we usually think or when corsetry is brought to mind. This was also the birth of the term “corset” as part of the English language.

Initially, clothing still exaggerated the shoulders, so the waist needed be laced only slightly to achieve a narrowing effect, as with the voluminous skirts in fashion at the time as well. By the 1830s, however, shoulder exaggeration disappeared and the waist had to be cinched even further to achieve the true hourglass figure. The corset was shaped severely and flared well above the waist and began to be mass produced. When working in the home, a “demi-corset” of half length was worn to allow bending and performing household duties – a full corset allowed no such natural movement.  Even walking and sitting were a chore.

(Sometimes common sense did prevail – and the breast and hips were padded so the contrast  between these and the waist was greater and lacing did not need to be quite so extreme).

Interestingly, tightlacing was not simply a fashion statement. It also became a symbol of moral restraint. Tightlacing even came to be a health concern: weakening of the back and abdominal muscles from wearing corsets meant that corsets became required for remaining upright, yet they brought with them pain, breathlessness, fainting, constipation, gas, and other health issues including liver damage.

In the late 1860s, there was even a spring loaded fastening corset, for front fastening – heavy metalwork for restriction and shaping. Some women spent only an hour every week – while they bathed – without being tightlaced to within an inch of their proverbial lives.

Girls were introduced to corsets at the age of fifteen, and the ideal was for a waist of 23 inches. The aim was that this be reduced to as low as thirteen inches within two years. An ideal of the time was that an unmarried girl have a waist measurement no more than the same in inches as her years in age. Hardly natural!

Next week – Corsetry 1875 – 1920