The corset is a staple outfit accessory of the steampunk lady. There are many reasons why steampunks think they have to wear them from thinking that it’s a requirement of an outfit, to simply wondering if they can squeeze into it. The history of the corset is fascinating and in this article, I’m looking at where it came from and how fashions changing through the centuries have forged it into the shape we know today.
Research indicates that the corset evolved from the medieval cote, which was a floor length garment worn by both men and women in the 5th to 15th century. These usually loose fitting garments that would be tightened up around the sleeves and neck and held at the waist by a belt. Men usually wore a larger belt, while women wore a smaller one, slightly higher up the torso. The hardened corset that we know today started in the early 16th century, but with it being an undergarment, there’s not a great deal of information about it. It’s thought that during the reign of Henry VIII, it became fashionable to have a flattened torso and so corsets started to include hardened material in order to flatten the stomach, sides and back. It’s believed to have been Catherine de Medici who introduced the corset to women in the French court. At this time it was shaped to flatten the torso into an inverted conical shape which also pushed up the breasts and it was this shape that made the corset popular, not the smallness of the waist.
The fashion quickly spread throughout Europe and soon came to Britain. Shortly after, a Busk was added to ensure rigidity. This was a flat piece of wood or whalebone which was then covered with a Stomacher – a V shaped item worn on the front for decoration. A fantastic illustration of the corset is featured in the portrait of Queen Jane who ruled from 10th – 19th July 1553. Through the 16th to 19th century, as fashions changed the corset remained roughly the same although it saw an increase in rigidity using stiffening materials such as wood, cane, whalebone and steel. The reason for using a corset also changed from the emphasis on the breasts in the 16th century to the pinched waist of the 19th century.
As the 18th century progressed, the purpose of the corset changed. It was no longer a tool for flattening the torso, but was used to enhance the breasts, support the back and improve posture, thanks to the increased obsession with etiquette and looking delightful at all times. It was only proper that a lady would be dainty, yet stand straight. The corset helped to deliver this requirement. It wasn’t until the late 18th/early 19th century that the shape of the corset changed drastically to when it had first been introduced 250 years earlier. The conical shaped corset that raised the waist became straighter, although the emphasis on the chest remained. Just after the mid-1820s, the waistline began to shrink again after it had moved back down to its natural position. Directly after, women started to pull in the waist with lacing to create a smaller waist. As this became fashionable, the conical shaped corset made a comeback.
By the late Victorian era, corsets had developed the hourglass shape that we recognise today as skirts started to billow out and waists became as small as they possibly could. In order that women could still move, seamstresses would sacrifice whalebone for silk, ribbon and elastic to allow more movement. As women began to do more, the then modern corset came under fire for being unhealthy. Doctors invented new corsets named “healthy corsets” which were flexible and – according to them – had curing properties.
As the Victorian age came to a close and the Edwardian era began, the straight front corset changed to the S-bend corset. By 1910, fashions changed drastically and women decreased the amount of undergarments that they wore. New corsets had a built in brassiere. Garters became popular to hold up stockings and as World War I got under way women stopped wearing corsets altogether after the US government asked them to refrain from buying them in order to free up steel. Instead they opted for an elasticated belt to pull the waist in. From the 1930s to the 1950s, corsets began to emphasise the curves and as the girdle was introduced, the corset began to be referred to as a girdle as well. As the garter belt gained popularity along with the introduction of pantyhose, women felt less inclined to wear restrictive undergarments when elasticated belts would create a similar effect.
Corsets did see a small return in popularity in 1939 although the start of World War II ended that. They also saw a comeback in the late 1940’s and were referred to as Merry Widows. They soon disappeared and from the mid to late 20th century they kept off the radar as comfort, thanks to new clothing developments, took over.