The Corset: A History

Have you ever wondered about the history of a corset? I know I have, and I finally found out everything I would need to know about it!

Early in the 16th century, Catherine de Medici first introduced the iron corset to the French. The corset was thought of as protection, since assassination by a knife was often used in the time period. The iron corset helped to protect them. During that time, corsets evolved from iron, to being made out of linen, and for the upper class out of silk, taffeta and velvet.

Corset history

In the 17th and 18th century, corsets were made with boning to help keep the structure. Boning was often made with whalebone or giant reeds. The bone channels had little to no space in between so the torso was forced to form to the desired shape of the particular era. In the 17th century, corsets were made to keep a woman’s torso completely straight and the bust flat, leaving the neck looking more elongated. In the 18th century, the corset kept mostly the same shape but instead, began to push the bust upwards and together. Taps were placed at the hips which were created by cuts coming from the waistline. This kept the skirt from going under the stays and stopped the stays from pushing into the skin.

In the 19th century, the corsets primary purpose was to support the breasts. The waistline also became higher. They also had more boning and tighter lacing. In the 19th century, corsets began to incorporate busks which separated the bust. Busks were made out of popsicle shaped pieces of wood, ivory, bone or baleen. In the 1830’s, the corset became longer again and received a normal waistline.

In the 1870’s, corsets stopped trying to flatten the belly and instead were just used to keep it down. Corsets became pear shaped and went in at the stomach and out at the belly. Tight lacing became very popular with these corsets and in turn, caused inner organs to be pushed downwards. This was the cause of many health problems and so a new corset was made. Inez Gaches-Sarraute invented the S-shaped corset which curved the back outward. This corset began to cause its own set of health problems, making it difficult to breathe and leaving the wearer with lower back and knee pain. Women who chose tight lacing were often condemned for vanity and were said to be “victims of fashion”. The young fashionable women were more likely to tight lace, whereas the poorer women only tight laced moderately when they needed to look their best. Tight lacing corsets have been found to reduce waist size by 4 or more inches.

Later in the 1890’s, the corset began to have less and less boning and then eventually evolved into the Edwardian style. By the mid 1910-1930’s, a corsets main focus became comfort rather than anything else and the boning was replaced by a much more flexible type of steel.

After the Edwardian period, corsets became even longer and began to cover the thighs. They had clips to attach to stocking and eventually were replaced by the girdle. In WW1, the world industries board made woman stop buying corsets so they would have more metal to use during the war. This made 28,000 tons of metal available to make 2 battleships. After the war, more women went out to get an education and got married later in life.  This change in lifestyle resulted in a change in fashion. Only bigger or pregnant woman to wear corsets, usually just under bust corsets. Women who had to nurse their children were to wear nursing corsets, allowing them the ability to breastfeed.

Breast feeding corset

Breast feeding corset

In 1947 Christian Dior re introduced the corset design as an under garment for women in his New Look line. From the 1960-1990s, corsets became less fashionable but made a return as fetish wear along with bondage and cat suits. In 1983, Jean Paul Gaultier created the first fully corseted dress which converted the corset from being just an undergarment to an actual visual piece of fashion. In 1987, Vivienne Westwood followed and did somewhat of the same thing.


Dior 1947

A lot of corsets today use nylon or rigilene boning, although, for high quality corsets, steel boning is still used. Plastic boning doesn’t work on corsets that need tight lacing and tend to fold and warp in non-flattering ways. Steel boning today comes in two different ways; flat and spiral. Spiral boning is flat and thicker than flat boning and requires tips to be applied on the ends.  It also bends two different ways and may be used on curved channels. Flat boning only bends one direction and both are very rigid.

After learning so much about how corsets have changed over the centuries, I can’t wait to start designing my own! Corsets have always been a favourite garment of mine as they can be sexy, seductive and even classy.


Jean Paul Gaultier – Spring 2012

Would you guys endure pain for beauty? Is looking ravishing for a day more important than your health? Let us know in the comments section what you would be willing to risk in order to look your absolute best! I know I’d risk walking in pain for a night just to wear a pair of stunning heels!