Corsets! How else do you think all those noble ladies of Europe, some hundreds of years ago, managed to look like an hourglass, with a waist that you could span with a hand? The women of those times squeezed their upper body inside a corset. And this lacing up inside a tight corset was a regular dressing routine of ladies from the period from 1560 – 1910.
What is a corset?
A corset is an undergarment for women designed to reduce the waistline – It can lift up the bust line and give the illusion of a long and lean torso with a cinched in waistline. Corsets can be made of lace, velvet, brocade, leather or cotton or twill and fitted with garters and will have stay pockets filled with boning. If it is worn as innerwear the fabric should have breathability, so a 100% cotton is preferred.
The act of getting into the corset is called “Corseting” and it involved the corset manipulating the womanly curves, lifting up the bust, making the shoulders and hips looking wider in comparison to a squeezed in waist.
Some interesting facts as I Promised
Noblewomen in European countries started to use Corsets under their gowns and even over their gowns by the late 1500s. It was called stays then. It was only by 1700s that the word Corset started to be used.
Many Men of olden times used Corsets – to hold in their protruding belly.
Like any garment, corset also changed greatly over the years. In England, the ladies of the Victorian period wore differently shaped corsets than the ones in the Tudor and Elizabethan period. Today’s corset is more easy to fit and easy to care, just like our modern clothing.
Corset training was a ritual then. One fine day, if you try to get into a corset you will not get that really sculpted waist; in fact, you will not be able to lace it properly. It takes some months of corset training for the body to be fully laced into a tight-fitting traditional corset that satisfied the vanity of the lady and satisfied the dimensions of perfection that the society wanted. A Training corset was earlier used (from adolescent age) to train the waist to be a little smaller than it already was. It took several wearings to fit into the final corset.
If you are getting a corset, it will be in a size several inches ( usually 4 inches or so) lower than your body girth. You are then tightly laced inside it. It took hours for a lady and her maids to finish dressing.
The modern-day bra is a derived form of the corset; it supports the bust but does not confine the waist.
Modern day corsets
Today’s corset is a lot different from the ones used all those years ago. For one, the perception of body shapes has changed drastically. And women have also changed and their needs too. When you want good old curves nothing like a good corset – it easily takes off an inch or two from the body girth. But Convenience and comfort are as important as a desire for femininity.
Buying a corset today depends on the garment you will be wearing it under, the money you are prepared to spend and whether you will be wearing it over the clothing or under it, and whether your aim is to just reduce the waist for a function/show etc or two (use and throw) or in a permanent way. Many different types of corsets do different things – all of them reduce waist but some also minimize the bust shape, some thrust out the breasts, some smoothen the hip shape etc.
Today you do not have a maid to lace your corsets. You might only have an impatient husband not at all ready to get into the lace of things. So it is also important that you will be able to wear it by yourself. So ease of dressing is an important factor.
Let us have a look at the different types of corsets that women used and the different body profiles and waistlines they created. ( and still do)
Different types of corsets
According to the silhouette
1 Hourglass Corset
This is the most traditional style of corsets – the classic Victorian corset. Hourglass corset gives you a perfect hourglass figure with a really small waist. The lower ribs are not compressed with this clothing. Just the waist is cinched. It can start from over bust, under bust or mid bust, have a straight neckline or a sweetheart style.
It is a good style of corset in terms of comfort, ease of dressing and maximum waist reduction. But this is not a super flattering silhouette ( in corset standards) as the top of the body or the hip area is not as compressed as the waist.
2 Pipe Stem Corset
In this style the body is compressed throughout the torso, leading to a look of an especially long torso. Rigid boning is used to create an illusion of length to the torso.
Somewhat severe strain to the lower ribs is the main disadvantage of this type – You cannot wear this type of corsets for a long period. Regular waist training is needed to fit into this type of corset.
3 Wasp corsets
This style of corset is meant to create impossibly small waists by dramatically nipping at the waist and cutting the body almost into half. Named so because you look like a wasp with the segmented body. This creates a bit of a strain in the rib cage and abdomen.
4 S curve corset
This type of corset resulted in a figure with the chest thrust out, and the hips pushed back creating an S shape to the torso. This corset had an inflexible busk and supporting steels at the front (instead of the inward curving busk fashionable till then) which resulted in this curved shape.
When it first came about this was a corset style that was perceived to be more comforting to the body than any other type because it supported the abdomen but it proved to be more restricting than others – it can reduce the waist to as much as 3 inches and the shape is a little unnatural.
It is also called Straight front corset or Gibson Girl corset and the profile it created were called S curve, kangaroo profile and Gibson profile
5 Ribbon corset
A ribbon corset is an everyday wear corset made of lightweight materials (strips of fabric). It is very easy to wear and not so tight fitting as others. You can call it the modern day corset.
According to the size/ position/ length
This in the traditional sense means a corset that is long and continues to the hip.
7 Corset belt (Waist-cincher)
This is a short corset that will just cover the waist area. It almost seems like a wide belt. It will give you only a small waist compression compared to other corsets
8 Front laced / front and back laced corset
This classification is based on the appearance of lacing. The corset can be laced up the front alone or front and back or even have triple lacing.
9 Over bust corset
This is the typical corset worn as an outer garment, as a top or as the bodice of wedding gown. As the name suggests it goes over the bust.
10 Under bust corset
This type of corset starts under the bust line and still creates the classic hourglass waist profile.
11 Mid bust corset
This type of corset starts from mid-bust.
This is a short corset that starts under the ribs and extends to the top of the hips. This is a modern corset first introduced by Fashion designer Christian Dior and has elastic panels in the back giving it the stretch with back lacing.
According to the Time period
13 Elizabethan Corset
This is a waist length corset with shoulder straps and flat sides covering the rib area and front and has back lacing. The way it is made creates an almost dramatically elevated bust line and the bottom edge may have a scalloped edge. The bust was flattened in the front along the torso inside the tight corset but pushed up, creating a dramatic squeezed cleavage and a cone-shaped torso, wide-set shoulders, and large, padded-out hips.
14 Victorian corset
Victorian period is from 1837-1901 (the ruling period of Queen Victoria). During this time the type of corset used had a natural, curved bustline with a classic hourglass waist profile and went over bust; The neckline could be a sweetheart-shaped neckline or a pointed one. The bottom also could be pointed in shape. This was not as comfortable as the Elizabethan corset as it squeezed the ribs to compress the waistline.
15 Edwardian Corsets
Edwardian style corset gave the body an S curve- this S Curve Corset was fashionable during the early part of the 20th century (1900-1910) – It comes lower over the hips and thus was longer than the Victorian corsets.
My thoughts on corsets.
The tight lacing in a corset, in my mind, is a symbol of the submissive role that women played in those times. A ‘corsetee’ moves a little bit more carefully and a lot more subdued than one without the confines of the corset. But many others will say that in a corset you walk a little bit more elegantly and gracefully. Yes, the wearer of the corset is perceived as attractive because of the strange waist hip ratio entrenched in our minds. It is the precursor to the waist/body shapers, girdles and wonder bras we have today.
Wearing a Corset was brutal. Many of the ladies of those times suffered from health problems due to the tight lacing of corset. Was the indigestion, heartburn, compression of the inner organs and resultant problems like cramps that beset these ladies because of corseting worth it all. For them, yes. Vanity is a nuisance, at times.