The History of the Corset
The corset that people know today is a close-fitting undergarment usually worn by women to shape the body. Originally, it used stiffened whalebone, but as new innovations emerged, other similar yet more synthetic material are now being used.
Pre-16th century era
There is no record of the exact year when the idea of the corset was actually conceived. However, the earliest images made 2,000 B.C. included a Cretan woman wearing an outer garment, which could be perceived as a corset.
People first used the term “corset” as early as the 1300s. It is a French term which refers to a laced bodice. However, the English term, “stays,” was used more frequently until the 19th century.
During this time, women used paste to stiffen their laced bodice.
During the 16th century, there was still no record of the exact origins of the corset. Historians relied on the preserved images of the past. In particular, portraits of Eleanora di Toledo and the Venetian ladies showed that stiffened bodices were already worn as early as 1530.
It was also during this era when people started to use whalebone as a common material for clothing. The whalebone is a keratinous material that can be found in the upper jaw of a baleen whale.
During this time, the corset was still part of a whole outfit.
During the early 17th century, women still wore stiffened bodices as part of their dresses. This was believed as one reason why only a few corsets from this time were preserved.
It was only in the latter part of the 17th century when corsets became a separate piece of garment. It became independent of a gown or dress worn by women. From then on, women started to wear a skirt, a corset as an undergarment, and a jacket or robe on top of the stiffened bodice.
The shape of corsets during this era was not really different from those of the 17th century. A corset was characterized by a conical shape with tabs placed just right above the hips. The primary purpose of corsets this time was to improve posture, support the back, tighten the abdomen or midriff, narrow the waistline, and to shape the breasts by keeping them raised.
Unlike the first corsets, the 18th century corset was well-fitting. It was far more comfortable to wear and did not restrict breathing. Though it did restrict bending from the waist down, it still gave women enough ease to work and move around comfortably.
As early as 1800, the primary purpose of corsets shifted to just as support for the breasts. This was the time when short corsets became more frequently worn by women. Empire-style corsets, which are high-waisted, became the “in” thing as early as 1796.
During this era, corsets were still worn as undergarments. However, every corset was made with fine details and stitching to make it look decorative.
By the 1830s, women started to notice the return of the waistline to its natural position. This resulted in the use of corsets with dual functions. The first was to support the breasts and the second one was to narrow and emphasize the waistline.
The wearing of an hourglass-shaped corset became mandatory during the middle part of the century. This time also, patterns, elegant lines, and beautiful fabrics were used to create corsets. Proof of this can be seen from the many preserved corsets from 1870 to 1890. If you would look closely at them, you would see colorful satin and some embroidery.
During this time, there were some progressive changes in the way corsets were made. Designers started to use elastic materials to allow the wearer to move freely. Paul Poiret was among the progressive designers who revolutionized the creation and use of the corset.
By the 1950s, the “New Style” by Dior tried to bring back the Renaissance type of corset.
Today, one rarely sees people wearing corsets. Most of the time, corsets can only be seen in fashion shows, television programs, or films worn by celebrities and models.