The corset has been the principal agent in aiding man in his desire to re-shape nature to conform to current fashion in clothes. For many centuries there was no attempt to do this; clothes were worn for warmth, for modesty, for religious significance, for sexual arousal and as a status symbol to denote rank and power. It was with the emergence of fashion, as distinct from costume, that man began to exploit the possibilities of variety offered by altering the shape of the human figure. A very early instance of this is recorded in the Minoan costume of ancient Crete where, from statuettes of the eighteenth century Be, we can see a corset formed of inetal plates acting as a foundation for women's cos- tuine. This enabled the skirt to lie flat on the hips and accentuated the slininess of the waist; a boned bodice on top supported and lifted the bare breasts. It is the first recorded use in the West of metal for cor- seting and the restriction of the human figure. in the classical dress of Greece and Rome there was no attempt to re-shape the body. The natural line was followed and the figure delineated by narrow bands and girdles controlled the drapery. However, figure control was deemed important and literary evidence infornis us that a zond or girdle was worn around the waist and hips. For centuries after the fall of Rome garments for both sexes were loose and full, held to the body only by a waist or hip belt. It was in the twelfth century that a corselet or shape-niaker was worn, but this was an outer garment, not underwear, and was put on over the gown. This fitting bodice or corselet was sleeveless and ex- tended from shoulders to hips, often being tightened by front lacing. It could be made of linen or soft leather and delineated the breasts, waist and hips in a natural form. In the thirteenth century garments returned to a loose, flowing style once more. By the middle of the fourteenth century the fitted tunics and gowns were being made for both sexes and fashion decreed a slender waist. Garments were tailored in sections to fit the figure and to display it, while under the tunic and gown was worn a stiffened linen underbodice whose purpose, as with the Greek zoni, was to control and show to advantage the natural figure. This underbodice was known as a cotte, an early French word used, like c6te (rib), to describe a garment fitting closely over the torso. With the more figure-revealing clothes of the fifteenth century, the under- bodice was further stiffened by a mixture of paste between two layers of linen. It was then known as a body or pair of bodys, a term which later developed into the word bodice. In France it was a corps or cors from
which it is thought the modern word corset stems.* In the later fifteenth century this bodice was usually open in front and laced across to tighten as desired. The garment has survived in the national and regional dress of many European countries, worn outside and on top of a blouse, with a skirt. It was in the sixteenth century, when an unnaturally long and slender waist became de rigueur, that the body evolved into a rigid corset-like garment. Reinforced at first with wood, then metal, strips in the seams and later with whalebone, it was still known as a bod or pair of bodys. y There exist illustrations and descriptions of corsets made of metal strips and plates, hinged at the sides, but these are thought to have been designed as special-purpose support for medical and remedial needs. In the second half of the sixteenth century, when Spanish fashions were paramount, the feminine waist became more slender and longer. The body or bodice, termed basquina by the Spanish and basquine by the French, became more severely restric- tive. It was made of stiffened linen or of leather and, to maintain the rigidly concave line in front, a busk was introduced. This was a strip of wood, horn, metal or whale- bone, wider at the top than the bottom, which was inserted in the centre front of the garment and extended from the bust nearly to the hips or at least as low as was compatible with being able to sit down (uncomfortably). This busk was the origin of the rigid boning in corsets which followed during the centuries and was only abandoned in the early twentieth century. By 1580 whalebone strips were also in- serted into side seams and the body had become an agonizing straight-jacket to endure. The seventeenth-century body was usually referred to as stays and, though still whalebone-stiffened and maintaining a slender waist, was much less unnatural and less of an instrument of torture than its sixteenth-century predecessor. It was shorter, extending only to the waist, where ' The word corset or corsettus used in the Middle Ages generally described a different, outer garment which was a tunic or robe. it was finished with tabs or basques. it had shoulder straps, or sometimes short sleeves, to hold it in position and was laced up the centre back. The front panel was a stiffened and decorative stomacher, made of firm material to maintain the unnaturally slightly concave line of the rib-cage. Eighteenth-century stays were similar, though the slenderization of the waist was more pronounced in order to contrast with the hooped and panicred skirts. Whalebone agony and tight lacing were joyously abandoned in the 1790s with the surge toward liberalization and natural, unfettered movement. Those with young and elegant figures wore no controlling garments at all, but the not-so-slim took to a girdle like a Greek zoni@ or long slender stays which supported a high breast-line and slenderized the stomach and hips without accentuating the waist, for, by this time, the gown waistline was just under the breasts and marked there by a ribbon sash. Such long stays were still whaleboned and had a front busk. With the 1830s came a return to a slender waist at a natural level and by the 1840s a restrictive corset was being worn again and this became more and more extreme in the attempt to produce a tiny waist as the century progressed. In the mid-nine- teenth century the corset was short, ex- tending from the breasts to just below the waist. There was no need for it to be longer as the fullness of the crinoline skirt extended from waist downwards. As the crinoline gradually evolved into the bustle, so fashion - as well as demanding a slender waist - insisted on slender hips also, so that the corset had to become longer and extend over the hips. The nineteenth- century corset was a more sophisticated garment than its predecessors. It was tailored in fitting sections instead of intro- ducing gussets into one-piece garments. The front fastening replaced back lacing from the 1830s, though the stiff front busk was still inserted. By 1870, steam-moulding had been introduced. in this process the finished corset with bones and busk in- serted was heavily starched and then placed in a steam mould to set its shape to the
desired figure. The mould was of copper and steam was introduced into it by pipes. The corsets of the years 1880-1905 were the most rigid and agonizing of all. They were excessively restricting at the waist and were very long. They were made in many longitudinal sections with whale- bone strips inserted into each seam; but such long corsets tended to ride up and wrinkle and whalebones would break at the waist as the wearer sat down. As the curve between breast and waist and waist and hips became more pronounced, this was a frequent occurrence, so steel re- placed whalebone more and more. The centre front of the corset was now fitted with a metal spoon busk (buse en poire), so called because of its shape which was narrow at the top and widened below the curving waist into a pear shape. It was in these years that the storm of protest arose from the medical profession. Doctors tried to inform parents of the damage being done to young girls' bodies by encasing them in such an extreme form of corset, but the criticisms made little difference. Ladies, young and old, followed, or tried to follow, the fashionable silhouette, accepting as a natural unpleasantness of life the fainting fits and the 'vapours'. By 1878 the suspen- der had been introduced. Suspenders* were at first attached to straps or a belt worn over the corset, but by 1901 they were fastened to the corset itself. This was a great advantage, for the suspenders held down the long corset in position and did away with the constriction of garters. Also, since the corset was anchored down, it did not need to be so rigid at the waist to main- tain its shape. *(Detachable garters in USA.) In the early years of the twentieth century a new line appeared - the S-curve or bend. This resulted from the introduc- tion of the straight-busked corset which had evolved from Dr Jaeger's health corset and the design of Madame Gaches-Sarraute, the corseti@re who pioneered the straight front in order to give support to the abdomen but to avoid restriction of the thorax and consequent inward pressure on the diaphragm which had resulted from the curved, waisted designs of the nineteenth century. But although the new straight-busked front was strongly recom- mended by the medical authorities who had been campaigning for years to abolish the concave corset front, the advice of these gentlemen was still unheeded in the feminine search for the tiny waist. The ladies laced up the new corset as tightly as the old and so created a new, and worse, figure distortion. Due to the intractability of the straight front busk, the bosom above it was pushed forward and the hips below it backwards. The new fashionable ideal was, therefore, achieved: a full, forward bosom, a tiny waist and generous, back- ward-slanting hips. If nature was inade- quate to conform to these requirements, bust bodices and petticoats were suitably padded and lined with starched flounces. The bosom line was not uplifted but was worn low, to overhang the tight waist belt. The fashionably tall woman, dressed in the S-bend line, sailed into a room carrying all before her. The style was immortalized in the drawings of Charles Dana Gibson and became known as the 'Gibson girl'. 1905 was the zenith of the Gibson line. By 1908 the waistline rose and a more natural figure was allowed. The corset became longer but was less waisted and fewer bones were inserted in it. The desired figure was now more natural but was also slim at waist, bust and hips. A very long corset was fashionable between 1908 and 1914, so long that it was difficult to sit down. it was laced up the back and had a busk fastening in front. Suspenders were also long, attaching to stockings at about knee-level. The flapper dress of the 1920s brought about the end of the restrictive, boned corset and its place was taken by flatterers and girdles (see Underwear, 1920 onwards). Corsets were still worn by the not-so-slim until after the Second World War, but they became less restrictive and less heavily boned as time passed and the natural figure re-emerged in the 1930s. The devel- opment of elasticized and man-made fabrics with softer, more comfortable means of figure control have, since 1950, all but eradicated the 'corset agony'.