History of Corsets

The history of corsets and corsetry history and how they originated in the Elizibethan and Victorian eras.



A corset is a garment worn to hold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing this item, or with a more lasting effect). Both men and women are known to wear corsets, though women are more common wearers.

In recent years, the term "corset" has also been borrowed by the fashion industry to refer to tops which, to varying degrees, mimic the look of traditional corsets without actually acting as one. While these modern corsets and corset tops often feature lacing and/or boning and generally mimic a historical style of corsets, they have very little if any effect on the shape of the wearer's body. Genuine corsets are usually made by a corset maker and should be fitted to the individual wearer.

Underbust bridal corset in ivory steel boned and beautiful fluted hips to accentuate a womans curves

Underbust bridal corset in ivory steel boned and beautiful fluted hips to accentuate a womans curves


The word corset is derived from the Old French word corps and the diminutive of body, which itself derives from corpus—Latin for body. The craft of corset construction is known as corsetry, as is the general wearing of them. (The word corsetry is sometimes also used as a collective plural form of corset.) Someone who makes corsets is a corsetier or corsetière (French terms for a man and for a woman, respectively), or sometimes simply a corsetmaker.

Vintage gold over the bust corset shown here for the lady with a smaller bust

Vintage gold over the bust corset shown here for the lady with a smaller bust

The word corset came into general use in the English language in 1785. The word was used in The Ladies Magazine to describe a "quilted waistcoat" called un corset by the French. The word was used to differentiate the lighter corset from the heavier stays of the period.


The History Of Corsets (see here also)

The corset has been an important article of clothing that has helped shape and achieve the fashions of many centuries. It has gone through many evolutions as fashion trends have changed. Women, as well as men, have for centuries used the corset as a mean to shape their bodies into, what they believed at the time, the perfect shape.

The earliest image of a corset was recorded in 2000 BC, the image is of a Crete Women, and the article of clothing that was worn was what we would perceive to be a corset, However it was worn as an outer garments. While typically the corset has been used as underclothes, there have been instances where it is used as outer garments. Corsets are still seen as outer garments in the national dress of many European countries.

The term corset was not always used; it gained popularity at the end of the 18th century as a change from the term that was most often used, stays.

The earliest form of the corset, that was used, as it is present day, was the Cottee. The Cottee was a tight elongated bodice that was worn under clothing. It was made up of stiff linen and worn under bodice, as fashion evolved, so did the Cottee; it became tighter and stiffer to better serve the fashion of the time.

Womans corset figured silk 1730-1740


Woman's corset c. 1730–1740. Silk plain weave with supplementary weft-float patterning, stiffened with baleen. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Elizabethan fashion was famous for very stiff bodices, thus in the 16th century whale bones began being used in corsets for the purpose of keeping its structure. It became the staple tool in the fashion as it gave a geometrically straight line in the bodice.

They also began using an additive to the corset called the Busk, which was an artificial edge that was given to the bodice. The busk was typically made out of wood, horn, ivory, metal or whale bone, it was then carved and shaped into a thin paper knife shape and inserted into the Elizabethan bodice and was faceted and held into place by lace. The lace was used so that the Busk can easily be placed and removed and it was often used for special occasions and events. The Busk was presented to a suitor as a prize when he was interested in a female (Ewing, 1978, 29). The Busk is also credited to be the originator for all boning, the thing this becomes that bases for corsets for the next 400 years.

During the second half of the 16th century, whalebone began being used at the sides and back of the corset and it was laced up at the front. There are also examples of Iron corsets that were used in the 16th century, they resemble a piece of armor, however silk and velvet were able to be stretch over it to give a nicer appearance. Although some fashion students believe the corset was used as outerwear other believe it was just used in remedial cases.

In 1839 a Frenchman by the name of Jean Werly made a landmark in corset history when he took a patent for women corsets made on a loom. This type of corset was popular until 1890 when machine made corsets gained popularity. Before this corsets were all made by hand. Quite usually they were homemade, many magazines used to publish articles on how they were to be made.

Following the French revolution there began a decline in the use of corsets as women began wearing clothing that required little or no underclothes. It was a symbol of freedom due to the fact that small waists and corsets were something that was very often used by their oppressors. Although there was a decline the fashion was still not extinct.

In the 19th century there became a greater demand for corsets that were not as restricting or harmful. The people asked and they were given many new options. In 1884 Dr. Jaeger came up with wool sanitary corsets, they were described as flexible and elastic, thus people were not restricted like normal corsets, There were also durable and respondent to movements. Dr. Jaeger claimed that the wool had curing capabilities and that it had helped cure him of his chronic ill- health, excess of weight and indigestion Another example of a health corset was created in 1887; it was a Dermathistic corset with leather facing. It was marketed towards women who wanted better health and enjoyed a healthy living lifestyle.


Transition to the Victorian

When the waistline returned to its natural position during the 1830s, the corset reappeared and served dual purpose of supporting the breasts and narrowing the waist. However, it had changed its shape to the hourglass silhouette that is even now considered typical both for corsets and for Victorian fashion. At the same time, the term corset was first used for this garment in English. In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately.


The Victorian corset

When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to achieve the same effect. The focus of the fashionable silhouette of the mid- and late 19th century was an hourglass figure, achieved by reducing the thickness of the waist through corsetry. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tightlacing first became popular. The corset differed from the earlier stays in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer's measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.


Late 19th century

In the late 19th century concern about reports of tight lacing caused a movement for rational dress. Some doctors were found to support the theory that corsetry was injurious to health (particularly during pregnancy) and women who did tight lacing were condemned for vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. In reality, tight corsetting was most likely the cause of indigestion and constipation but rarely the cause for a plethora of ailments associated with tight corsetting at the time ranging from hysteria to liver failure.

he straight-front corset, also known as the swan-bill corset, the S-bend corset or the health corset, was worn from circa 1900 to the early 1910s. Its name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset. This corset forced the torso forward and made the hips protrude.

The straight-front corset was popularized by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. It was intended to be less injurious to wearers' health than other corsets in that it exerted less pressure on the stomach area. However, any benefits to the stomach were more than counterbalanced by the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer.

The straight fronted corset was introduced to create the illusion of a slimmer waist by forcing the hips back and bust forward. This was thought to alleviate some of the pressure on the abdomen. However, by 1908 corsets began to fall from favor as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form. Early forms of brassieres were introduced and the girdle soon took the place of the corset which was more concerned with reducing the hips rather than the waist.


How the corset changed over the eras
















Post-Edwardian long line corset

From 1908 to 1914 the length of the skirt slowly sank from waist to ankles, necessitating the lengthening of the corset at its lower edge. A new type of fashionable corset covered the thighs and changed the position of the hip, making the waist become both higher and wider. The new fashion was considered uncomfortable, cumbersome, and furthermore required the use of strips of elastic fabric.


After World War I

Shortly after the United States' entry into World War I in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This step liberated some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships. The corset, which had been made using steel stays since the 1860s, further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles which also used less steel in their construction. Corsets fell from popularity during the late 1910s but forms of body shaping undergarments often called corsets continued to be worn well into the 1920s.

The development of rubberized elastic materials in 1911 helped the girdle replace the corset.

The change in the economy after World War I also changed women's role in society. In the early 20th century, a young lady would typically have started wearing a corset around age 15, and live at home until she married around age 18. After the war, more young women sought an education, and in the Western world marriage was delayed into the middle to late 20s. Only overweight or pregnant women might choose to wear a corset, typically an under-bust corset.

However, these garments were better known as girdles with the express purpose of reducing the hips in size. A return to waist nipping corsets in 1939 caused a stir in fashion circles but World War II ended their return. In the late 1940s they were revived and were popularly known as 'Merry Widows'. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s corsets remained a new revival. In the 1990s, fetish fashion became popular and corsets made something of a recovery, often worn as top garments rather than undergarments. By 2010, the corset had recovered a new popularity in fashion.

corset and posture


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Corsets are typically constructed of a flexible material (like cloth, particularly coutil, or leather) stiffened with boning (also called ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the cloth or leather. In the 19th century, bones of elephant, moose, and whale were favoured for the boning. Plastic is now the most commonly used material for lightweight corsets and the majority of poor quality corsets, whereas spring or spiral steel is preferred for stronger corsets and generally the better quality corset too. Other materials used for boning include ivory, wood, and cane. (By contrast, a girdle is usually made of elasticized fabric, without boning.)

Corsets are held together by lacing, usually (though not always) at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing produces corresponding changes in the firmness of the corset. Depending on the desired effect and time period, corsets can be laced from the top down, from the bottom up, or both up from the bottom and down from the top, using two laces that meet in the middle. It is difficult—although not impossible—for a back-laced corset-wearer to do his or her own lacing. In the Victorian heyday of corsets, a well-to-do woman's corset laces would be tightened by her maid, and a gentleman's by his valet. However, Victorian corsets also had a buttoned or hooked front opening called a busk. If the corset was worn loosely, it was possible to leave the lacing as adjusted and take the corset on and off using the front opening (if the corset is worn snugly, this method will damage the busk if the lacing is not significantly loosened beforehand). Self-lacing is also almost impossible with tightlacing, which strives for the utmost possible reduction of the waist. Corset and bodice lacing became a mark of class, front laced bodices being worn by women who could not afford servants.


Tight Lacing. London. Published by William Holland, 1777. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Tight Lacing william holland















Fortunately all of our corsets are easy to put on yourself these days.  Please check our Instructions page for how to put your corset on correctly.

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