Saturday, February 14, 2009

Amour! 2000 Years of Corset History in 20 Min: With Pictures!

I am honored to have been asked to speak about something that one might, in other times and in other cites, be categorized as unmentionable. However, being a forward moving community of free thinkers here in New Babbage and with so many Ladies who are devoted to Science, learning and fashion, it is then possible to mention and discuss that which supports and armors us ladies all....mainly that of our corsets, bustles and crinolines.

From reeds, whale bone, to steel strips, corsets have been our armor for thousands of years....(and some Gentlemen wore them, too!)..thank you for joining me in this brief tour of fashion history and the eccentricities of body modification for beauty and status.

The corset, containing the French word corps for body, is a cinching garment that encases the middle torso to either push up or flatten the breasts, or to hug the waist into shape, or both. It is a fashion mainstay that has been in use in one form or another for thousands of years, but its roots can be traced to drawings discovered at the Neolithic archaeological site at Brandon in Norfolk, England.

The drawings found depict women wearing bodices made from animal hides that are laced down the front. It's suspected that these primitive corsets were fresh hides which were wrapped around the body and allowed to harden and mold snugly (hopefully not mould!) to their bodies. Also found in the caves were stone dolls adorned in corsets that were tied with the sinew of birds and small animals.
Around 1700 BC, Minoans used corsets that were fitted and laced or a smaller corselette that left the breasts exposed. Because men are also depicted in artwork of that time period as having tiny waists, it is believed that they used belts to cinch their waists tight and traditionally, began on young boys in order to train their waists. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 1. and each one can be clicked for a larger image)

In other ancient civilizations, corseted women were painted on pottery in Crete, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Assyria. Women in Egypt wore a band under their bust as part of their outward costume. In contrast, Romans used corseted tight lacing as a form of superiority over slaves to show their low status and subjugation to their loosely draped masters and mistresses. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 2.)

During the 13th and 14th centuries, free flowing dresses were replaced by dresses that utilized lacing to shape the garments closer to the body. A trim silhouette was achieved by the use of stiffer fabrics while a corseted effect was incorporated into the garments as opposed to being a separate article of clothing. These gowns were known as kirtles. Chaucer made reference to them in his tales, noting that they were made in varying colors and laced closely to the feminine form.
(Pray pause to glance at Figure 3.)

With the advent of the growing silk industry in the 14th century, fabrics such as silk, brocade, velvet, and damask required a stronger, supported construction in order to reveal the body's shape. The first artificial support was made in Italy, called a coche, and later became known as a busk in England. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 4.)

The 16th century costume was upheld as a symbol of position, rank, and wealth. The corset played a large part in displaying a person's position.

In the French court, under the influence of Italian-born Catherine de Medici, ladies in waiting were instructed to cinch their waists to a size no bigger than thirteen inches around. Even given the difference in average body size of a woman in modern times, thirteen inches would have been extreme. Also, we have a to look at what they called the corset for in Elizabethan times it was called a bodie a term later to become the word bodice. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 5.)

Queen Elizabeth had several pairs of bodies listed in her wardrobe accounts. The following listings, according to Janet Arnold (author of Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd), most likely referred to a corset-like garment.
• A payre of bodies of black cloth of silver with little skirts (1571), and a pair of bodies of sweete lether (1579) (Pray pause to glance at Figure 6. Elizabeth's Effigy Corset)

It was also in the French court that a steel framework corset was introduced. Usually made up of four plates with perforation ornamental designs, they were connected at the sides and front while leaving the back open to get in and out of. It is argued whether the metal corsets were a normal item in a woman's clothing collection, if they were used for an orthopedic purpose, or if they were a sign of rank since a knight's armor during this period was more for show than function. Undoubtedly these were very good at deflecting arrows but not ideal for magnets. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 7.)

During the 17th century, there was a space of time when politics across Europe demanded a less extravagant use of fabric. Along with a less-is-more-approach to fashion came the embellishment and fixation of the busk. As seen on the left of Figure 8, The busk fit inside the front of the corset and was made from wood, ivory, metal, or whale bone. A young man might carve or purchase and elegant busk as a present for his heart's fancy. I can imagine a Babbage man would creat a very interesting busk...mayhap made of copper?

A working woman's bodice at this time would be laced in the front...also called a jump and worn over a chemise. The precursor to the term jumper? Also popular at this time were stays. Pray glance again at Figure 8.The stays on the right are an extant example Circa 1700-1799. American colonial brown quilted cotton stays with center back lacing. Whalebone insets and lacing on the upper portion of the center front. Triangular tabs at hips and attached shoulder straps.

The advent of the 18th century and King Louis XIV of France's reign saw a return of luxury, but only briefly. The Corps Baleine showed up on the scene and skirts diminished. The new corseted look had over-the-shoulder straps, was lengthy, and was worn over a blouse. It's supports consisted of primarily whalebone and was so rigid it alarmed medical professionals of the day. (Pray pause to glance up at Figure 9.)

The 19th century heralded changes in corsetry by leaps and bounds. During the Napoleonic Wars, a doctor with the French army invented a metallic eyelet. Eyelets added to corsets allowed them to be cinched even tighter without fear of damaging the fabric. Steam-moulding also helped create a curvaceous contour. Introduced in the 1860s this was a process whereby once the corset was finished, it was heavily starched and dried and shaped on a 'mannequin' mould fed with steam. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 10.)

No wonder that these types of corsets were referred to as 'cuirasse' bodices. Just from looking at them one can see that they would have been restrictive garments, not allowing a great degree of freedom of movement. Moreover, the woman's body was thrown forward by the rigidity of her underwear and high-heeled shoes to create a distorted shape. The silhouette created by the this fashion for corsets, crinolettes and bustles gave rise to what was termed 'The Grecian Bend'. The caricature in the cartoon from Punch gives an idea of the shape of the Grecian bend, although it has been exaggerated for satirical purposes. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 11.)

There were even worse accusations thrown against the corset. Journals such as the English Woman's Domestic Magazine devoted space to a whole run of letters on the subject of tight lacing--some of which claimed that waists were reduced through corsetry to 15 inches and that girls were forced to wear corsets at night as well as during the daytime. Doctors and medical writers cited countless diseases caused by corsets, which included consumption, curvature of the spine, rib displacement, cancer, hysteria, hunchback, abortion, melancholy and epilepsy. In addition, although corsets were considered by many to be good for the morals, they were also criticised for titillating qualities, especially when used in erotic literature.
(Pray pause to glance at Figure 12.)

But one should take care when analysing these accusations. Although it is clear that some people laced their corsets very tightly, and there are horror stories of damage done to the internal organs, extreme tight-lacing was probably the exception rather than the rule. Many of the letters on the subject in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine may have been written by fetishists or those trying to shock women out of wearing restrictive underwear.

In our more enlightened age we now have the Electric Corset with embeded magnets that help adjust our humours. [grins wryly] The most important myth I would like to dispel about modern Victorian corsetry is that tight-lacing is the norm. There is a oft-quoted myth that some Victorian ladies often have ribs removed in order to draw their waists smaller.

While small waists are the desired end, and fashionable women do indeed go to extremes, I want you to think about the likelihood of someone surviving abdominal surgery ((before the invention of antibiotics)). To be clear, modern doctors would rather amputate a limb rather than remove a bullet or fix a compound fracture! The idea that anyone removes ribs from a Lady *and they lived* is just ludicrous.(Pray pause to glance at Figure 13.)

"Also the idea that tight-lacing deformed women is just right out. The area of your body that is compressed by tight-lacing are the soft bits -- your abdominal area and the cartlidge-heavy floating ribs. All these things take compression very well....they're made to compress when you're with child. And a lady can tight-lace for years and stop and expect to return to nomal within days if not hours. In scientific terms, it's all squishy so it just squishes back into place.

In our modern Victorian period, there is this idea in advertising that women have weak spines and that they need corsetry to be able to support their own weight. It's ridiculous, of course, but it probably has its origins in the fact that 18th century stays support the lower back. Our modern Victorian corsets don't. This didn't stop corsets from being worn by all strata of society. It just wouldn't do to be a "loose woman" and one would always want to be "straight laced"

Also to be noted, whalebone isn't bone. It's a keratinous your fingernails. It is more properly called "baleen" because it is the mouth filters of the Baleen Whale. It's flexible and forms to shape when warmed to body temperature. A corset boned with baleen are light and flexible, not the heavy, harsh thing that steel-boned corsets are."**Kass McGann

As for the bustle, though some say they are going out of favour...we now have the 'The New Phantom' bustle, ((dating from about 1884)), which has a special feature. (Pray pause to glance at Figure 14.) The steel wires are attaches to a pivot so that they fold in on themselves on sitting down and spring back when the wearer rises. And to leave you with an amusing and musical note a novelty bustle has been made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations containing a less useful device. It is fitted with a musical box that plays 'God Save the Queen' each time the wearer sits down!

Thank you for your kind attention and if there are any questions, not hesitate to ask.
~Capt. Red Llewellyn

Sources: As a researcher and librarian Miss Llewellyn would like to give warm thanks the generous and willing help accorded her in preparing this talk by members and member firms of the Corset Guild of Great Britain. She would also like to thank her dear personal friends, expert historic costumers and seamstresses extrodinaire Mrs. Kass McGann (whose expert voice i do my poor best to channel above and who was generous enough to give me her own uncensored thoughts on the historical accuracy of tight lacing and squishiness!!)....and dear Mrs Mara Riley (see pics below!). She would also like to thank the expertise of Miss Drea Leed, Lady Michelle, owner and designer of Victoria's Past and Miss Christina Wilson. Also of help was The Project Gutenberg's EBook of Searchlights on Health by B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols
Resource & Photo Credit Links:
musical bustle

Gorgeous Kass and her Dear Husband aboard the QE2!

the Mara gown i documented at a Market Faire a few years ago....these two dear ladies for at least 10 or so years have been my inspiration to improve my own sewing skills...and always an endless and generous well for questions and queries and FUN!


Breezy Carver said...

Dearest Red,
WoW .. You worked so hard on this and it showed ten fold what an Amazing detailed prentation !!
well done Well done !!
You were, are and always shall be Dynamic .. You are indeed a Good Neighbor and Friend !!

Thank YOu for your time and care Awesome !!
always breezy

Megbee said...

Hi, I am a film student and I am making a documentary on corsets. I was wondering if it would be possible to use some of the pictures you have up in my short film.
Please email me at so we can chat some more.
Great presentation!!