A History of Corsetry



Perhaps he could equally have suggested that without ‘fashion’ there would be no need of foundations!

For without womens’ (and mens’) obsession throughout history with a tiny waist and thrusting breasts – except perhaps for the flat ‘tube’-like fashion of the 1920s – corsetry and bras alike would probably never have been invented.

Interestingly enough, women living in the few remaining primitive societies do not seem to have the same desperate desire for small waists and certainly do not seem to be unduly worried or self-conscious about their winging bobbling breasts in the way that our ancestors were. The Cretan women, for example, are known to have worn corsets laced-in tightly to accentuate their waists as long as 4000 years ago, although they still left their breasts free to sway and bounce.

As far as is known, the first serious attempt made by women to control the movement of their breasts and to enhance their shape was around 450 BC, when a crude type of bra was fashioned out of soft leather.

Probably the most bizarre corset ever devised was a hinged iron contraption invented around 1600 AD as a result of Catherine de Medici, the wife of Henry II of France, deciding that the ideal measurement for a woman’s waist was 13 inches!!! This resulted in women allowing themselves to be bolted into suitably shaped iron cages – a habit that persisted well into the 17th century.

How they not only bore the pain of being gradually but relentlessly bolted into these corsets, but also put up with the continuing discomfort throughout the day defies imagination. These painfully small waists were further exaggerated later in the century by underpinning their full skirts with hoops and panniers.



f681_479gnrsxdofcorsetpage2.jpgBy around 1820 the better-off woman was wearing a heavily boned (whalebone) corset tightly laced at the back, with specially shaped cups for the breasts. It was not until the mass production techniques of the Victorians enabled corsets to be made by machine, rather than by hand, that the grasually reducing prices enabled the majority of women to willingly imprison their bodies in rigid corsets.

It was not unreasonably suggested that these unforgiving and physically limiting corsets were simply another attempt by men to keep women helplessly imprisoned at home (and in constant danger of fainting), but most mothers seemed quite happy to lace up their young daughters as tightly as possible into these body disciplining contraptions that would eventually ensure they had the obligatory 14 inch waist – not to mention an extraordinary lack of mobility and probably constant indigestion!

It was not really until the First World War that any dramatic change came about in the idea of women encasing themselves in what had by now become steel rather than whalebone reinforced corsets. For now, not only was the steel needed for the war effort but also the women were needed to work in the factories – something they could not be expected to do in constricting corsets.



f681_712gnrsxdofcorsetspage3.jpgAfter the war, two factors brought about a virtual revolution in women’s foundation garments. First, in 1920 Mary Jacobs, a New York debutante, invented the forerunner of the bra as we know it with the help of two silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon. Second, elastic webbing was invented in the USA, which would stretch both ways.

It now became possible to still substantially control the body shape whilst allowing the body considerably more flexibility of movement – altogether a much more comfortable state of affairs. The girdle had been born and from it the pantie girdle would emerge.

Oddly enough though, there is still a surprisingly large demand for the much less comfortable boned corsets – corsets that not only control and discipline the more wayward bodies, but also offers the wearer feelings of confidence, ‘safety’, and often a certain pleasure into the bargain.

Of course this demand for the heavily boned and laced corsets so reminiscent of the Victorian era is much enhanced by the number of TVs who derive considerable pleasure and contentment from the control and discipline demanded.

There can be little doubt that imprisoning and often embarrassingly restrictive corsets, when really tightly laced, put the wearer into an extremely vulnerable physical position – a position that demands a submissive and placatory response towards threatening or aggressive behaviour from a male – or in the case of a TV, another male.

To attempt to ‘stand up’ for yourself in such a physically handicapping situation would be little short of foolhardy. Indeed, one cannot help asking oneself to what extent corsets have played a part in ensuring that women have been conditioned to accept a submissive role in society…

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