Corsets history from 16th C to Victorian and alternative corsets today

Corsets history from 16th C to Victorian and alternative corsets today


Initially invented by the father of the Modern Primitive art movement, corsets were an attempt to give women the ‘ideal’ figure. You can buy comortable modern corsets online today, but the early corsets were such an extreme form of bodyshaping that bodily organs would literally be dislodged from their resting places. From the past to the present, discover more about the art of the corset…

Corsets are a wardrobe staple that have survived for hundreds of years, allowing women to achieve even the most severe silhouettes of the day. Historically, corsets were used to cinch the waist while supporting the breasts, but in modern times this constrictive undergarment has risen to the height of fashion; no small feat for a common undergarment.

Early corsets tried to create specific body silhouettes

As far back as the 16th century, women wore corsets not to accentuate a waistline, but to flatten the breasts and push them upwards, leaving the tops bare for plunging necklines.

Early corsets were extremely rigid, holding the upper body in a cone-like shape while being held together with a farthingale.

The farthingale, which was used to support heavy skirts and coax them into shape, would of course become a mainstay in English fashion, but was actually stolen from the Spanish court. A variation of the French farthingale would later become popular in Tudor times, and is regularly mentioned in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I.

Victorian corsets and tightlacing

Changing tastes gave rise to an emphasis on a smaller waist instead of a flatter torso, and so by the 18th century we began to see boning-enforced corsets emerge, with extreme body shaping.

It is from these that the hourglass Victorian corset sprung, which for the most part is the style that we still see today in many forms.

While earlier corsets were held together with stays and ended just shy of the hips, Victorians introduced tightlacing to cinch the waist in such a way that it gave the wearer an exaggerated, curvy figure.

There earliest of these corsets were so tight as to deform the insides of the women who wore them, acting mainly on a short zone around the waist, rather than attempting to slim the torso around the ribs. Stomachs and other vital organs would literally be dislodged from their normal resting places, causing serious health problems and in some cases, death.

In a bizarre turn of events, by Edwardian times the S-bend corset became popular, which forced the torso forward while protruding the hips. This was intended to be less injurious to the wearer, exerting less pressure on the stomach and other organs. However, it’s glaringly obvious that this look was even worse, putting intense pressure on the spine and curving the body at an unnatural angle, all in the name of high fashion.

From tight corsets to less restrictive girdles…

During the early 1900’s the corset fell from grace, and was replaced with less severe body shaping girdles. There was a brief resurgence during the end of the 1930’s, but this and many other trends quietly faded away with the start of WWII.

The modern hourglass corset is generally believed to be the creation of Fakir Musafar, (born Roland Loomis) better known as the father of the modern primitive movement.

The hourglass corset is thus known for the shape it lends to the wearer’s figure-wide shoulders, tapering waist, and wide hips. This basic shape can be found in most all modern corsets, but the reality is that today’s corset is not nearly as structured or body refining as they were years ago. It is really only purists who prefer to wear the corset as it was intended.

The modern corset and alternative style

The corset has become affiliated with gothic, alternative, and even glamour photography; for most it brings to mind a tinge of naughtiness. This isn’t to say that historically corsets weren’t meant to be sexy, because they most certainly were created to make women more voluptuous looking.

However, as our views and definition of ‘voluptuous’ has changed, so has the corset. As we examine the modern corset and find that the lacing and stays of today are for the most part decorative, it may be said that we are slowly realizing that no piece of clothing will ever create the ‘perfect’ shape.

Main image: Late Victorian Era Ladies’ Corsets – 1886 B. Altman & Co.