I love talking about undergarments. They are one of my favorite fashion history topics, because they impact the rest of fashion history so much. Today I thought I’d touch on corsets.
Now I could write a whole book on corsets (some people have), but in today’s post I’d like to focus on how corsets affect posture and movement. Corsets are best known for the way they mold women’s bodies — supporting the breasts and constricting the waist. But corsets do much more than that, and one of those things is influence the way a woman stands, sits, and moves.
At my last job, we had a reproduction late 19th century corset I liked to try on female students. Students were always amazed that once they were laced into the corset, suddenly they couldn’t slouch, even if they tried. Only moments ago they had the kind of posture mothers hound their children about. When asked to sit, these students acted like proper ladies perching on the edge of a chair with perfectly straight backs.
Corsets not only alter the shape of the body, but they restrict and reinforce good posture.
Below I’ve assembled a timeline of seven corsets along with corresponding portraits showing how they affected women’s posture. You can see that as the shape of the corset changes, women’s posture changes as well.
In this 1750-1775 corset and comparable portrait, the upper body appeared rigid due to heavy boning in a V shape.
Later in the early 1800s, the corset became lighter without boning. It mostly functioned as a support for the bust. This allowed for a little more range of movement.
Corsets from the 1830s through the 1850s regained their stiffness through the waist when boning returned. However, these corsets allowed the shoulders to slope forward. The portrait above shows the popular stance of the period with slouching shoulders.
But by the 1870s, new technology enabled corsets to be better fitted. The waist was elongated and slimmed and the shoulders rotated backward.
In the beginning of the 1890s, the hourglass form reached its peak, as shown above. During this time, fashion focused on the bodice, so an even smaller waist was important, impacting the whole figure and its ability to move.
By the late 1890s, corsets crept lower on the hip, shaping and restricting more than just the upper body.
Then corsets changed dramatically around the turn of the century. As you can see by the 1910s, they extended even lower on the hips, became straighter, and pushed the body into an S shape — breasts pushed forward and hips back.
The 20th century tells the tale of the decline of the corset. Foundation garments evolved into new forms to shape the body in new ways and allow for an increase in movement. But that is best left for another post.