The corset has been an important part of fashion for centuries. From its early designs that were popular during the Middle Ages to the more widely known version of the Victorian Era, the corset has changed a great deal. While the materials in the design–glue to whalebone to plastic to futuristic fabric–have altered in the past few centuries, the purpose of the corset has not: to give us the shape we, and society, have desired.
Before we continue, we should point out the difference between a corset and a girdle. These are two very different things. Saying they are the same is like saying shoes are the same as gloves. Quite simply, a corset compresses the body into an hourglass shape, while a girdle slims the buttocks, stomach and thigh/torso area. Corsets go down to the waist but do not cover the legs as a girdle may. Girdles do not incorporate boning (an important part of corsets as we will see), and are typically made of just elastic fabric to firm up the stomach and buttocks area. Generally speaking, the corset does a better job of creating a slimming effect when compared to the girdle.
The corset first appeared in the 5th century, steadily evolving into the 15th century; this was not the corset we know today. It was a cote, a bodice between two layers of fabric. Each layer of fabric was then stiffened through the use of glue. Beginning in the 16th century, the modern corset began to take shape (no pun intended), primarily to compress the waist and push up the breasts, causing them to swell out.
Interestingly, in Spain, the corset evolved to compress the breasts until they disappeared. The corset was meant to deform the look of the woman by flattening the breasts. “Bones”, or pieces of wood, steel or a whale bone was sewn into the layers of cloth. These “bones”, referred to as “boning”, were placed in front of the stomach to keep the front of the body straight. Steel busks were also used, measuring half a yard long, running from the bust down to the stomach.
Corsets in England, especially after Queen Elizabeth was crowned, began to follow the same pattern as the Spanish corset. There corsets were also stiffened with wood or whalebone and were fastened using hooks on the left side of the corset. One difference of the English corset was that it didn’t reach up to the neck as it did with the Spanish design. Instead, it was often cut so low that the breasts were exposed.
During this time, stays were commonly used. The stay was a full-bodied bodice that was worn underneath the clothes throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Stays differed in construction from the corset in several ways and appears to have been used until the late 18th century. Stays turned the torso into a stiff and inverted cone. These were typically seen as informal wear and more common in England than elsewhere.
In the Victorian Era, the flamboyancy previously seen in fashion was left behind because Queen Victoria was not a frivolous queen. She believed there was more eloquence in simplicity than flamboyancy. As a result, the corset took on a different look and feel during that era, designed with separate pieces that were sewn together. This helped to shape the corset over the hips, while at the same time making the breasts appear rounder. Whalebone was still used for boning, but unlike corsets seen in England two centuries prior, the strips only went up the back and rarely up the front or side unless more structure was needed. This new, rigid corset was not used to create the desired vision of the female body, but to conceal the lines of the underwear beneath the corset.
In 1856, the artificial cage crinoline appeared, providing an alternative to how corsets were designed. Made of spring steel hoops, this design increased in diameter the closer you got to the bottom and it was suspended using cotton tapes. It was strong enough to support the skirts underneath, and it also helped to create the desirable bell effect during this time in England and elsewhere.
As time went on, the move away from whalebone emerged. In the early 20th century, new technology allowed for the creation of materials that were cheaper and easier to obtain than whalebone. Who knows how many thousands of whales were killed so women could shrink their waists!
By the early 20th century, flat and spiral steel bones replaced whalebone, which in turn dropped the price of the corset, making it available for the common masses. Beginning in the 1920s, the corset saw a downward slide in popularity because women experienced greater freedom for choosing what they wanted to wear. In addition, the flapper girl movement hurt the popularity of the corset. Nonetheless, some still used it and, instead of whalebone or steel, the boning was elastic strips sewn into the lower edge with clips to hold up stockings.
Today, the corset is made of a wide variety of materials. A new technology taking center stage is Lycra. This is a tensile new fabric that does not need any sort of plastic bars inside it to make it flexible yet firm. While this new fabric is becoming popular, most corsets today use plastic because it is lightweight and very flexible, as well as more affordable. For corsets of higher quality, light steel strips are utilized to make it stiffer and provide the structural integrity required for waist training.
Plastic boning for a modern corset is not the best solution, despite the lower price. Plastic boning is not strong enough to greatly alter the shape of the body. It can bend but it may be uncomfortable. The plastic will eventually begin to fold and contort into a shape that can bruise and pinch. Moreover, plastic boning offers little support for the breasts, which is a major reason women wear corsets. The corset using plastic typically has a single layer of fabric; the problem with this is that the corset will not effectively conform the body as a corset should.
Stays are also common today as well, made of a variety of materials. Plastic is not used as much as because it is lower quality. Often, steel is used for stays to avoid the cane from breaking. Cane can be used though because when used in sets, as it was in the 18th century, it actually becomes stronger as a whole and less likely to break. Another benefit of using cane for the stay is that it is lighter than steel boning while sharing similar characteristics with whale-boning, which, of course, is no longer used.
Steel is definitely the material you want in a corset if you are looking to use it long term. Not only can steel busk withstand the pressure created when drawing in the waist, but it is stronger than zippers, hooks or eye tapes. Metal hardware fasteners are used, consisting of loops and knobs, to open and close the corset in the center. Steel bones in the body panels can be spiral or flat steel bones, and they give the corset its ability to shape the body. Plastic is used for lingerie or a corset top – we discuss the differences in more detail in this article. However, over time, the plastic will bend out of shape and break depending on the frequency of use. A good quality corset will have at least 10 steel bones inside of it. Waist tape is also used to help the corset bare the pressure of shaping and will also prevent ripping. Cotton lining helps to make the corset comfortable on the skin, while also allowing the skin to breathe as well.
It is important to note that not all steel is the same when dealing with corsets. Spiral steel is used quite often but it does not provide much more support than is found with plastic. While it may allow a lot of movement, it can bulge in certain areas, similar to plastic corsets. A better option is to have corsets that use a combination of both spiral steel and spring steel. Spring steel is the best corset shaping material. It is lightweight, and does an excellent job of supporting the corset.
Even today, after a downward trend seen in the mid-20th century, the corset remains popular. This resurgence of popularity can be seen in corset Facebook pages that attract not thousands but hundreds of thousands of fans. One of the strongest revivals in recent years of the corset was because of the 2001 release of “Moulin Rouge”, where many costumes featured corsets. Additionally, in the Steampunk culture, corsets are widely used, as well as in lingerie. Corsets are also becoming more popular as a fashion accessory for everyday use as women, and some men, look to create a certain body type that not only makes them feel comfortable, but confident as well. The purpose of the corset may have not changed much over centuries, but its design and comfort has certainly been improved.
From rigid glue to whalebone to futuristic fabric, the corset has come a long way and survived, in various levels of popularity, for over 1,500 years. And no matter your corset style The Violet Vixen is here to help you.