Curator Talk Podcast: Episode 9, The History of the Corset, Part 2 Transcript

My name is Julie Hawksworth and I am the Visitor Services Manager for The Amelia, and a fashion blogger.

This is part two of The Corset podcasts, which gives 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. This podcast 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, picking up the corset’s story from part one, we are now going to leave the eighteenth century and enter the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to see how the corset is changing and developing, both in it’s construction, style, and cultural significance.

By the nineteenth century corsets were constructed differently, and women had left the flowing classical inspired fashions of revolutionary France behind. Boned corsets were once again an essential item in a women’s wardrobe, going back to their original function of supporting the breasts as well as narrowing the waist. This is also the time when the term ‘corset’ becomes part of fashion’s vocabulary, and we move away from the eighteenth-century terminology of the stays.

By the 1830s we see corsetry really embedded back in women’s fashion, once again creating a smooth and perfect base for the rest of their structural underwear. Just like in the eighteenth century, a small defined waist and structured torso was again the ideal body shape for most of the nineteenth century. The exaggerated skirts, inflated shoulders, and huge puffed out sleeves that were fashionable characteristics of dress during this time, made women’s waists look even more tiny in comparison to rest of their bodies, and is a great example of how women’s dress continued to manipulate and distort realistic body proportions.

During the nineteenth century we begin to see more and more women wearing corsets. But why? And how, when they were expensive garments to be created and purchased, were middle- and lower-class women able to afford them?

We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Victorian manufacturing processes and new inventions.

The industrial revolution that started in the eighteenth century had led to new ways of making corsets. A once long winded, intense, and highly skilled process, corset making was revolutionised by the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s.  New fabrics and dyes and processes such as steam moulding, also helped to speed up construction and achieve the results more cheaply than when being made by hand. This effectively helped to democratise fashion, making corsets available to many more women, and giving them much more choice and style to their over all dress.

Steam moulding was instrumental in the quick production of off-the-peg corsetry. Invented by Edwin Izod in 1868, this process saw the creation of ideal torsos that were cast usually in metal. The corset fabric was then placed over the metal forms which were heated until they formed the correct shape. This moulding process achieved a tight-fitting silhouette without the need to take individual measurements from women. This hugely assisted in the mass production of corsets and is in stark contrast to the intricate methods of corsetry undertaken by hand in the eighteenth century.

We also see many mass-produced corsets of the mid-Victorian period now beginning to contain metal stays rather than whalebone. Whalebone was becoming scarcer due to its previous demand and was now a lot more expensive. Again, this helped corsets to be produced more effectively and cheaply with savings that were then passed down to the consumer.

And of course, the mid nineteenth century was also the birth of mass advertising. With advertisements filling shop windows, periodicals, and women’s magazines with images of desirable products, corsets were now in constant view and in the minds of many.

So, we now find corsets are being produced in much larger numbers and to suit all tastes and budgets. We can see that much advertising was targeted at women, convincing them of the health and beauty benefits of wearing a corset, as well as the garments affordability.

However, we also still see high-end and exclusive corsets being produced during this period. France was still the centre of high-end corsetry, and Paris would continue to see women fitted with expensive handmade silk corsets decorated with luxury embellishments such as lace and embroidery. These corsets were juxtaposed with the off-the-peg mass-produced versions which were much more prominent in Britain and America and were made in a variety of styles and standardised sizes.

The Amelia collection has examples of both the steam moulded mass-produced Victorian corsets, and exclusive expensive high-end ones, so we can really see that there was something for everyone during the nineteenth century. And just as in the eighteenth century, and of course today, women’s bodies still came in different shapes and sizes, but many women were still looking to achieve a generalised and idealised body shape. But whilst the controlled figure with a pulled in waistline was still in vogue, there were subtle differences. We can see this with a closer examination of how a Victorian corset was constructed, in comparison to eighteenth century stays.

In terms of shape, the waist of corsets still achieved that nipped in look and pushed up chest of the eighteenth century, but they did look very different. The shoulder straps had gone along with the tabs of fabric at the bottom. The corset was now strapless, shorter, and came down to the waist in a pointed V shape. In addition to the back lacing, many were now also front fastening with metal studs allowing women to dress much more easily.

When the crinoline, which was a metal cage like structure that sat underneath the skirt, was fashionable in the 1860s, the huge full skirts made women’s waists seem small whatever their actual size. Just like the exaggerated wide hooped skirts of the Georgian period, the 1860s saw women’s dress reach new extremes of body shaping.

As skirts came in and became tighter in the 1870s, and the crinoline evolved into a bustle, which was a cage or padded structure that exaggerated the back of the dress, corsets became longer coming over the waistline and onto the stomach to create a much more streamlined effect.

In the late 1870s another Victorian innovation, the spoon busk, came along, which curved in at the waist and came out over the stomach. You may remember from part one of the corset podcast, that the busk of a corset is the centre panel than ran down the middle of the garment, serving the purpose of structuring and containing the figure. Prior to the invention of the spoon busk, this was usually a straight piece of metal or wood. The new spoon design, with its broader shaped curved end allowed the wearer to achieve a smooth and straight torso without the busk of the corset digging into the flesh. This was much more comfortable for women to wear.

The Amelia collection has a great example of a spoon busk corset dating to around 1878. Made from black polished silk sateen, and stitched with pale blue thread, it has a blue-ribbon threading insertion along the top of the bust line and contrasting blue laces at the back. It’s highly decorative which suggests that this corset was definitely made to be seen, and not hidden away. As well as demonstrating new approaches to comfort in corsetry, this garment also shows us that by the mid nineteenth century, corsets were much more colourful and playful than their eighteenth-century counterparts. Modernity opened up more possibilities for fashion, with corsets being produced in an array of colours and using new synthetic dyes.

But despite the bombardment of advertising, and new colours and designs being available, why were women still keen to wear something that, albeit was perhaps a bit more comfortable, but was nevertheless still restricted their movement and torsos?  And why do we see more vibrant and stylised designs coming through in corsets at this particular time?

The fact that women’s faithfulness to corsetry is seen throughout the nineteenth century implies that they felt that the corset had some sort of function and purpose. We often tend to think of the corset as being primarily concerned with the control of the waist.  Think about the Kardashian’s and their waist trainers.  This is a great example. But we need to remember that the corset also functioned as a breast support, lifting, and augmenting the breasts in a dramatic display. Some corsets also came with additional padding discreetly designed to supplement a smaller figure. And of course, all this together, the control of the waist, stomach, and breasts, again brings us back to controlling the body and achieving a beauty ideal, that nature alone could not provide.

Throughout the nineteenth century we can see that a lot of women tended to believe that a corset led them to achieve a better and more desirable figure, and this was closely related to an interest in fashionable dress and idealised beauty standards. But it is far too simplistic to suggest that fashion has a complete hold over women. There is much more at play here.

In the past fashion historians have tended to look at women’s faithfulness to the corset as also being closely linked to middle class sexual ideas and repression during the Victorian period. The corset was seen to represent ideal female beauty, as well as a submissive and compliant nature, so pretty much perfect Victorian wife material.

However, more recently research has drawn out that the Victorians were not nearly as prudish as we have previously assumed. It is true that in Victorian polite society to be decently dressed you needed to be laced into a corset, and that tightly laced and structured dress were indeed synonymous with good morals and appropriate behaviour.

But both the textile and archival evidence we have shows that women were also acutely aware of the corset’s sexual power. The evidence of decoration, choice of colour and design helps to highlight this. There are also accounts of women articulating the confidence and enjoyment that they found in wearing corsets.

So, it could be argued that by crossing a line of an image of both respectability and overt sexual allure, that the corset allowed women to express their sexuality in a socially acceptable way, making the historical corset wearing more appealing for women, that we have been previously been led to believe.

Yet, juxtaposed to this the nineteenth century corset was also placed in a backdrop of dress reform across women’s fashion. By the latter part of the century dress reformers were becoming louder and vocalising their opinions on the negative aspects of corsets. This was closely linked with a feminist dialogue that challenged the wearing of corsets on the grounds that not only did they induce medical defects and illness, but also prevented women from achieving equality with men. The idea that the corset represented control of the body and the mind of women was a strong argument of the dress reform movement.

But the fact that corsetry had been part of the fashionable elite’s dress for centuries, meant it was ingrained in women’s psyche as an essential part of their wardrobe. So, when did women stop wearing corsets? And why did they abandon them after such a long relationship?

Fashion history has usually implied that the dress reformers and women’s rights movements of the latter part of the nineteenth century should get the credit. However, this argument is problematic, as at the end of the nineteenth century little actual dress reform can be seen. The fact is that women were still wearing corsets.

The First World War from 1914 to 1918 has often also been pitched as the moment fashion finally gives into practicality over aesthetics. However this is also somewhat misleading, as fashion collections show us that prior to 1914, women’s dress had already started to change, with straighter body shapes becoming fashionable, and narrower skirts appearing, which whilst still long, were slit up the side to reveal colourful stockings and boots.

However, the fact that women were increasingly undertaking male roles and responsibilities during the First World War did of course impact on both the design and look of their clothing, as well as societal expectations of what women could do, and what they could be. Clothing needed to function for an active lifestyle, and this is the point that we see the first bras beginning to appear, or brassieres as they were called, which were designed to lift, support, and separate the breasts without the need of a bulky and constrictive corset.

By the 1920s we see both a new fashion freedom, and a challenge of the very idea of conventional femininity. This is fully expressed in a post war Europe where women were struggling for social and political power. The 1920s sees a completely new body shape become fashionable for the first time in centuries. A boyish and slender physique is now favoured.

But although the nineteenth century waist clinching corset had gone, the reality was again that women continued to wear a type of corset to control and shape their bodies. This time it was in the form of a long-lined garment that came down all the way over the hips that flattened and shaped the body into the desired form. This was known as a girdle.

Leaving the androgynous shapes of the 1920s behind, we see that girdles continued to be worn throughout the first part of the twentieth century. By the 1930s we also see the large-scale production of the bra, that of course is a significant development in underwear’s history, but again we do not completely wave goodbye to the corset. Girdles were either worn in conjunction with bras or were a combined together into a one-piece garment really resembling a corset.

Again, technology played a big part in both the corset’s development and story during the twentieth century. The invention of stretchy textiles, known as fabric elastics, were a big transition for corsetry. Textile elastics were two-way stretchy fabrics that replaced rubber elastic and gave both control and movement to the wearer. This meant the body could be supported, controlled, flattened, and shaped, much more easily and comfortably.

When we come to the late 1940s we see that the corset shape once again rises up to lead women’s fashion. Following the Second World War, which finished in 1945, French fashion designer Christian Dior famously reacted to the utilitarian nature of women’s fashion. In 1947 he released a collection in Paris titled ‘The New Look’. This collection moved away from the austerity and practicality of 1940’s wartime dress creating elegant and glamorous designs for women. One of the prominent features of this collection was the nipped in hourglass shape of the gowns and suits that he displayed, giving a big nod right back to the corset’s original function and shape.

Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, we see women’s fashion falling in and out of love with the corset. The corset’s ability to shape and highlight the curves of a woman’s body, as well as controlling the figure and movement, seems to fascinate fashion designers. Corsets have also always had a place with underground fashion and the fetish scene which gives them a tough edginess that is equally irresistible to designers who want to shock and make a spectacle on the runway.

So we can see from the tight bodices of 1950’s evening gowns, to the flamboyant jewelled bustiers of the 1980s, and the dramatic corsets of the 1990s created by fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, that the corsets presence is always there. Yet until relatively recently in its history the corset was either used in haute couture or still as a structured undergarment for the foundation of a dress and was often still hidden from general view.

In the late 1990s and early noughties, we see the corset finally make the transition from haute couture to a ready-to-wear collections. This is significant for fashion history as it signals a garment’s journey out to a wider audience. There is now often an emphasis on the corset as day wear, with British fashion designers such as Vivienne Westward, Stella McCartney, and Alexander McQueen translating the corset with a contemporary twist. Interestingly this journey into daytime and ready-to-wear shows how during the twentieth century fashion has really pushed the boundaries of underwear to the point where it has eventually become part of outer wear. This demystifies and normalises the corset in everyday dress.

So, it seems that the corset has transgressed to survive the rocky road of fashion. But why? I think this is partly down to the appeal of the corset’s ability to both control and shape the body alongside its history of erotic symbolism and connotations of edginess, counterculture, and fetishism.

It also seems interesting that during the twenty-first century, we have seen a comparable democratisation of fashion in line with the nineteenth century, through the development and use of technology to share fashion much more widely. Social media platforms that allow us to share and show fashion equally, takes the trend setting powers away from designers and journalists, and that’s really interesting. Everyday women now have the power to share, chat, and discuss style, fashion, and of course their bodies in a very public way.

As ever fashion is intrinsically linked to societal issues, and the rise of the social movement around body positivity is an example of this. Now the challenge to ideas and beauty ideals previously voiced by medical professionals, dress formers, and of course many women themselves, are much more visible and audible. We now see a focus on a positive body image for everyone centred on the notion of the acceptance of all body shapes and sizes. Challenges to diet culture, gender stereotypes, and the general pressure on women and men to achieve unnatural and unhealthy beauty ideals are hot topics of debate.

So, does this mark the end of the corset? The popularity of contemporary corsets, shape ware, and plastic surgery suggests not. And we see many fashion influencers and celebrities endourcing structured or control underwear and physical and nutritional regimes that lead to extreme body shapes.  So, it does seem that despite progress in acceptance for all types of bodies society is still interested in having control over the figure and changing our shape.

However, what is clear is that corset is now a choice rather than a necessity, and is arguably still one of fashion’s biggest muses, regularly showing up in London Fashion Week. The idea of the corset as being sexually expressive is also continued on. The corset is now often pitched as being expressive of female sexuality and empowerment and has now reached not only the runways of haute couture and ready-to-ready to wear fashion, but also the high street.

So just like the differing experiences women had of wearing corsets through history, we can also see that that the corset has a multiplicity of meanings, and it’s clear that this also changes through time. But one thing we can be sure of is that the corset is certainly not showing any signs of disappearing yet.