Those Dreaded Corsets
Photograph of an American woman wearing a corset, 1899. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
For several hundred years, fashion dictated that women wear a corset beneath their clothing. The stiff, constricting, and confining garment served to keep a woman’s breasts in place while also creating a flattering hourglass figure. Although the true origin of women’s corsets is not known, the undergarment went through a number of alterations and improvements over the years. The corset remained a constricting burden to women until it eventually fell out of fashion and was replaced by the brassiere.
We may not know the exact date when corsets were first invented, but we do know that women of style wore corsets as early as the 1530s. Paintings and portraits, such as the several images of Eleanora di Toledo, from this time period, show women wearing high necklines, flat chests, and tiny waists. The only way these gowns could fit the way they did was with the use of stays, such as those found in a corset.
The Evolution of Stays
Stays, the stiff, rigid pieces that gave the corset its shape, helped to mold the female figure into the desired shape. The stays created a narrow waist, smooth hips, and constrained breasts. Some of the first corsets were made using iron or metal stays, which created a cage-like appearance to the undergarment. Even though the metal was covered with padded cloth, it still must have been terribly uncomfortable and restricting.
Corsets Contributed to Over-Whaling
Metal corset stays were replaced by whalebones in the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite the name, whalebone corsets were not made with actual bones from whales. Rather, they were made with the baleen. The baleen, through which many species of whales filter feed, is comprised of keratin, a hard, yet flexible substance similar to fingernails. When sewn into corsets, the whalebones keep the fabric erect but provided more give than metal. The demand for whalebones for women’s corsets was one of the contributing factors to the rise of the whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, which led to the over-hunting of whales.
Other Items Replaced Whalebones
Over time, the whalebones for corsets became too costly and hard to get, leaving corset makers to find alternative materials. Plant stalks, chicken feathers, and much later, plastic, was used in place of whalebones in corsets. But all of these materials accomplished the same thing. They held the female body into a pleasing shape.
Conventional wisdom of the day strongly suggested that women wear their corsets round the clock, even sleeping in them. It was believed that it was necessary to wear the form-fitting undergarment to keep one’s physique in shape. At first, the corsets laced up the front, but the laced were quickly relocated to the back. When one wore a corset over an extended period of time, the corset laces stretched and loosened. Therefore, every so often, the laces needed to be untied, tightened and re-tied. Since the laces were in the back, a woman often needed assistance tightening her corset strings. In one iconic scene from Gone With the Wind, Mammy tightens Scarlet O’Hara’s corset strings in preparation for a ball.
Tight Corsets Caused Dangerous Manipulation of the Female Body
Women’s fashions became more and more extreme and a woman with a tiny, narrow waist was viewed as attractive. Corsets were designed to squeeze the midriff so much that the internal organs could be displaced or damaged. Some physicians during the Enlightenment claimed that the corset was deforming the female body. The French doctor, Joseph Raulin, wrote in 1768 that it was dangerous for pregnant women to wear corsets during their pregnancy.
Corsets Fell Out of Fashion but Haven’t Completely Died Out
In the 1920s, rebellious women stopped wearing corsets. Some replaced the longtime undergarment with brassieres and girdles, but others adopted a feminist attitude and refused to bow to convention and oppression. Fashion designers, including Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret, proudly proclaimed that they killed the corset with their modern clothing styles. Today, less constricting corsets are moving to the forefront. It is not uncommon to see celebrities wearing a corset alone or with a light jacket. Additionally, corsets have morphed from a figure forming undergarment to a sexy, feminine, lingerie item that is meant to make the wearer look seductive and sexually naughty.
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