Short History of Corsets

A short history of publicly accepted wearable cages that are called corsets.

Corsets have been an indispensable supportive undergarment for people in Europe, from around the 16th century to the early 20th and evolved as fashion trends changed. They were known depending on era and place, as a pair of bodies, stays, and corsets. The appearance of the garment represented a change from people wearing clothes to fit their bodies to changing the shape of their bodies to support and fit their fashionable clothing.

A pair of bodies or stays, the supportive garments that predated corsets, first became popular in sixteenth-century Europe, with corsets reaching the peak of their popularity in the Victorian era. While the corset has typically been worn as an undergarment, it has occasionally been used as an outer garment; stays as outer garments can be seen in the national dress of many European countries.

For most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries corsets were known, in English, as bodies or stays. These garments could be worn as under or outerwear. The women of the French court saw this corset as "indispensable to the beauty of the female figure." Early pairs of bodies were typically made out of layered fabrics like linen and silk, stiffened with starch, and were not tightly laced as it was impossible to do so in this era without damaging your expensive and ridiculously time-consuming make, bust support garment.

The most common type of corset in the 1700s was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a contrast between a rigid quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and heavy full skirts below. The primary purpose of 18th-century stays 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; however, "jumps" of quilted linen were also worn instead of stays for informal situations.

By the 1830s, steel stays had begun to replace the classic whalebone. In 1839, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Werly made a patent for women's corsets made on the loom. This type of corset was popular until 1890: when machine-made corsets gained popularity. As seen in various fashion advertisements of the era, the common corset cost one dollar. Before this, all corsets were handmade - and, typically, home-made.

"Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler incorporated corsets into their designs in the 1980s. Madonna made Gaultier’s pink satin corset famous on her 1991 Blonde Ambition tour. Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford and Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga have all experimented with corsets or corset-like tailoring in their designs, sometimes layering the corsets over garments rather than under them, subverting them from underwear into outerwear. Corsets also have a long tradition in fashion photography, where they are used to symbolise female sexuality. And if the Fall/Winter 2019-2020 catwalks are anything to go by, corsets are still very much on trend."