‘A Corset is of sterling worth in aiding and beautifying the figure.’
Have you ever considered a corset as a status symbol; a means of class distinction? Surprising as it may seem the corset once ranked high among the status symbols of our forefathers, or mothers, as the case may be. The woman who could not stoop to retrieve her fallen fan, could exert herself sufficiently to tinkle a handbell for her maidservant who, uncorseted, or at least should be if she wanted to keep her position, could retrieve it for her.
The corset has of course other functions. Its main one being to support and mould the figure into the shape dictated by the fashion of the day. It has always had its erotic associations, making the wearer feel attractive and feminine and no doubt decidedly uncomfortable.
We first hear of the corset in early Mediaeval England, when the Monks wrote of the evils of tight lacing and bustling, saying that it caused deformity. They failed to stamp out this pernicious habit for by the sixteenth century the corset was an accepted part of a lady’s wardrobe. It was made of stiff leather, wood or even iron supports, with large semi-circular side pieces laced on. The stomacher, a flat placard, was fastened to the front and pulled tightly in at the waist, leaving the hips free. Elizabeth I pioneered the use of whalebones in corsets, but as ever, this wily Queen was motivated mainly by economic reasons.
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, corsets were even worn in the nursery. A lady of quality along with her young daughters, wore a ‘pair of bodies’ stiffened with busks of wood or whalebone with back lacing, the lower part open to ride over the hips.
During the Regency period when clinging, neo-Grecian lines were the mode, the corset fell from favour. Undeterred, the corset makers turned their attention to the male of the species who was at that time preening himself unashamedly. The ‘dandies’ took to the ‘Cumberland Corset’ or the ‘Brummell Bodice’. Even the Prince Regent laced himself into stays and the less kind among his contemporaries considered him to be in need of such support.
It was the Victorian era, however, which saw the corset fashion at its height. The waist reverted to its normal position and tight lacing was once more evident. There is no doubt that much of the ill health and fainting fits of the time were attributed to this. Young girls considered it desirable to marry with age and waist measurements the same - preferably less than twenty-one. A lady of fashion might even have ribs removed to achieve the desired effect and on no account would she be seen without her corset, even in bed.
Metal eye-holes and india-rubber came to be used during the Industrial Revolution and in 1860, elastic panels were introduced. As skirts tightened in the 1870’s so the corset lengthened and here we see the birth of the suspender. The naughty 1990’s saw a devastating array of frills, laces, bows and paint box colours, the most popular being cardinal red and canary yellow, hidden beneath a starched Victorian facade. There were dual purpose corsets with chemise tops which could be used for day and evening wear, in black, white or cardinal silk coutille.
At the turn of the century came the so-called health corset which flattened the stomach, thrusting the bosom forward and the hips back thus creating the mature, solid S-shape. Advertisements emphasised the beneficial effects of these corsets in relieving the hips of the weight of the skirt and preventing stooping. Shoulder braces were also available for wearing over the corset. Well encased, the Victorian mama and her daughter would be quite incapable of stooping.
There were corsets for every occasion. Cycling was becoming fashionable and a special cyclist’s corset with elastic sides was produced. A writer commenting in a shopping guide of a woman’s magazine of 1894 shows the attitude of the day on the wearing of corsets when she says ‘I wish fat people could be persuaded to wear them for tennis.’
In 1902 came the unbreakable corsets with triple steel busks, and in 1903 the featherbone which was composed of quill fibre and claimed to replace old-fashioned whalebone. The ‘solo’ corset of 1905 introduced invisible lacing which could be adjusted by the wearer at the pull of a string. At this time too appeared the reducing corset with an elastic abdominal belt.
After the great war things were never the same again. The boy look of the 1920s brought in the use of ‘flatteneds’, a sheath-like garment which fitted from armpits to thighs and dispelled any shape whatsoever.
In the 1930s came the ‘two-way stretch’ reminding women once more of the comfort and grace of being natural. In the summer of 1939 the corset almost made a comeback, for waists were nipped in and advertisers promised laced up corsets made from the newest materials. The second world war ended this fashion abruptly; women had to work and working women have no time for the restrictions of tight lacing.
Since the war the move has been towards an even greater freedom. The use of nylon and Lycra and the fashion for young, natural lines have released women from a bondage most of us have no wish to see return.