Curator Talk Podcast: Episode 8, The History of the Corset, Part 1 Transcript
My name is Julie Hawksworth and I am the Visitor Services Manager for The Amelia, and a fashion blogger.
This is part 1 of 2 podcasts that are a quick insight into a part of The Amelia’s costume collection. The Amelia has a dress collection of just over 7,000 objects which includes underwear and corsets. These podcasts will focus specifically on the corset, its history, meaning, and legacy on contemporary fashion.
The wonderful thing about costume is that it really evokes social history, bringing the body and personalities from the past back to life. The corset is one of the most hotly debated items of clothing in a dress collection. They imbue symbolism and encourage controversy and have had a huge legacy in the development of fashion and body image.
So, I’m now going to take you a brief history of the corset, its origins, construction and impact on the fashion from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Let’s begin with some context.
The corset has a complex story. This iconic piece of structural underwear is often seen as a representation of women’s repression, of patriarchy, pain, and vanity. The corset has often been pitched as either an instrument of torture that leads to deformity and a myriad of different health conditions, or as an overt expression of femininity and sexuality.
In more recent times fashion historians have challenged this framing of oppression versus liberation, and fashion versus health as far too simplistic. Instead they have argued that the corset’s narrative is much more complex than that, and those women’s experiences of wearing corsets, and why they wore corsets varied hugely, between class, countries, continents and times in history.
However we can be sure that the corset is a powerful stereotype of the historical women. Paintings, photography, and film depict tiny waists, hour glass figures, and structured gowns. The famous scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlet O’Hara is laced into her corset and comments on the twenty inches she achieves as not being good enough is a great example of this. But what is becoming clearer as we explore and learn more about women’s history is that there was not one single narrative and experience of wearing a corset. Many women did indeed experience the corset as an uncomfortable and restrictive attack on the body. However, many also reported positive implications of corset wearing such as improved posture, respectability, beauty, and erotic allure. It is also clear that women wore different types of corset and laced them less tightly than we might be led to think. So, in short the experience of wearing one varied hugely.
The Amelia collection has corsets of a variety of sizes, and some do measure the wasp waist dimensions we often associated with historical tight lacing, but others are sized not far from alignment of modern dress measurements, and are not especially small. So it seems, women did reduce the size of their waists significantly by wearing corsets, but the accounts of extreme tight light lacing are problematic, and it could be argued that they are often framed in a light of fantasy and fetishism.
So, to better understand the significance of this iconic piece of clothing it helps to explore its history a little.
So, what are the origins of the corset? Like much of the narrative surrounding corsets the origins are also shrouded in myths and misleading and controversial accounts of this garment’s development. Whilst in the past some dress historians have suggested the corset had its origins in ancient times – this theory is problematic as the only evidence we have is not textile based, but represented in visual culture. There is some evidence in ancient wall paintings and statues that show the female form with tight bodices that expose their top half. However other mosaics and wall paintings have also shown women depicted with simple cloth rectangles wrapped around their breasts without any definition of the torso. The reality seems to be that historians don’t know a huge amount about underwear in the premodern period, but it seems to have been pretty basic consisting mainly of breast and loin cloths. There are different types of wrapped and draped cloth in visual representations of ancient dress, and sometimes they are seen to be stylised with waist clinchers. These were possibly either textile or metal, but these seem more ornamental than functional.
There isn’t a clear cultural consistency between these ancient garments and we don’t really see the corset as we understand it today, in either shape or structure, until we enter the Renaissance in fifteenth century Europe, when there is evidence of the stiffening, lacing, and restriction of the torso within the bodice of female dress, seen in many portraits and religious paintings of the period.
Looking at historical dress collections that represent western fashions, it seems that two types of corsets start to appear more regularly in the sixteenth century. Fashionable corsets made by tailors that were stiffened with whale bone, and orthopaedic corsets that were made from plates of hinged metal. These medical corsets were often recommended to help with congenital defects in men and women, and metal medical corsets remained in use up to the eighteenth century, when they were more rapidly replaced by strengthened canvas corsets.
Orthopaedic corsets continue to be used today to treat some conditions such as scoliosis, and have a been used to combat pain and improve posture following trauma to the torso, such as in the artist Frieda Kahlo’s case, who famously wore a plaster medical corset following a horrific bus accident in 1925.
But how did corsets shape the body? And why would women or men, choose to wear them if they didn’t have too?
Moving away from a medical function, the first real fashionable corset dates to some time in the first part of the sixteenth century when women from the upper classes started wearing bodices stiffened with whale bone, horn, or buckram (which is a kind of stiffened linen). This fashion seems to have originated in Spain and Italy and then transferred quickly to other parts of Europe. Looking at contemporary portraits, such as the engraving of Catherine de Medici in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, we can see the structure of her bodice that shows the pulled in pushed up shape that we associate with the corset. Catherine was Italian noblewomen who became Queen Consort in France and may well have helped to bring the corset across from Italy into France in in the mid- 1600s
Catherine chose to wear a corset because it gave the right shape for the fashionable dress of the time. It acted as a prefect base on which to add the other elements of dress. If we fast forward to the 1700s and we think of the classic Georgian dress shape, we think of the structured body, tiny waist, pushed up chest, and large exaggerated skirts. The corset’s function was to control the figure and set the shape underneath for women to build the layers on top.
An example from The Amelia collection is a pair of Georgian stays dating to around 1760 (stays are the eighteenth term for the corset in Britain). The Amelia’s Georgian corset is made from brown cotton twill and lined with linen, there is a wooden busk or front strip, which sits at the front of the garment and was designed to shape the torso and give a straight posture. The corset is lined with whale bone which achieved the structure and fitted shape, but also allowed an element of flex, albeit not very much! The corset has a back fastening to allow the wearer to be laced in to create the ideal shape. Georgian corsets, like the one in The Amelia’s collection, were relatively plain and usually made from cotton.
So, going back to thinking about the corset as our fashionable base for a Georgian costume, the corset would sit over a simple cotton chemise which is like a long white underdress. This had a very practical function, as it would have been much easier to be laundered than the heavy silk fabrics of the outer dress and petticoats.
The more decorative elements of Georgian costume were often left for the bodice or stomacher (which is the front triangular panel of an eighteenth-century dress). The stomacher was pinned into the centre dress or robe to cover the corset. Panniers were then added, which were padded hoops structures, and would sit neatly under the tabs at the bottom of the corset. The petticoat was then added on top, to achieve some serious skirt volume that stuck out the sides. So, we see a structured package of underwear that creates a dramatic shape, and also seriously restricts the physical movement of the wearer.
This all ties in with the social behaviours of the time. Court etiquette is one example of how the structure of dress and the corset became synonymous with elevated status and controlled movement and behaviour. A Royal Court is the extended household of the monarchy and in the eighteenth century would have included many members of the nobility. In short, all the people with power, influence, and money.
A polished and pristine presentation at Court was really important to members of Europe’s elite. A bit like today’s celebrities rocking up to an Oscar party in a designer dress that that holds them in perfectly. It’s a sign of money, who you are, who you know, and a credit to your taste and influence.
The structure of a corset not only gave a sleek and refined appearance, it also controlled and restricted the movement of the wearer. Posture and stance was affected. Control of the body was achieved, and this mimics the social practices of this time where everything at Court was about self-presentation and the rules of display.
So we could say that up until the French Revolution in 1789 when the aristocracy held their sway, Europe’s elite were the fashion setters of their time. What happened in Court was often imitated and appropriated throughout the rest of society, and shared through paintings, drawings, and prints. So, when women such as Catherine de Medici wore a corset and structures shape at Court, this then became fashion.
However, there is also something here to be said about here about modesty, and whilst corsets are very sexually charged with the way they highlight women’s curves, ironically they were also seen, particularly in Britain, as being synonymous with good morals and respectability. In short if you were laced up tightly you were seen to be conforming to the stereotypical idea of women as mother, wife, and homemaker. If you laced loosely or not at all, there were connotations of lose morals and the fallen woman. Hence many depictions in art history of prostitutes being unlaced, such as in Hogarth’s The Harlots Progress print series which has can be seen in many museum collections, including the V&A. This link between the corset and morals is explore more in the second part of this podcast, as this became a prevalent dialogue in the nineteenth century.
So, going back to question of why wear one? Of course, the pull of fashion can be a strong, but ultimately comfort and wearability comes into the equation too. As I mentioned earlier, women wore different types of corsets. To illustrate that women were often open to looking for a more comfortable way to both achieve a beauty ideal, along side the practicality of their lives, are the Georgian jumps. Jumps were designed to be laced more loosely than conventional corsets and were either lightly boned or had no bones at all. They laced at the front, as opposed to the usual back lacing of Georgian stays, they were much easier for women to who had to dress themselves, and as we can imagine, were very popular during pregnancy. The term ‘jumps’ apparently comes from the French ‘jupe’, with in this period was the name of a short jacket.
So, as we continue to explore the origins of the corset, it is also helpful to understand the terminology and the construction of this garment, as like the fashionable shape of the body, this also changes.
The terminology surrounding the corset seems to change through time and in regions. In the sixteenth century the stiffened bodices I referred to earlier were often just known as ‘bodies’. During the eighteenth the bodies were referred to as ‘stays’ and the term ‘corset’ does not enter fashion dialogue until the 19th century.
As with the terminology used to describe these garments, the make up and design of them also varies through time and regions. Eighteenth century stays were a complicated pattern of 6 pieces, and included two shoulder straps. Whale bone was the usual stiffening material and selected for its strength but also pliability. The amount of whalebone used in stays varied depending on if the corset was full or half boned. The direction and placement of the bones, which were inserted into stitched channels in the fabric, shaped the body, bringing in the waist and supporting the chest. Tabs of fabric stretched over the hips at the bottom of the garment allowing for the insertion of large petticoats, hoops, padding, and other structural garments that I referred to earlier.
There was gradual fall from favour of fully boned stays in the 1770s, where some women, particularly in France were moving towards loser and simpler styles of dress. This was inline with a new philosophical approach of the period – a move towards more natural and simplistic lifestyle choices that were also echoed in dress. Again, the elite lead the way with fashion, and Queen Marie Antoinette of France exhibited a move towards more natural and flowing styles of dress, although Court dress was still very much structured and formal.
The French Revolution in 1789 could be seen as playing a role in the decline of stay wearing in France, at least where revolutionary politics made aristocratic styles somewhat unfashionable. By the 1790s there was a new higher waisted fashionable silhouette, referencing neoclassical styles from ancient Greece and Rome which also mimicked the republican political ideas of the time. Flowing fabrics without a defined waistline were now in favour. Although some contemporary portraits show flowing high wasted muslin gowns with not much underneath, and cartoonists in Britain such as Thomas Rowlandson, ridiculed the immodesty of such revealing fashions. The reality was a lot of women still wore stays underneath.
Collections, including The Amelia have examples of stays that were longer and still relatively heavily boned. We have in The Amelia Collection stays dating to the early 1800s that highlight this – longer length in the body and emphasis the support of breasts rather than squeezing in the waist. So, it seems just as today, some women wanted risqué high fashion, others wanted a more comfortable or conservative or practical approach. Most were probably somewhere in between.
This high waited shape was relatively short-lived in the story of corset fashion. After the Napoleonic wars it was seriously waning, and by the 1820s waists and lacing were back. By the nineteenth century corsets were constructed differently. There were more holes to lace and the holes were opposite each other rather than staggered so were laced in a series of crossings so the corset could be more effectively tightened. Developments in technology led to new fabrics and construction techniques that would give old fashioned stays the heave ho, and a big hello to ease of dressing and more style and decoration than women could have imagined.
In the next episode I will go on to explore the Victorian corset, mass production of underwear, and its legacy on contemporary fashion and body image, as there is not doubt that the corset’s presence can still be felt in fashion today.
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