As long as there have been bodies, there have been body ideals. And as long as there have been body ideals, there have been ways to meet them. From hairstyles to jewelry to face and body paint, humans have historically been eager to take charge of their appearance. Corsets were born out of this instinct. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for in your corset, it can help to take a look at how they’ve changed over time.
In antiquity (e.g., BCE), tribes in the Caucasus, including the Circassians and the Abkhaz, were already corseting women to shape a “beautiful” figure. The ancient Minoans in Greece, of all genders, wore rudimentary corsets comprised of girdles, vests, and belts with rings and straps. These garments were tightened over time to stop growth in order to achieve the Minoan ideal of a small waist. Obviously, folks were corseting and waist training before they even had the language to conceptualize it.
The first appearance of the corset as an undergarment was thanks to Catherine de Medici in the 1500s, who banned “thick waists” at French court. Not only did 16th century corsets create a small waist, they were usually paired with wooden or bone busks, or rods, at the front, to create the silhouette of a flatter stomach. Corsets of this time also often had straps at the shoulder to lift the bust even more. From this time, the 1500s into the 1700s, the desired silhouette included a small waist, but more importantly, sought for a flat stomach and high bust, with cleavage peeping up to say "hello". These corsets included tabs that could be linked to other garments, so corsets assisted as foundation garments to keep an outfit together.
This task of supporting an outfit (being foundational) became more important in the 1700s, when skirts became enormous and heavy. The inverted conical shape of corsets emphasized this bottom-heavy silhouette, but also helped correct posture and support the back--wonderful for a time of heavy clothes and for the working woman, heavy labor. A nice bonus: working women couldn’t easily bend at the waist, which forced them to lift and bend at the legs, which helped keep their spine intact and healthy! (If you’re still worried about women’s ability to work and live in corsets, check out our blog about corset myths.)
It wasn’t until the 1830s that the corset as most people know it emerged. In fact, this was the first point in history where they were even called corsets! To this point, such garments had been an amalgamation of “bodies,” stays, jumps, and a variety of other terms. These new, officially-corset corsets were the iconic hourglass shape, with (at last!) steel boning. Previous corsets had been boned with literal whale bone, reeds, or even just layers of more fabric. Because clothing of the era had an emphasis on puffed-up shoulders, the waist naturally looked smaller in comparison, meaning corsets did not have to be laced tightly. That is, until the Victorian era, when natural shoulders and soft shoulder lines came in vogue. To keep up the image of a smaller waist, tightlacing came into practice. As the world industrialized, corsets also became mass-marketed and less often handmade.
The industrialization of the globe undoubtedly threw the world into upheaval--socially, economically, and philosophically. It may come as a surprise, but something as seemingly small as an undergarment, the humble corset, came into the crossfire of this new world. Men opposed to the increasing independence of women targeted their clothes, a trend we see repeated throughout history (hello, flappers! Hello, slut shaming!), and accused the silhouettes of corsets of promoting promiscuity. Independent women themselves, including those who were stepping into activist roles, thought corsets were impractical and restricted their daily activities. Everyone seemed to agree, however, that corsets were a danger to women’s health--despite a complete lack of proof.
Perhaps a response to this baseless health scare, the Edwardian period brought a new silhouette of corset. Known as the S-bend, the swan bill, or even the health corset, this undergarment forced the bust forward and the hips back. The goal was to reduce pressure on the wearer’s stomach, but in actuality, the posture created was much more unnatural, and women lost the benefit of having a garment that supported the bust. This perhaps marked the beginning of the end. As the world moved from the Edwardian period into a period of war, corsets fell out of necessity and even became vilified.
But if history is anything, it’s a pendulum, and it was bound to swing back eventually. We all know corsets didn’t stay gone, but it’s hard to say who brought them back or even if they were wiped out entirely. Some sources credit corset revivalism to fetish fashion, but whether that refers to leather fashion of the ‘60s and ‘70s or the shock of club kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s is unclear. Perhaps it was thanks to the high fashion houses going for editorial looks that trickled down, or perhaps thanks to burlesque icons like Dita Von Teese who had an instant connection to the modern woman. Perhaps it wasn’t women at all but the liberation of the LGBT community, whose trans heroes and drag legends have used corsetry to simply appear as they wish to appear. Perhaps darker, it was thanks to a new beauty ideal that pressured women into unattainable body shapes yet again.
In any case, corsets are and have been back, though they’re not what they used to be. Modern corsets, including Violet Vixen’s, are for fashion, empowerment, performance and self-expression. Certainly, if you have a specific goal or need, like waist training, spine health, or bust support, a corset can give you all of that and more, but we’ve had centuries to experiment, and now corsets can do so much more. Look to history for which attributes you can borrow and what silhouettes you love, because after all those centuries, your corset is for you and you alone!
Hannah Wisterman is a Texas State alum and media nerd based in Austin, Texas. Her current focuses are fashion, music, entertainment and social trends. She serves as the community manager for Violet Vixen