The Corset’s Effect

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.

corset, c. 1876, from Metropolitan Museum of Art | On the Thames by James Tissot, c. 1874

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.

corset, 1909, from Metropolitan Museum of Art | photograph, c. 1910-13

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.

Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    LOVE this. And being a bit ole history geek too, love the overlay with women’s history during these eras as well.

  2. Valerie Tobias says:

    Fascinating! One question that popped into my head: what on earth did pregnant women do?

    • jacqueline says:

      As far as I know, pregnant women mostly disappeared from the public when they started to show. I’ve seen some modified version of corsets and a little bit of maternity clothing, but they aren’t very prevalent in museum collections. Definitely an area for someone to research more!

      • Aradia says:

        Maternity corsets were used throughout pregnancy since at least the 18th century (a quick google image search will show dozens of advertisements from the 19th century and early 20th century).

        Women in history had options, not every woman was wearing a tight-laced, top-of-the-line corset every day (the corsets and paintings we see above account for a population representing less than 1% of the population). Consider how women deal with pregnancy today– some women get away with wearing their normal clothing for quite a long time through a pregnancy with little modifications, whereas some women need or prefer maternity clothing as soon as they are showing. Some women will try to disguise their pregnancy and some will show it off. There is a lot of gray area when it comes to body shape and fashion, especially when we consider socio-economics and personal preferences. Just as some women today will wear a bra every day–and sometimes during the night (whether for personal preference or because they think they ought to) but other women choose not to wear a bra or will wear something less constrictive like a yoga top or shelf-bra built into a tank top.

        Women in the 18th century– those fully boned, conical corsets may have been the fashion plate, yet while at home women wore an unboned, quilted waistcoats to pull everything in– just as an example. http://www.pinterest.com/robinsnesting/jumps-and-quilted-waistcoats/

        Most pregnant women, of sound mind, most likely wore whatever made her most comfortable. And as clothing for the most part was bespoke, so much the easier to have something made to fit.

        Pinterest is fabulous for finding historical clothing collections (the descriptions often lacking, but to -see- the images, it’s great). http://www.pinterest.com/heileen/historical-maternity-wear/

  3. Amanda says:

    This is so interesting. I particularly like the form given by the corset from 1876 and 1909 in the examples shown. Your post reminded me of wedding dress shopping, the salesgirls insisted that corsets were important for the posture, to stay straight. I thought it was them trying to sell yet another item, but now you are confirming this. (I guess it was a bit of both).
    With my empire cut dress (similar in form to the dresses in the “Portrait of Charlotte and Elizabeth Sullivan”) you could however see the “boning” (is it still called boning? the metal support lines? ) through the thin chiffon, so I ended up wearing some kind of support that my mom brought from Mexico (without previously trying it with the dress). It was kind of like a bathing suit but made of a foamy kind of material, completely smooth so you couldn’t see the marks, as had happened with the real corset.

    • jacqueline says:

      Of course the saleswomen were trying to sell you another thing, but they were also right that corsets help with posture. One of the reasons corsets fell in popularity was because the cut of clothing in the 20th century revealed more of the body underneath — not just physically exposing skin, but fabric clinging to the body to reveal the shape underneath. And so the same problem you had was something that women had back then. Hence the rise of girdles, which reshape the body in similar ways to the corset, but without the appearance of boning showing.

      Since you mentioned that your mother got the foundation garment in Mexico, I’m wondering if what she bought was a faja. Did you see this article from the New York Times that was published last May on fajas? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/16/nyregion/with-fajas-tight-as-corsets-shortcut-to-hourglass-figure-is-rediscovered.html

      • Amanda says:

        Oh interesting article, I had not read it. And yes, what my mom got me was definitely a faja, and I think it was colombian too. It is different from the one in the picture in that it has straps, basically it looks like a swimsuit, but it does attach with hooks in the bag.
        Thanks for illustrating us I really really enjoy your blog. I was in London last weekend and thought of you so much. At the Victoria and Albert’s museum, there is a whole exhibit on fashion history, then there is the Hollywood costumes exposition, and the Lolita’s in Japan exhibit that you mentioned. Also, the Atonement dress (so , so beautiful, and it really seemed buttery). In the end though we did not make it to Brighton (the roads were closed and the train services disrupted because of heavy snowfall), so I did not make it to the Biba exposition.

  4. Erika says:

    This is fabulous, I love this post! Great to see the corsets in the “timeline.” I made a few corsets while studying for my Fine Arts/Fiber Arts degree; I just couldn’t fathom having to WEAR one of these day in and day out. The most I could stomache was about a few hours.

  5. Helen says:

    Great post with beautiful images. I love that some were so elaborate and some so plain (although all probably very well crafted). My favourite here is the 1898 one by Worcester Corset Company.

  6. Betty says:

    Wonderful, thank you!

    IMHO opinion, the paintings and photos here (well chosen and relevant) show that you can only get the right period look from the long term wearing of a tight corset since youth or even childhood. These women look at home in their corsets, and you need to be in them for nearly all your life to get that look.

    Betty

  7. Gina Danna says:

    Great post – love the pix of the corset and how it affected fashion and physical demands. I’m a Civil War reenactor and found if the corset was made for you, fitted right, they are comfortable – amazing yes but you’re trying to step back in time and this definitely makes you ‘feel’ it! Also one interesting note – sitting restricts the expansion of the body thus eating can be a trial if you’re not paying attention – metal stays do not bend. LOL Learned that the hard way. Overeating makes you suddenly think you’re going to explode! Thanks for the article. :)

  8. Meadow says:

    This was a wonderful post. I actually have recently started wearing corsets. Yes, a 21st century woman in a corset. LoL. I have a lot of problems with my back and my dreadful posture just compounded the pain. I have a full steel-boned corset that I only bought two months ago. It has helped my posture, and, therefore, my pain immensely. It is also much more comfortable than I expected it would be.

    If anyone is interested in looking at modern corsets and their effects here are a couple sites:
    http://lucycorsetry.com/
    http://www.orchardcorset.com/

    The first is a site with absolutely all the information about corseting you could need, and the second is an American company who provides steel-boned corsets in varying silhouettes.

  9. Susanna Di Milo says:

    What a great article, I loved the picture illustrations to go with it, I found your blog through a feed on my Facebook account, and I shall be coming back again.

    I really enjoy wearing corsets – for the reasons you state above, it seems as if I am transported to an instant lady!

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