A Short History of Underwear #7 – Corsetry – 1875-1920
Another dramatic change in women’s fashion occurred around 1875; the large crinoline skirt made way for longer, slimmer lines of dress design. This elegant look, combined with such a narrow waist, had what is possibly an unsurprisingly positive effect on the male libido – even more incentive for women, during what was such a morally repressive time, to continue tightlacing.
To fit in with these new dress designs, corsets were required to be longer, covering the entire hip area as well as up to the bust. In 1876 the “swan-bill” corset made its debut: it had a very long, strong, front-fastening busk, with a curved end. Back fastening corsets were also sometimes worn, as the fastenings at the front were apt to interfere with the close-fitting bodices of slim fitting dresses.
“Hose supporters” were also beginning to be attached to the corset, to replace garters.
Corsets were now made for beauty as well as function, from silk, satin and brocade with lace trimmings, and in rich, jewel colours.
During the 1890s, the full hourglass was again in vogue and women padded their hips and shoulders, and wore huge “leg’o’mutton” sleeves while cinching their waists to the extreme, to facilitate a true hourglass look.
By 1902, corsetry had again evolved to provide a whole “New Look”. An new era (Edwardian) saw this look immortalised by the drawings of Charles Gibson. The figure was corseted into an “S-bend” shape: unnatural, uncomfortable, but oh so desirable, a very firm front busk forced the breasts up and forward, hips back and bottom out, this look was further enhanced by the wearing of a bustle. The waist was narrowed and made to look long in the front and short in the back.
Also known as the “health corset”, and devised by a medical doctor, it was considered to place less damaging pressure on the stomach and provided less breast support. This was surely counteracted by the pressure on the spine of the wearer.
By 1908 corsets were worn longer and longer, to slim the hips as well. Mid-thigh was a common end point for the corset, yet they did not always extend so high on the breast. Sitting down was particularly uncomfortable, if not impossible. Unless wealthy, most women wore corsets of coutille, which is basically modern-day denim.
Fortunately for women, the corset became of secondary concern with the coming of WWI. Metal was needed for the war effort, and less constricting fashions were adopted out of necessity as well as common sense. By the time the war came to an end in 1918, it was the dawn of the “Flapper” era … and a completely new body shape for women was to be the ideal.
Next week –Just what do Scots wear under those Kilts?