When it comes to historical costuming often the first garment that usually comes to mind is the corset. They have a surprisingly long history, appearing first in the early 1500’s and worn in continual use until the early 20th century.
The term ‘corset’ did not come until use until the 19th century. Before that they were referred to most commonly as ‘a still bodice’, ‘a pair of bodies’ or simply as ‘stays’. At that time, they were more of a foundation garment meant to give the body the approximate shape of the fashionable garments at the time without completely reshaping the body.
As you can see from these early designs, stays were not intended to enhance the bust, but to create a flat, almost conical silhouette that we see in a lot of Elizabethan era portraits. In the early days of the 15th century, a stiffened kirtle was enough to achieve a fashionable shape but as the fashion evolved lines of boning were inserted to allow the bodices to maintain their structure. For the most part they stop at the waist or curve briefly over the hips, much higher than the cuirasse bodices that became fashionable in the later Victorian Era.
Unfortunately for us, there are not a lot of surviving examples of these early stays as people at that time did not have the access to resources that we do now and so wore each garment until it was completely worn out. A gown goes out of style? Remake it. Gets too small? Give it to a sister, a daughter. If it developed holes they could cut it up, remake it into accents for a new outfit or clothing for a child.
This early style of stays remained fashionable through most of Europe until after the French Revolution, when looser, more flowing clothing became the norm. At this time the waistline of the stays rose until it resembled more of what we would now refer to as a longline bra or a demi-corset. After all. what’s the point of wearing a full corset under an empire waist dress? This was the first time that cups were introduced to the stays. It is also around this time that we start seeing styles where the busk, a flat piece of wood that once served to keep the front of the stays straight, now being used to create separation between the breasts.
Around the 1820’s the fashionable waistline moved back down to the natural waist. At this time metal grommets were introduced to house the lacing, replacing the hand-stitched holes of earlier styles. In the 1840’s, designers introduced what is called a ‘planchet’, a set of two metal pieces with loops and knobs that linked together so corsets would not have to be re-laced every day. This was revolutionary at the time because when it comes down to it lacing corsets is an incredible hassle. It takes forever and requires a second person to actually do the lacing so introducing something that actually lets you dress yourself would have been a huge improvement.
One of the major changes that occurred in the Victorian Era was that corset ceased to be a purely practical garment. At this time we start seeing more decorative versions made from silks and brocades instead of simple cotton and linen. It was also at this time that the bottom of the corset began to flare out and move down over the hips, a style that became more prevalent as tight-lacing became more fashionable.
This style became more and more extreme until the 1880’s. At this time corsets were laced so tight that the internal organs were forced dangerously downwards out of place. Some women even had their floating ribs removed to achieve the perfect hourglass shape, causing physicians at the time to sound the alarm. Aside from causing damage to the heart and lungs, they insisted that that kind of unnatural shaping lead to circulatory problems, reproductive issues, and a laundry list of other serious defects including tuberculosis.
This prompted a shift in style to less harmful designs and looser clothing as a whole. The Edwardian corset was flat-fronted, curving gracefully of the hips and over the next few years evolved into what is now known as the Gibson Girl style. This style forced the shoulders upright and gave the body an S-bend shape. It is also during this time that corsets began to be thought of as more of a lingerie item then an everyday thing so silk corsets with lace edging and beautiful embroidery became more common.
By the early nineteen teens, the ideal figure had shifted again. To achieve the look of a fuller bosom, corsets no longer came up to cover the bust but ended just below the curve of the breasts. The traditional corset had been split into two separate pieces, early designs of the girdle and the brassiere.
This new trend signaled the end of the corset in mainstream fashion. By the 1920’s the structured hourglass shape was done away with entirely