The corset, from the Old French cors, “body” was popular from the late Middle Ages to the 1950`s. It was a close-fitting undergarment, extending from the hip to the breast, tightened by lace, reinforced with stays to give an hourglass shape.
Corsets seem to have had their origin in Italy and were introduced into France by Catherine de Medici in the mid16th century. Paintings of the time show middle-aged women with suspiciously perky breasts and girlishly narrow waists. It was in effect one of the first anti-ageing devices, for it gave a woman with a broadening waist the chance to look girlish again.
Western history and fashion has alternated between two distinctive woman shapes; belly and no belly. The Ancient Greeks and Romans preferred a natural pouting belly, smallish breasts and a big botty, a body shape that was emulated in European society right up to the Black Death in 1348. For some reason the pendulum swung again , this time in favour of the hourglass figure.
The Italian chronicler Matteo Villani (d.1363) wrote of the survivors of the plague in his Cronica Universale
“Who should doubt that humanity was slipping towards perdition when women appeared in public wearing low-necked blouses with their breasts laced so high a candle could be placed upon them”
In the 1500`s Ambriose Pare (1510-1590) ,the pioneering French surgeon, was blaming many body ills on excessive tightening of the corset, which featured a rigid frame in front, made of whalebone, ivory or even in some cases steel !
Whilst In 1717 when Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762) visited the elaborate women’s baths in Instanbul, she boasted to the Turkish women about an European woman’s freedom to travel about the city without any veil or eunuch bodyguard. As she undressed the Turkish women were then horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing and countered her claim by saying
“That the husbands in England were far crueller than those in the East, for they tied their wives up in little boxes, the shape of their bodies”
It would take the French Revolution of 1789 to briefly liberate women from their corsets. Just as bras were burned in the 1960`s, so were corsets burned in Paris in the 1790`s
“It is not pleasant to see a woman cut in half like a wasp” observed the philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778)
“Slenderness of waist has, like all the rest, its proportion, its just measure, beyond which is certainly a defect. This defect would be striking on the naked body; so why should it be a beauty on a clothed one?”
The French Ministry of the Interior in 1791 recommended to women
“No shoes, stockings, corsets or garters. No petticoats but a simple tunic opened at the sides”
So for a while Parisian women wore loose flowing gowns, but not for long as Pearl Binder explains in her wonderfully titled Muffs and Morals (1953) that the high classical waist was not so easily achieved by ladies who led an idle life and took no exercise
So the corset returned, and Victorian sensibilities thought that a corset was morally and medically necessary. Tight lacing was seen as virtuous and a loose corset was probably a sign of a loose woman. A woman needed to protect herself from lustful men by wearing reinforced layers of clothing and a tight corset.
Nevertheless the fashion dictat for corsets would eventually compact millions of women into the tightest, most strangling waist measurements ever recorded. Letters poured into English domestic magazines from women analysing the best strategies for waist reduction. In a letter to The Englishwoman’s Domestic magazine in June 1854, a woman wrote describing her sixteen-and-a-half waist and the editor replied “I have invariably noticed that the girls with the smallest waists are the queens of the ballrooms”
According to Valerie Steele in The Corset: A Cultural History (2001) In the 1860`s vain men started wearing male versions of the corset claiming they needed them for “back pain”.
Attacks of “the vapours” soon became standard within the well bred Victorian woman. Some of the leading actresses of the day competed with each other over waist and bosom. The turn of the century actress Lillian Russell (1861-1922) boasted the ultimate Barbie doll vital statistics of 44-19-38 and the French writer Colette recalled a popular French actress known for her magnificent upholstery would not accept any roles that involved sitting.
Corsets, however, were viewed with suspicion by some members of the medical community. Dr John Cowan wrote in his Science of a New Life (1888) that:
The constricting of the waist and abdomen by corsets prevents the return of the blood to the heart, and the consequent overloading of the sexual organs causes the unnatural excitement of the sexual system. Flow of the blood to the area of amativeness can cause a chronic inflammation of the sexual organ and a chronic desire for its sexual exercise.
During the First World War, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to allow more metal to be used for war production. Over 28,000 tonnes was saved, enough to build two battleships!
The demise of the corset and its descendant the girdle, eventually came about with the rise of feminism in the 1960`s