From the beginning of time, Corsets and Bustiers in History and today have been a form of outward expression. As with other clothing, it is an outward display of an individual’s personality. By the same token fashion reflects the society of which it is a part.
Fashion has always had a great influence on society. Corsets and Bustiers in History is no exception.
Corsets have long been a symbol of feminine power and beauty, dating as far back as 2000 BC.
Although corsets have gone through many transformations over the centuries, their general appearance has remained constant. Their main purpose and appeal were to shape and flatter the female form in accordance with current fashion trends.
Corsets Throughout the Ages
Perhaps no other garment in history has caused as much controversy. Certainly, none have spawned so many fetishes or stood the test of time as corsets have.
Tight lacing was blamed on health issues. In reality, tight-lacing likely only caused constipation and indigestion.
Traditionally, the corset was actually a part of a dress. The corset as an undergarment has its origins in Italy. Catherine de Medici brought it to France in the 1500’s. Women of the French court not only embraced the corset but considered it an indispensable beauty tool commonly worn by women throughout Europe.
The Skilled Seamstress:
This brought about the highly skilled seamstresses that could fit the human body with a ‘second skin of sorts. They became known as the first corsetieres. From this came the literal translation of the French word ‘corset’ which came from the expression, “pair of bodies”.
From the men there came the “bespoke” tailoring. This comes from the French term, the literal translation being: “men’s clothing made to a high degree of customization”.
Leaders and Their Impact on Dress:
Napoleon hated them. His intense dislike of them influenced the Regency style, or Empire dress, at that time. This started just below the breasts and flowed loosely to the floor, eliminating the need for a corset.
Fashion then shifted from loose, flowing dresses to a more slender silhouette. This was achieved using lacing to create a tighter fitting bodice. The corset as an undergarment was not seen in Europe until the 1500’s.
And the Queens:
It is believed that Catherine de Medici first introduced Italian style corsets to France. However, the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, Egypt, Assyria, and Crete depicted women wearing Corsets and Bustiers in History for hundreds of years already before her time.
The proclamation of 1597 by Queen Elizabeth went into minute detail about the type of dress allowed for a person per position and social rank. There was strict control of everyday dress. It was essential that the Queen’s subjects know their place. This included the type of fabric, garment embellishments, the color worn, hosiery and even furs.
Corset Materials Used:
The first corsets of the 16th century did not aim to accentuate the waist but rather had a more cylindrical shape. They flattened everything from waist to bust, forcing the breasts up into an alluring curve which just peeked out at the top.
Corset styles and the materials used to make them would change many times over the next centuries. Wood, whalebone and eventually steel replaced the iron cages to make them much more comfortable. Lacing moved from the front to the back.
And busks, which provided the stiffening with knife-shaped pieces of whalebone or wood, moved from the back to the front and eventually the sides. This whalebone was the predecessor to today’s boning.
Fabrics changed too, from linen to cotton, wool, leather, silk, and lace. However, this was largely a matter of personal preference and rank.
Virtually all women wore corsets, but not all could afford to commission a tailor to make them. Many corsets made at home used cheaper and more readily available materials. Sackcloth stiffened with readily available reeds was common. Whereas the nobility who could afford the services of a tailor and proper fit had elaborate corsets made of leather, damask, silk, and velvet.
“European aristocrats  were inclined to regard the body as a work of art. Their prominent reason being their display at court and physical self-control. Court society imposed its aesthetic erectness which was also a way of mastering the passions.”
“The Elizabethan wardrobe was quite complex. Sleeves, bodice, underskirt, corset, and ruff (neck collar), all came as separate pieces, held in place by pins. The Queen loved to receive gifts of valuable garments. A pair of sleeves embroidered with pearls were among these gifts.”
“In the Elizabethan era, whalebone (baleen) was frequently used in corsets so bodices could maintain their stiff appearance. A front stiffener, called a busk, was typically made of wood, horn, ivory, metal, or whalebone. This busk was carved into a thin knife shape and then inserted into the front bodice”.
n England stays were a part of a basic wardrobe of even working women. ‘The wives of journeymen tradesmen and shopkeepers, either wore leather stays or ‘full-boned’ stays. Worn every day for years and never washed; half laced and black as the post.”
Corsets and the French Empire:
Skipping forward a bit to the 1500’s, after Catherine de Medici introduced corsets to France, the women of the French court wore them as undergarments.
Unlike bustiers, corsets come in two different styles: The under-bust corset ends beneath the breasts and requires a separate bra, while the over-bust corset covers at least part of the breasts. The word in French remained as ‘body’, but in the 17th century the term in England was “stays”.
The French Empire in the 1700’s:
“By the 1770’s, fashionable French women began to wear a corset made of quilted linen and without bones. They were fastened in front with strings or ribbons.”
The French, ‘Ladies Magazine’ wrote an article in 1785. In this, it informed the English women that “the French ladies never wear more than a quilted waistcoat”. “The custom of imprisoning children in heavily boned stays was also disappearing”.
The Enlightenment Campaigns of Napoleonic France proclaimed “liberty and equality”. This played a role in loosening the stays. Thus high-waist neoclassical gowns came into fashion. Obviously, women still had waistlines but they no longer emphasized that part of the body. They focused on the bosom instead!
Yet, after a brief period of freedom at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, fashion for high-waist empire gowns was declining. The boned corset reappeared around 1800 and spread throughout society. The French term “corset” was first used in England about 1820. Until then, English speakers called a corset a “pair of bodies” or a “pair of French bodies”; somewhat like a ‘second skin’.
Long, heavily boned corsets continued to be worn by English women. Modesty and corsets were closely associated with sexual morality by the English.
Corsets were also considered a medical necessity in the early 19th century. It was thought that women were too fragile to stand without support. Little girls as young as 3 or 4 years old were laced into tiny corsets. After years of being continuously laced up, however, their backs were weakened. By the time they reached their teens, they were unable to sit or stand without the support of a corset.
Victorian Corsets and Tight-lacing:
It really wasn’t until the 1830’s that the hourglass shape came into fashion. This gave Victorian corsets the dual purpose of cinching the waist and supporting the bust. In the mid-1800’s, the fashionable shape was an exaggeratedly curvaceous hourglass with a tiny waist.
This is when real tight-lacing became popular. These tightly laced corsets deformed the internal organs and forced shallow breathing. The results were a lot of fainting; thus the need for smelling salts to revive the fainting ladies in repose.
Tightly laced corsets and the problems that came with them were an affliction unique to the rich. Only the ladies who were higher in class and did not have to work could wear such restrictive clothing. Working class women wore looser corsets and lighter clothing that allowed for more movement.
The early 20th century brought a change in corset shape in response to concerns about pressure on the stomach area. The new straight-front corset, also known as the S-bend corset, the swan-bill corset, or the health corset.
It featured a rigid busk that ran the entire length of the front of the corset. This gave the effect of a very flat front, forcing the hips to jut out in back.
However, the unnatural posture it forced upon the wearer resulted in many back problems. It actually caused more injury than its waist-cinching predecessor. Thus the style only lasted about ten years, from 1900 to 1910.
Around 1908 fashion changed to favor a more natural waistline and narrower hips. This, along with the advent of rubber and elastic fabrics, made way for girdles and brassieres.
Corsets in the 21st Century:
At one point the United States government asked women to refrain from buying corsets.
It’s true… it was just after entering World War I, and this single move freed up 28,000 tons of steel for use in war production. It also gave rise to the popularity of brassieres and girdles. Women’s roles in society changed as well in this time period. More women delayed marriage to seek an education, leaving corsets to overweight and pregnant women.
Garconne fashion and the prized boyish body shape of the 1920’s saw little call for corsets, as women used girdles to minimize the hips, and bras to minimize the breasts.
Soon came the fifties and a new appreciation of all things feminine. Dior’s “New Style” celebrated womanly curves, favoring a tiny waist and wide hips. This sparked a return in popularity of the corset which lasted until the rise of flower power and hippie bra-burning sentiments of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Corsets and Bustiers:
What is the difference between corsets and bustiers? It’s a question we often get at Sultry Lady Corsets, where we specialize in custom made, beautifully embellished, one of a kind corsets and bustiers. The answer to the question is that while corsets and bustiers look similar, in construction and function they differ.
Corsets have more structured than the bustier. The bustier lifts your breasts to accentuate cleavage, but don’t do much, if anything, to hold in your stomach. The corset doesn’t just enhance cleavage, it also cinches you in so that your waist and torso look slimmer.
The contemporary corset is closer in style to the corsets and bustiers that were popular in the Victorian era. This is when the hourglass figure became a measure of feminine desirability. These shape-shifting corsets used back-lacing to pull the waist into some improbably small sizes. They included boning to keep the garments stiff and supportive.
Celebrities and Corsets:
The current popularity of corsets and bustiers in history began in 1983 after Madonna appeared in concert wearing a silk corset. The demand for corsets and bustiers took off like wildfire. The underwear-as-outerwear trend has not stopped since. Her famous corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for her Blond Ambition tour, later sold at auction in London for more than £30,000–about $52,000– in 2012.
Modern corsets are mostly, though not completely, a fashion statement. The shape is complementing and showcasing the natural feminine form rather than trying to manipulate or transform it. To all corset-wearing women, it is a symbol of beauty and femininity.
Corsets are a favorite way to do this. Some celebrities spotted donning corsets include Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, BeonceKeira Knightley, Kylie Minogue, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Victoria Beckham, to name just a few.
Corsets as a Fashion Statement Today:
Contemporary corsets and bustiers have come a long way from the extremely constrictive Victorian style. The garments are now seductive and comfortable. The desire is to showcase the assets, not change them.
Bustiers worn as lingerie are a much more recent design than corsets. Made of flexible fabric with stretch panels, they are much less restrictive.
Bustiers often have bras built into them – with or without underwires. They are usually shorter than corsets, ending at the waist or just above it. You will often see the term long-line bra used interchangeably with a bustier.
With so many choices and so much freedom in fashion today, the corset remains a fashion mainstay. It is a fail-proof way to make a statement and honor the feminine form.
The Corset, A Cultural History: by Valerie Steele
Clothing in Elizabethan England: Liza Picard