The History of the Corset: A Slave to Fashion

The history of the corset: A woman in an Edwardian era corset

The History of the Corset: A Slave to Fashion

Corset ad from 1916
Corset ad from 1916. “Guaranteed to reduce the bust, softens bust line…”

The corset is probably considered the most uncomfortable garment ever invented, not only because it constricts the body, but because it also is symbolic of women being constricted in society.  Was this true, or is it a stereotype?

Corsets have been part of a woman’s wardrobe since antiquity.  Over the centuries, they evolved and changed.

The constricting garment that 21st century minds often think of is the underwear of the upper classes, so constricting it needed a second person to pull it tight.  Women in middle and lower classes also wore corsets, but because these women didn’t have a personal servant, they had to dress themselves.  Their corsets opened and closed in the front and were not as binding.

History of the Corset

The history of the corset is tied to the history of fashion and what is or is not considered beautiful.  When being thin was in fashion, so were corsets.

By the mid-Victorian period, corsets were lined with whalebone to allow women to fit into dresses that had increasingly tighter bodices and smaller waists.  During this timeframe, corsets gave women an hourglass shape.

That changed during the Edwardian period.  The Gibson Girl of the 1890s had popularized the S-curve.  This shape emphasized a woman’s bust and butt, pushing both outward, while slimming the waistline.  Also during this time, corsets began being seen as lingerie and were decorated.

Thankfully, this shape didn’t last long and waistlines became more natural.

Medicinal Corsets

Corset ad from the Atlanta Constitution, March 1, 1910
Corset ad from the Atlanta Constitution, March 1, 1910

Montgomery Ward & Co.’s 1895 catalogue had its own corset department.  The undergarments were sold in sizes 18 to 30 for women and sizes 19 to 26 for girls. Sizes were based on a woman’s waist measurement minus two inches.  Corsets weighed 12 ounces and ranged in price from 50 cents to $3.

Some of the corsets sold in the catalogue were called “health corsets” and were designed to support the abdominal muscles, especially after multiple births.

“The Yatisi [a manufacturer] Corset was introduced especially for married ladies,” the product description says.  “It supports the abdomen and prevents the ordinary pressure upon the pelvis organs.”

There also were nursing corsets.

“Dr. Strong’s [another manufacturer] Tricore Nursing Corset has proved a great comfort to mothers, as it affords perfect freedom of action in every position which the body can assume,” another product description says.

Health Problems Posed by Corsets

Corset ad from 1910
A corset ad from 1910. “Wearing a corset intended for another woman, thereby jeopardizing not only your comfort, but the success of your gown…”

Yvette Mahé, a PhD and Fashion in Time historian, examined the side effects of corsets on the body.

“The corset was undoubtedly a danger to health as it pushed against the rib cage, dug into the stomach, and likely put pressure on the organs,” Mahé says.

Mahé cites several physicians who have listed the detrimental health effects of corsets.  The issues include:

  • Infertility
  • Breathing problems
  • Achy muscles and joints
  • Digestive issues
  • Heartburn
  • Blocking of blood flow

Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis.  Glamorous Corset, a modern-day corset retailer, disagrees.

“Some doctors supported the theory that corset may cause health injuries, specifically during pregnancy and women who practiced tight-lacing were looked upon as slaves to fashion,” Glamorous Corset says.  “In reality, tight-lacing was most likely the cause of indigestion and constipation but rarely the cause for a plethora of ailments associated with tight corseting at the time ranging from hysteria to liver failure.”

Were you aware of the history of the corset?  Do you think it’ll ever come back into fashion?

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Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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