One of the earliest examples of corseting (reducing the dimensions of the torso or waist) can be found on pottery figures created during the late Minoan Period (1500BC) and found in Knossos, Crete. The bodies of these snake goddesses are closely confined within their belt-like bodices, commonly thought to be made of leather or wooden strips with a front opening reminiscent of modern-day corsets. Documented instances exist of corset type garments being used early on by the people of South America, Egypt, Ancient Greece, Crete, and the Roman Empire. In Greek and Roman times, the corset was split into two garments, made of kidskin leather or similarly strong material: In Greece the zona bound the abdomen, and the fascia supported the bust, these were referred to by Homer as the cestia; In Rome, the lower abdominal support was referred to as a mitra or girdle and the upper piece as a strophium.
Near the end of the 1400s stiffened, front lacing garments were worn. By the sixteenth century, when a separation of bodice and skirt became fashionable, a heavy under bodice was worn in order to keep the bodice straight and tight. This was made of two or more layers of heavy linen, padded, quilted together, then shaped to the waist at the sides. These were referred to as a body or pair of bodies. These could be laced at the sides, front, or back and had shoulder straps. When laced at the back, a piece of wood or bone called a busk was inserted between the layers in the front to help it lie flat. Influence of Spain’s growing influence on Italian and English fashion encourages the form to become even more rigid. At this time the steel cage corset is introduced. These cage-like designs, made from three to eight individual pieces, eventually transitioned into a more flexible steel structure, and were finally replaced by a boned bodice.
Fashions of the early seventeenth century were very similar in shape to those of the century before. By the middle of the seventeenth century, corsets were worn by almost everyone—men, women, and children. The under bodice or pair of bodies were now referred to as stays, but were still made of heavy linen, with similar lines. As time progressed, boning at the sides and back became more popular, and a V-shaped piece of decorative cloth called the stomacher was used to hide the front lacing. Tabs along the lower part of the stays were added to help keep skirts in place and the shoulder straps began to slipped to the edge of the shoulders, if not off completely. The busk also got more intricate during this time period. Now made of ivory, silver, wood, or whalebone it was often intricately engraved and carved. It was now removable, and tied in place with ribbons, could be given as a sign of a woman’s favor.
The busk also got more intricate during this time period. Now made of ivory, silver, wood, or whalebone it was often intricately engraved and carved. It was now removable, and tied in place with ribbons, could be given as a sign of a woman’s favor.
The eighteenth century escorts in an even more constricting shape. The trend in style, now led by the French, was to force the bosom upwards, while simultaneously tapering the waist to an even greater extreme. These low-cut stays were often covered in silk, brocade or embroidery. In addition, corset makers added horizontal boning across the front to give roundness to the bust. It is important to note that the more extreme necklines during this period were a fashion limited to high society.
The dramatic style change of women’s fashion from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, referred to as the Regency Era, introduced flowing dresses and empire waists and ushered in the need for a new style of corset. Corsets of this time period were lightweight, made of quilted linen or cotton, and sparsely boned, often enhanced by cording and finely detailed embroidery. The corset was cut of two to three pieces with gussets at the top or bottom to create shape. The result was a more comfortable undergarment, with ease of movement that offered support for the breasts without drawing in the waist. Also, for the first time, we begin to see advertisements for male corsets. Worn to create the smooth lines required by men’s garments, this style of men’s corset remained in fashion through the early 1900s.
By about 1830, this silhouette shifted again with a dropping of the waistline and the addition of whalebone at the waist to again reduce waist size. This focus on the waist would remain prominent into the early 1900s, getting more and more exaggerated as the years passed. Three inventions appeared in the nineteenth century that greatly affected the corset industry; in 1928 metal eyelets were invented; in 1829 a patent was filed for the first front steel busk fastening; this was quickly followed in 1832 by a patent for the woven corset. Up until the 1830s corsets were custom, hand stitched items of underclothing. In 1832, Jean Werly, a Frenchman, patented the “French Woven” corset, made from fabric woven on the loom with slots for the bones and busk. The benefit of the woven corset was that it resulted in a lightweight, seamless and flexible garment, able to be cleaned without removing bones or eyelets. This type of corset was popular until 1890, when machine-made, stitched corsets gained popularity.
In the late 1840s a new style of corset was introduced. This corset no longer had shoulder straps or gussets and was made of seven to thirteen pieces, each shaped to the waist, with a shorter shape meant to draw attention again to the waist. By 1870, this corset style had elongated and the shape had become even more curvaceous. Steel and cane were commonly as a replacement for whalebone, which was increasingly scarce. The spoon busk (popular from 1873-1889) combined with starching and excessive boning and cording created a heavy, restricting garment. The outer layer of these garments might be made of satin or silk and decoratively embroidered.
At this point in time, through the prominence of advertisement, corsets began to radically change shape and style. The silhouette changed again in the late 1880s resulting in a longer corset style and the replacement of the curved front busk by a long, flat busk.
In late 1890s, this style was replaced by an aspirational corset constructed from ten to fifteen pieces per side with bust and hip gores, crisscrossed by steel and bone. This style was meant to push forward the bust, while simultaneously reducing the waist and pushing all flesh below the waist towards the buttocks, creating an “s-curve”.
This style lasted until 1907, when fashion’s shape again made a momentous turn. Dresses lost their fullness and a longer, leaner figure gained popularity. A new style of corset, low on the bust and very long in the hips, emerged. Although elastic fabric was now used in addition to cotton, this lighter weight, less boned version of the corset provided its own challenges, often being so long that a woman was unable to sit.
Satin corset, 1912/1914, ©Kent State University Museum
By 1920, the corset had simply become a wide belt, usually made of cotton and elastic, with little or no boning. These were referred to as girdles, corset belts, hip corsets, or girdle belts. A style or corset called the waist-cincher or waspie had a brief resurgence in the 1950s, when fashion again called for a wasp-waisted look.
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