The corset is a garment with a long and controversial history. A rigid bodice, usually incorporating vertical and diagonal boning, and laced together, the corset was designed to shape the female torso to the fashionable silhouette of the period. Corsets have been worn by women in the Western world from the sixteenth century through the early twentieth century, at which point girdles and brassieres replaced them. Men, especially dandies and military officers, have also sometimes worn corsets. The primary significance of the corset, however, is its role as an essential element of women’s fashionable dress for a period of about 400 years.
Throughout its history, the corset was frequently criticized as an “instrument of torture” and a cause of ill health and even death. Feminist historians have often argued that corsetry functioned as a coercive apparatus through which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality. Recently, some historians have questioned this interpretation, arguing that corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all women endured, but rather a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times. Some women did experience the corset as an assault on the body. But for others, the corset also had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, respectability, beauty, youth, and erotic allure. This revisionist view, which aims for a balanced and non-ideological history of corsetry based on carefully considered evidence, must not be confused with the uncritical defenses of corsetry that have been published by corset “enthusiasts.” As for the long-standing claim that corsets were a source of disease and death, historians continue to disagree about the medical consequences of corsetry.
The word “corset” derives from the French corse, which simply designated a bodice. Early corsets were known as corps a la baleine (or in English, whalebone bodies), because strips of whalebone, or, more accurately, whale baleen, were inserted into the fabric (usually linen or canvas) to stiffen the cloth bodice. As whalebone became more expensive in the nineteenth century, lengths of steel increasingly replaced it. Traditionally, down the center front of the corset was inserted a busk, which, in shape and size, was not unlike a ruler. Busks were variously made of wood, horn, and whalebone; they were often elaborately carved and given as lovers’ gifts. By 1850 the traditional, inflexible one-piece busk had been replaced by a steel, front-opening style, which made it much easier for women to put on and take off their corsets. Prior to this, women had usually relied on assistance to lace and unlace their corsets.
Corsets were also known as “stays,” a term probably derived from the French estayer (to support), since they were thought to support the body. Because women were looked upon as the “weaker sex,” it was commonly believed that their bodies habitually needed additional support. For similar reasons, children were also often placed in stiffened bodices, which were supposed to make them grow up straight. However, by the eighteenth century, many doctors argued that children’s bodies were more likely to be deformed by corsets that were too tight. They also increasingly warned that women were endangering their health (and that of their unborn children) by wearing corsets. Over the course of the nineteenth century, medical journals published numerous articles criticizing corsetry. Yet the vast majority of middle- and upper-class women continued to wear corsets, and increasing numbers of working-class women also adopted corsets.
In her book, Health and Beauty; or, Corsets and Clothing Constructed in Accordance with the Physiological Laws of the Human Body (London, 1854), the English corsetière Madame Roxey A. Caplin defended corsets—at least if they were well-made: “It never seems to have occurred to the Doctors that ladies must and will wear stays, in spite of all the medical men of Europe.” Because women “desire to retain as long as possible the charm of beauty and the appearance of youth,” they wear corsets, which conceal “defects” (such as a thick waist or belly) and give support “where it is needed” (for example, in the absence of brassieres, corsets support “the fullness of the breasts”). Caplin even claimed that a French doctor had told her, “Madame, your corset is more like a new layer of muscles than an artificial extraneous article of dress!” It would be many years, however, before the majority of women stopped relying on corsets and started developing their own muscles.
The history of the corset is replete with myths and exaggerations. For example, the notorious “iron corsets” of the Renaissance were not fashion items worn by the ladies at the court of Catherine de Médicis, as is often claimed. Rather, they were orthopedic braces meant to correct spinal deformities. (Some of these metal corsets are also modern forgeries.) Accounts of extreme tight lacing are also problematic. During the second half of the nineteenth century, several English periodicals, most famously The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, published numerous letters purporting to describe how the authors had achieved waists of fifteen inches or even less. Although fashion historians and journalists have frequently quoted excerpts from this “corset correspondence,” they cannot be taken at face value. Both internal and external evidence indicate that many of these letters represent sexual fantasies rather than descriptions of authentic experiences. Certainly the scenarios described, which often focused on coercive practices at anonymous boarding schools, were not typical of the average Victorian girl or woman, although they may reflect the role-playing practices of fetishistic subcultures.
Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), famously described the corset as “a mutilation undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.” In reality, however, ladies of the leisure class were not the only ones to wear corsets. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the development of cheap, mass-produced corsets, many urban working-class women also wore corsets. Clearly, the corset did not render them unfit for work, but did it lower their vitality?
Certainly many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors regarded the corset as a health hazard. They blamed the corset for causing dozens of diseases, including apoplexy, asthma, cancer, chlorosis (a type of anemia), curvature of the spine, deformities of the ribs, damage to internal organs such as the liver, digestive disorders, respiratory and circulatory diseases, and birth defects and miscarriages. Other doctors, however, approved of “moderate” corsetry, condemning only “tight lacing” (a notoriously imprecise term). In 1785, Dr. von Soemmering published comparative illustrations of corseted and un-corseted rib cages, which indicated that corsetry caused permanent deformity. Twentieth-century X-rays also show that a tightly laced corset compresses the ribs and moves the internal organs, although when the corset is removed, the body seems to revert to its normal appearance.
During the nineteenth century, relatively little was understood about the causes of various diseases, to say nothing of the treatments. One cannot, therefore, automatically accept the diagnoses of nineteenth-century doctors, many of which are patently absurd. This is not to say that corsets were totally harmless. Most authorities today agree that extremely tight corsets might risk various kinds of physical impairment or harm. There is no consensus among experts, however, on what risks were involved in ordinary corset wearing. Although contemporary scholars disagree about how dangerous corsets really were, corsets undoubtedly did contribute to some health problems. Spirometry (lung volume) testing conducted by Colleen Gau and her associates has demonstrated that corseted women suffered depleted lung volume, as well as changes in breathing (from normal diaphragmatic breathing to reliance on the accessory muscles of the chest wall). Lessened lung capacity would not necessarily contribute to respiratory disease, but it could certainly lower vitality and cause fainting. This would seem to lend credence to nineteenth-century accounts that associated corsetry with shallow breathing and fainting. In the 1880s, using an adaptation of the sphygmomanometer (blood pressure machine), the New York obstetrician Robert L. Dickinson measured corset pressure on several hundred women, recording pressures as high as eighty-two pounds per square inch. He believed that corset pressure caused digestive and breathing problems, as well as serious effects on the reproductive organs, such as prolapse of the uterus. It is sometimes alleged that some women underwent the dangerous surgical procedure of having their lower ribs removed in order to achieve a smaller corseted waist. There is, however, no evidence at all that any Victorian woman ever had her ribs removed; rib removal appears to be entirely mythical.
Some doctors and corsetieres tried (or claimed) to develop safer and more comfortable corsets. During the 1890s, for example, Dr. Inez Josephine Gaches-Sarraute designed the so-called straight-front corset, which she described as a “health” corset. However, recent physiologic testing using reenactors found the straight-front corset to be more uncomfortable and constraining than the hourglass styles of the mid-Victorian era.
The shape and construction of the corset changed dramatically over time, but there was no simple progression toward greater ease. Between about 1790 and 1810, the rigid cone-shaped stays of the eighteenth century were temporarily abandoned in favor of a shorter, lighter style, some variants of which resembled a brassiere. However, as high-waisted Empire dresses gave way to lowered waists and fuller skirts, the boned corset reemerged. Now, however, it was shaped more like an hourglass. Over the course of the nineteenth century, technological developments, such as steam molding, contributed toward the fashion for long cuirasse corsets. At the turn of the century, the fashionable straight-front corset pushed the pelvis back and the bosom forward, creating the so-called S-silhouette. Yet as women engaged in more sporting activities, such as bicycling, they increasingly adopted flexible elasticized sports corsets. By the 1920s elastic girdles and brassieres had largely supplanted rigid corsets, particularly among the young. In 1939, and again after World War II, fashion showed renewed emphasis on femininity and the corset had a brief resurgence in the form of the “Merry Widow” or guépière (waspy).
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, a cultural focus on youth and body exposure resulted in greater reliance on diet and exercise, rather than foundation garments, to create a desirable figure. The corset was, thus, not so much abandoned as it was internalized through diet, exercise, and later, plastic surgery. A minority of corset enthusiasts, both male and female, continue to wear corsets and sometimes tight lace as part of fetishistic, cross-dressing, or sadomasochistic practices.
Beginning in the 1980s, inspired by subcultural fetish styles, avant-garde fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier, began to create corset fashions. Madonna famously wore a pink satin corset by Jean Paul Gaultier on her Blonde Ambition tour of 1991. Since then, every few years the fashion press reports on the reappearance of corsets by couturiers such as Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen, and Donatella Versace. Although some of these corsets incorporate lacing and (plastic or metal) boning, most are really more like zip-up bustiers than historic corsets. Cheaper versions are popular as club wear for both young men and women.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please. Oxford: Berg; distributed by New York University Press, 2001.