One of the most popular entries on this site has been Loretta’s entry on Corsets. We can’t seem to get enough of corsets (perhaps because we don’t have to wear them?), so I thought I’d revisit it with a few more historical notes on earlier corsetry. I know we’ve re-enactors here, as well as costume fanciers and seamstresses, so I hope you’ll add your thoughts and comments as well
When I was growing up in 60s New Jersey, there was a small shop in the area called The Corsetorium. I was fascinated by the name, even if the window display of headless manequin torsos in fearsome truss-like undergarments wasn’t particularly enticing. Still, the word itself –– corset! –– had a whiff of forbidden, of women who’d go to extreme measures to be more seductive. My tennis-playing Californian mother never wore anything like that, and my generation took matters a step further by being the first ones to burn their bras and daringly went without. Corsets were relegated to male fantasies with S&M overtones, with Madonna leading the way.
Didn’t used to be like that. Once upon a time –– oh, say in the fifteenth century or so –– the loose, draped woolen fabric that had been the mainstay of medieval wardrobes was beginning to give way to richer, more elaborate fabrics –– brocades, silks, velvets –– that had come through Italy from the east. The wives and daughters of the merchants and aristocrats who could afford such luxury of course wished to display their affluence to best advantage, and their seamstresses answered the challenge.
These heavier fabrics didn’t drape like the old ones; they needed a different fashion, with more structure to support not only the fabric, but the weighty embroidery and precious stones that were also now being used to enhance the fabric. Skirts became wider and more sweeping, and for the first time in Western fashion, women’s dress was cut close to fit closely and reveal the lines of the upper body. The first “corsets” were really underpinnings to support and better display the gowns. Tailoring was still in its infancy, and it was easier to smooth the body beneath than stitch and seam the patterned fabric to conform to the obstreperous body beneath.
Renaissance corsets were like small linen vests with narrow shoulder straps, tightly laced up the back. Their objective was to give the wearer a straight, flat front with a long pointed waist. They crushed the breasts down, or depending on the lady’s endowments, up. But there’s no cleavage, and none of the “oranges on a shelf” effect that comes later. Think of the portraits by Holbein of Henry VIII’s court, or those by Veronese in Italy. Some of these had flaring tabs at the waist to help support petticoats, or later farthingales, and were also enhanced by a “bum roll”, a sausage-shaped pillow that tied around the waist to provide a more exuberant booty.
This flat-front corset with the long pointed front and shoulder straps sets the general style until the 19th century. Layers of canvas-like fabric were stitched closely together, reinforced with narrow strips of whalebone, bound with kidskin, and drawn laced together through hand-worked eyelets down the back with a cord. In a wider channel down the front was inserted a busk, long and flat and often coyly painted or engraved as a popular sweetheart’s gift.
These corsets were always worn over a light linen shift, and never directly against the skin, despite what the painters on countless romance covers seem to believe; they’re not so much underwear, as in-between-wear. Nor do the laces in the back criss-cross like sneaker. Instead it’s a single cord that goes back and forth in a diagonal z-pattern. It wasn’t expected that the two sides of the met in back, either, with a certain amount of leeway used for comfort.
The emphasis was not on achieving a narrow waist, but on maintaining a rigid, cone-shaped core. From the 17th century through the 18th, these items are called stays, and with so much reinforcement, everything is certainly going to stay in place.
(Though as always with such looking-backwards, a healthy dose of perspective is needed. It’s all relative. An 18th century lady would feel perfectly comfortable in her stays, but be horrified at the concept of constricting her lower half in 21st century jeans or control-top pantyhose.)
One of my favorite descriptions of 17th century corsetry comes from observer Randle Holme:
“[The busk] is a strong piece of wood or whalebone thrust down the middle of the stomacher to keep it straight and in compass, that the breast or belly may not swell out too much. These busks are usually made in length according to the necessity of the person wearing it: if to keep in the fullness of the breasts, then it extends to the navel, if to keep the belly down, it extends to the honour.”
There are many references to posture and health, as well as class-consciousness at work. Ladies would have worn stays from infancy, and baby gentlemen were often laced into them as well. Ladies were stiff and enclosed; “loose” women were, well, unfettered. Ladies would have learned how to walk, dance, and sit in a very different (and much desired) way because of their stays. They kept straight backs and graceful arms, but they couldn’t bend forwards or from side to side, and the shoulder straps prohibited flailing arms. Ladies, too, would have a lady’s maid to assist her dressing, because it’s virtually impossible to lace one’s own stays up the back.
As the 18th century progressed, stays begin to look less functional and more decorative. The most elegant ones have an outer layer of patterned silk, embroidery, and ribbon bows. There’s definitely a more erotic sensibility at work. Women receive their lovers in their boudoirs wearing their dressing gowns open to reveal their stays. Breasts are boldly displayed instead of being crushed flat, but because of the continued desire for that straight front and narrow back, the breasts are raised up, but spread apart, and in France, the most fashionable necklines are so low at the court that nipples are seductively exposed behind gauzy neckerchiefs. Waists were made to look smaller, but only from the front; many 18th century gowns look small-waisted head-on, but from the side, the wearer was much wider front-to-back.
By the late 18th century, staymakers were considered master craftsman, using increasingly fine stitches and sophisticated steamed shaping. The most highly regarded French staymakers were men; erotic possibilities are inevitable, and explored by titillating engravings of half-clad nubile ladies at the staymaker, entitled “The Last Fitting.” Of course, by the end of the century, the French Revolution was matched by a revolution in women’s dress, and the whole concept of corsetry changes so dramatically that we’ll save it for another day.
To modern women, these early stays sound impossibly confining. But I’ve worn replica 18th century stays (though reinforced with steel, not endangered whalebone –– is there any more un-18th century notion than political environmental correctness?) and I’ve worn a heavy-duty Lycra-laden modern “shaper” under an evening dress, and I can say that the Age of Enlightenment unequivocally wins the comfort challenge.
And what are your thoughts? Would you rather wear stays than do sit-ups? Do you have any corset-research or stories to share?