A corset is a garment worn to mold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, 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 corsetmaker and should ideally be fitted especially for the individual wearer.
The word corset
is derived from the Old French
, the diminutive of body
, which itself derives from corpus
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 most common and well-known use of corsets is to slim the body and make it conform to a fashionable silhouette. For women this most frequently emphasizes a curvy figure, by reducing the waist
, and thereby exaggerating the bust
(see photo). However, in some periods, corsets have been worn to achieve a tubular straight-up-and-down shape, which involves minimizing the bust and hips.
For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when an hourglass figure (a small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.
An overbust corset encloses the torso, extending from just under the arms to the hips. An underbust corset begins just under the breasts and extends down to the hips. Some corsets extend over the hips and, in very rare instances, reach the knees (example). A shorter kind of corset, which covers the waist area (from low on the ribs to just above the hips), is called a 'waist cincher'. A corset may also include garters to hold up stockings (alternatively a separate garter belt may be worn for that).
Normally a corset supports the visible dress, and spreads the pressure from large dresses, such as the crinoline and bustle. Sometimes a corset cover is used to protect outer clothes from the corset and to smooth the lines of the corset.
People with spinal problems such as scoliosis
or with internal injuries may be fitted with a form of corset in order to immobilize and protect the torso.
Andy Warhol was shot in 1968 and never fully recovered, and wore a corset for the rest of his life.
Aside from fashion and medical uses, corsets are also used in sexual fetishism
, most notably in BDSM
activities. In BDSM, a submissive
can be forced to wear a corset which would be laced very tight and give some degree of restriction to the wearer. A dominant
can also wear a corset, often black, but for entirely different reasons, such as aesthetics, and to achieve a severe, armored, "unbending," commanding appearance.
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, steel and whalebone were favored for the boning. Featherbone was used as a less expensive substitute for whalebone and was constructed from flattened strips of goose quill woven together with yarn to form a long strip (Doyle, 1997:232). 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 genereally 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.)
The craft of corset construction is known as corsetry, as is the general wearing of them. Someone who makes corsets is a corsetier or corsetière (French terms for a man and for a woman, respectively), or sometimes simply a corsetmaker. (The word corsetry is sometimes also used as a collective plural form of corset.)
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 would be laced by her maid, and a gentleman by his valet. However, many corsets also had a buttoned or hooked front opening called a busk. Once the lacing was adjusted comfortably, it was possible to leave the lacing as adjusted and take the corset on and off using the front opening (this method can potentially 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. Modern tightlacers, lacking servants, are usually laced by spouses and partners.
By wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods, known as tightlacing, men and women can learn to tolerate extreme waist constriction and eventually reduce their natural waist size. Tightlacers dream of 40 to 43 centimeters (16 to 17 inches) waists, but most are satisfied with anything under 50 centimeters (20 inches). Until 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Ethel Granger as having the smallest waist on record at 32.5 centimeters (13 inches). After 1998, the category changed to "smallest waist on a living person" and Cathie Jung took the title with a 37.5 centimeters (15 inches) waist. Other women, such as Polaire, also have achieved such reductions (14 inches in her case).
However, these are extreme cases. Corsets were and are still usually designed for support, with freedom of body movement an important consideration in their design. Present day corset-wearers usually tighten the corset just enough to reduce their waists by 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches); it is very difficult for a slender woman to achieve as much as 15 centimeters (6 inches), although larger women can do so more easily.
In the past, a woman's corset was usually worn over a garment called a chemise
, a sleeveless low-necked gown made of washable material (usually cotton
). It absorbed perspiration and kept the corset and the gown clean. In modern times, an undershirt or corset liner may be worn.
Moderate lacing is not incompatible with vigorous activity. Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century, when corset wearing was common, there were sport corsets specifically designed to wear while bicycling, playing tennis, or horseback riding, as well as for maternity wear.
Many people now believe that all corsets are uncomfortable and that wearing them restricted women's lives, citing Victorian literature devoted to sensible or hygienic dress. However, these writings generally protested against the misuse of corsets for tightlacing; they were less vehement against corsets per se. Many reformers recommended "Emancipation bodices", which were essentially tightly-fitted vests, like full-torso corsets without boning. See Victorian dress reform.
Some modern day corset-wearers will testify that corsets can be comfortable, once one is accustomed to wearing them. A properly fitted corset should be comfortable. Women active in the historical reenactment groups (such as Society for Creative Anachronism) commonly wear corsets as part of period costume, without complaint.
The corset is a garment that has undergone many changes over the years. Originally, the garment we now know as the corset was known as stays in the early 16th century. It was a simple bodice, with tabs at the waist, stiffened by horn, buckram, and whalebone.(Steele 6) The center front was further reinforced by a busk made of ivory, wood, or metal. It was most often laced from the back, and was, at first, a garment reserved for the aristocracy. Stays took a different form in the 18th century, whale bone began to be used more, and there was more boning used in the garment. The shape of the stays changed as well. The stays were low and wide in the front, while in the back they reached up to the neck. The straps of the stays were attached in the back and tied at the front sides. The purpose of 18th century stays was to emphasise the bust, while drawing the shoulders back. At this time, the eyelets were reinforced with stitches, and were not placed across from one another, but staggered. This allowed the stays to be spiral laced. One end of the stay lace is inserted and knotted in the bottom eyelet, the other end is wound through the stays' eyelets and tightened on the top. To tighten the laces the wearer had to hold onto something, as this method of lacing pulled the wearer from side to side as it was tightened.(Steele, 22) At this time, there were two other variants of stays, jumps, which were looser stays with attached sleeves, like a jacket, and corsets.(Steele 27) Corsets were originally quilted waistcoats, worn by French women as an alternative to stiff corsets.(Steele,29)They were only quilted linen, laced in the front,and unboned. This garment was meant to be worn on informal occasions, while stays were worn for court dress. In the 1790s, stays fell out of fashion. This development coincided with the French Revolution
, and the adoption of neoclassical
styles of dress. Interestingly, it was the men, Dandies, who began to wear corsets.(Steele 36)The fashion persisted thorough the 1840s, though after 1850 men who wore corsets claimed they needed them for "back pain" (Steele 39)
Stays went away in the late 18th cetury, but the corset remained. Corsets in the early 19th century lengthened to the hip, the lower tabs replaced by gussets at the hip. Room was made for the bust in front with more gussets, and the back lowered. The shoulder straps disappeared in the 1840s for normal wear.(Waugh 77)In the 1820s, fashion changed again, with the waistline lowered back to almost the natural position. Corsets began to be made with some padding and boning. Corsets began to be worn by all classes of society. Some women made their own, while others bought their corsets. Corsets were one of the first mass produced garments for women. Corsets began to be more heavily boned in the 1840s. By 1850, steel boning became popular. With the advent of metal eyelets, tight lacing became possible. The position of the eyelets changed, they were now situated across from one another at the back. The front was now fastened with a metal busk
in front. Corsets were mostly white. The corsets of the 1850s-1860s were shorter than the corsets of the 1800s through 1840s. This was because of a change in the silhouette of women's fashion. The 1850s and 60s emphasized the hoopskirt. After the 1860s, when the hoop fell out of style, the corset became longer to mold the abdomen, exposed by the new lines of the princess or cuirass style. During the Edwardian period, the straight front corset was introduced. This corset was straight in front, with a pronounced curve at the back that forced the upper body forward, and the derrière out. This style was worn from 1900-1908 (Steele 144) The corset reached its longest length in the early 20th century. The longline corset at first reached from the bust down to the upper thigh. There was also a style of longline corset that started under the bust, and necessitated the wearing of a brasserie. This style was meant to complement the new sillhouette. It was a boneless style, much closer to a modern girdle than the traditional corset. The longline style was abandoned during World War I
The corset fell from fashion in the 1920s in Europe and America, replaced by girdles and elastic brassieres, but survived as an article of costume. Originally an item of lingerie, the corset has become a popular item of outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures.
In the fetish and BDSM literature, there is often much emphasis on tightlacing. In this case, the corset may still be underwear rather than outerwear.
There was a brief revival of the corset in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of the waist cincher sometimes called a "waspie". This was used to give the hourglass figure dictated by Christian Dior's 'New Look'. However, use of the waist cincher was restricted to haute couture, and most women continued to use girdles. This revival was brief, as the New Look gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.
Since the late 1980s, the corset has experienced periodic revivals, which have usually originated in haute couture and which have occasionally trickled through to mainstream fashion. These revivals focus on the corset as an item of outerwear rather than underwear. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the Autumn 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!, the costumes for which featured many corsets as characteristic of the era.
Similarly, other films have used these garments as costume features, generally to suggest a period effect, as in Van Helsing, where Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) wears an ornate underbust corset as part of her costume. Sometimes this is used for humorous purposes, as when Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) almost suffocates from wearing a tight corset in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. One distinctive feature has been to portray them in combination with catsuits, as in Star Trek: Voyager where Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) throughout the series wears catsuits with contained built-in corsets, or Underworld, where Selene (Kate Beckinsale) wears a black leather corset over matching latex catsuit.
There are some special types of corsets and corset-like devices which incorporate boning.
A corset dress (also known as hobble corset because it produces similar restrictive effects to a hobble skirt
) is a long corset (examples gallery
). It is like an ordinary corset, but it is long enough to cover the legs, partially or totally. It thus looks like a dress, hence the name. A person wearing a corset dress can have great difficulty in walking up and down the stairs (especially if wearing high-heeled footwear) and may be unable to sit down if the boning is too stiff.
A neck corset
is a type of posture collar
and it is generally not considered to be a corset.
Advantages and disadvantages of corsets
There are several advantages and disadvantages to wearing a corset.
- Corsets promote good posture.
- Corsets can reduce pain and improve function for people with back problems or other muscular/skeletal disorders, such as Lordosis.
- Some large-breasted women find corsets more comfortable than brassieres, because the weight of the breasts is carried by the whole corset rather than the brassiere's shoulder straps. Straps can chafe or cut the skin. However, if a bra is properly fitted, the weight of the breasts is carried by the band and not by the shoulders, thus eliminating this problem for even women with very large breasts.
Personal, social and aesthetic advantages
- Corsets can make a woman appear thin.
- Corsets can give a straight masterful posture.
- The straight posture accentuates the bosom.
- Corsets can instantly reduce the waistline by 5-10cm (2-4").
- Corsets can spread the weight of big gowns.
- Some corset-wearers enjoy the feeling of being "hugged" by the corset.
- Due to their tightness and close proximity to the body, corsets can make the wearer feel very warm. They have historically been worn in cooler climates.
- Some corset-wearers believe the shallow breathing imposed by the garment may charm men.
- The abdominal pressure maintained by frequent corset use can help wearers reduce body fat by inhibiting the appetite without conscious dieting, slimming drugs, or cosmetic surgery.
- Training with corsets can reduce waistline by 18cm (7") or more. See: Tightlacing
- Glénard's disease is the most common illness caused by prolonged corset use. It is characterized by lack of abdominal muscle tone and visceral displacement.
The use of a corset has two basic risks: compression of the chest and downward pressure on the abdomen.
Risks: Compression of chest
- The chest cavity can vary in size due to a number of floating ribs. If a corset is correctly fitted, the wearer's posture should be upright; the corset should provide pressure from below the ribcage, rather than on either side. A correctly fitted corset will seem too big around the chest before it is tightened. Beginners should be careful not to exert too much pressure on the ribs and chest cavity.
- Improper corset use may deform the stomach and liver.
- Wearing a tight corset may lead to difficulty breathing, or more use of intercostal breathing . Tightlacers are more likely to notice this, as the volume of the lungs diminishes.
- Developing children are far more vulnerable to the potential health risks of corset use. As such, corsets should only be worn by fully-formed adults, never by growing children.
Risks: Downward pressure on the abdomen
- The abdomen can be covered by a skirt. Those seeking to save money may buy a cheap corset that ends at the top of the abdomen, pressing down on the abdomen (as seen in a previous image). A more expensive corset will have some sort of abdomen support, whether that be in the form of a busk, front lacing or a hip belt.
Difficulties finding a corset
- Low-quality corsets. Finding a well-fitting, good-quality corset among the many imitations can be challenging. The potential wearer must try on and inspect any corset being considered for purchase for quality and fit. An ill-fitting corset will chafe, impede digestion, and ultimately cause damage to the ribs and pinch nerves.
The difficulties in getting used to corsets
- Fainting. If the wearer is unaccustomed to shallow breathing,or if it is tied too tightly too quick, the muscles soon tire and work too slowly, severely reducing oxygen supply. Would-be wearers must train up their breathing gradually.
- It is important that the corset lengthens the waist, like a redresseur corset, for better shallow breathing. A waist cincher is too short to accomplish this.
Beginning to wear a corset
Corsets must be broken in (molded) to the wearer's body for the proper fit and reduction of stress on the seams to prevent ripping. Since a corset must mold itself to the wearer, a custom corset is recommended. It takes a full day for a corset to mold to the wearer's body. It is started by lacing the corset loosely, then tightening the laces every few hours. This allows the corset to gradually mold to the body using body heat, yielding a more comfortable corset. One may need to remove the corset for cooling before resuming, to have it mold better. It is highly inadvisable to wear another's corset, as it has molded to their body. Wearing a corset made for another may result in pain, and the corset may unmold and cause discomfort for the original wearer. If one is not a corset wearer, it may require a week to feel fully comfortable in a corset. That doesn't mean that the corset should hurt, because it never should, it just may take up to a week for a corset to become less uncomfortable.
Corsets for beginners
Corsets for beginners (also known as starter or beginner corsets) should be easy to adjust to for someone who has never been corseted, and give the correct position of the ribs. Three types of corsets are recommended for beginners:
- The posture corset, which goes from the hip (close to the pubis) and has a moderate waist. All corsets from Spirella Co. were of this type.. The posture corset was an invention of madame Roxey A. Caplin from before 1856, and is common today.
- The underbust hourglass corset for tightlacing, with a waist reduction of no more than 4" unless the wearer's initial waist is larger than 38", in which case a 6" reduction is acceptable. However, only a short wasp waist can fit a beginner. The underbust hourglass corset is an alternative fashion.
- Historical corsets specifically for beginners - pair of stays and redresseur corsets. Redresseur corsets fell out of fashion in 1919.
To be avoided by beginners:
- Waist cinchers and waist training belts are not recommended, as they do not offer proper support of the stomach.
- Many historical corsets were designed with the assumption that wearers had used corsets for years, and so are harmful for beginners. The wasp waist in these corsets is too long, forcing the ribs to bend down rather than up as correct. Fashionable women of the past had long waists; longer than modern natural waists.
References and further reading
- Doyle, R. "Waisted Efforts, A Illustrated Guide To Corset Making". Sartorial Press Publications, 1997. ISBN 0-9683039-0-0
- Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-300-09953-3
- Larry Utley, Autumn Carey-Adamme, Fetish Fashion: Undressing the Corset Green Candy Press, 2002. ISBN 1-931160-06-6
- Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines. Routledge (December 1, 1990), ISBN 0-87830-526-2