How Corsets Work


Image Gallery: The Changing Tides of Fashion Victorian corsets distributed the weight of the heavy, multi-layered gowns of the era. See more pictures of fashion history.
© iStockphoto.com/duncan1890

They often represent the ultimate in feminity but can be notoriously uncomfortable. No wonder corsets have a reputation. In one form or another they've been around for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Crete [source: Thomas]. What are they? Who wears them? And why would they?

The word itself comes from a diminutive form of Old French cors ("body"), and the corset is in fact a body-shaping garment. Early versions of corsets were called stays; the term corset didn't come into general use until the late 18th century. The garment itself can be short and belt-like around the waist or cover you from hips to bust. If a corset shapes the wearer's figure to match a societal or individual ideal, then it's doing its job.

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Don't make the mistake of thinking corsets are history. If you follow Hollywood or the music industry, it's easy to find celebrities stepping out wearing corsets either as street fashion outerwear or as a figure-slimming undergarment.

It's impossible to talk much about corsetry without going into specialized terminology, so let's go over a few key terms you'll need to get familiar with.

Extreme corsetry involves tight-lacing, which is when your corset laces are pulled progressively tighter and tighter on a regular basis to achieve the smallest possible waist.

Historically made from whale bone (not an actual bone, but the teeth of a baleen whale) or reed, the stiff inserts of the corset that keep the body in the desired shape are called bones. Today, steel and plastic are more common materials for bones.

Coutil is the tight-woven cotton fabric traditionally used in corsets -- and it's still used today. Its high thread count keeps the fabric from stretching and keeps the bones in place. Before the 19th century, linen was also a common corset fabric. Today you'll find corsets made from leather, coutil and other fabrics, depending on the function and style. Many modern corsets have a coutil base, but a less sturdy fashion fabric on the outside.

The wood, metal or plastic busk forms the front closure of a high-quality Victorian corset, and needs to be strong enough to support the tightening laces in the back without breaking. In the Elizabethan era and the 18th century, the busk was a wooden insert that served to both flatten the stomach and provide a stage for decorative stomachers.

The corset's been around long enough to develop quite the extensive vocabulary, along with a lot of misconceptions. In the next section, we'll dispel some of the freaky myths and legends you might have heard about these unique garments.

Myths and Legends

Gents are no exception. The fashion ideal for a man's silhouette in the Victorian era required the masculine gender to get a little shaping from corsets.
Gents are no exception. The fashion ideal for a man's silhouette in the Victorian era required the masculine gender to get a little shaping from corsets.
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

The corset's long history has spawned a slew of myths and urban legends. A few of the most persistent illustrate the colorful life of these garments.

Remember movies showing the stereotypical Victorian waif, fainting at the slightest shock (like an ankle showing)? People often assume it's due to lack of oxygen resulting from her corset-restricted breathing. Unless you, or a well-meaning semi-sadistic assistant, tighten the corset laces beyond reason, you should still have enough room for breathing. Not only that, corsets historically helped support heavy outer garments, so they were used more for support and for making the wearer's waist tiny. The more likely reason for what little fainting occurred resulted from a combination of the shallow breathing and mediocre nutrition -- and maybe a little dramatic effect for show. Who wouldn't want to get some use out of that brand new fainting couch and provide a promising suitor an opportunity to rescue his damsel in distress?

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Another myth that still gets tossed around is that people in the Victorian era removed ribs or intentionally broke them to fit into a corset. Looking at how narrow some corseted waists become, it's not hard to see where this whopper came from. But don't forget, Victorian medicine is infamous for allowing more people to die in wars from medical issues than from the battle itself. Rib-removal surgery in the 19th century would have come with a high risk of an untimely death. Sometimes myths start with a grain of truth. That truth here is that because women wore corsets from a very young age, it wasn't uncommon for their lower rib cage to become bent in permanently.

Not a myth: Perhaps it'll come as no surprise that women are not the only ones to wear corsets. We're not talking about fetish-wear here, either. After all, guys have vanity too. Companies in the late 19th century offered men's corsets to the discerning gentleman for everyday wear. Similar garments are marketed more discreetly today, though they're softer and we call them vests. Men have also worn corsets for many hundreds of years for medical purposes; Andy Warhol required one to support his weakened back from the time he was shot in 1968 until his death.

Corsets are way too complicated to suddenly appear out of nowhere, so where did they come from?

The Corset Family Tree

The silhouette that was popular in Marie Antoinette's time was a funnel shape, rather than the hourglass that became vogue in the Victorian era.
The silhouette that was popular in Marie Antoinette's time was a funnel shape, rather than the hourglass that became vogue in the Victorian era.
Hulton Archive/Imagno/Getty Images

Is your family history full of colorful characters? Maybe because of their very nature, corsets have a family history every bit as colorful. Like cousins, distant relatives don't look much alike, and the earliest ancestor of the corset could be the first rope a woman tied around her waist to accentuate her waistline. Cretan women may have been the first to wear something actually resembling a corset (in that it was a body-shaping garment), covering just the waist and hips, more than 3,000 years ago [source: Thomas].

In the Middle Ages (more than a few years before Madonna wore fashion corsets), it became fashionable for women in the royal courts to wear what they called decorated heavy stays as outerwear, covering the bust and shaping the waist. But in general, corsets continued to be undergarments designed to shape the female form. The 18th century saw these heavy stays gradually replaced with the supposedly lighter corset. Apart from small changes in accessories, corsets didn't really evolve again until the 19th century when the hourglass figure became the epitome of fashion.

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Less restrictive health corsets, made by brothers Ira DeVer and Lucien Warner, began to take off in popularity in the United States beginning around 1874. Around this same time, over-hunting of the baleen whale made the traditional whalebone increasingly expensive, and rustproof steel was introduced in 1894 [source: Time].

Charles Dana Gibson, a Victorian artist, earned eternal fame (or infamy) in the 1890s for popularizing the S-shaped Gibson Girl with his stylized paintings of society women. This shape altered the hourglass silhouette by pushing the rear back and the bust forward -- a very unnatural position for the spine. (We'll talk more about this iconic but short-lived fad a little later.)

World War I's carnage and increased industrialization caused major social upheaval, which in turn revolutionized undergarments once again. Women became more active and many discarded their willingness to let society dictate what they wore [source: Tinkler]. Desperate corsetieres tried to stay relevant by making flexible dance corsets during the Roaring '20s. Advertisers even renamed corsets by marketing them as girdles [source: Fields].

Unwilling to give up their newfound freedom of movement, and sparked by huge societal changes stemming from two world wars and the Great Depression, most women abandoned restrictive corsets entirely. Bras, girdles and (eventually) elastic bodysuits filled the supporting roles that corsets once did.

For the most part, corsets throughout history were everyday normal garments that, in spite of reputation, did not negatively affect the wearer. They were no more exotic or bizarre than a bra is today. But what about people who take corsetry to the limit?

Extreme Corsetry

Even the best things can be taken to risky extremes. Water keeps you alive, but drinking too much can kill you. Corsets were developed to support the body and provide a good base for outer garments, but some corset devotees throughout history have taken their practice of wearing this article of clothing far beyond those original purposes.

In the 1950s, Cathie Jung looked like many other young and attractive women of the time. By 1999, she achieved a modicum of fame by earning the Guinness world record for the smallest waist circumference in the world at 15 inches (38.1 centimeters) [source: Guinness]. This waist was reduced from 22 inches (55.9 centimeters) between 1985 to 1992, all the while keeping a bust and hip measurement of 39 inches (99 centimeters) each [source: Jung].

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Is that healthy? By Jung's own admission, it's not easy. Between skin problems and not being able to sit down easily, let alone drive, extreme corsetry is no walk in the park [source: Jung].

Doctors throughout history have also advised against tight lacing. The deformation of the internal organs caused by this practice in the 18th century deeply concerned Dr. Samuel Thomas von Sommering, who often spoke out about the potential dangers of constricting the body for fashion. His legacy: A type of hiatus hernia caused by tight-lacing was eventually named in his honor [source: Fee].

Back in 1890 Charles Dana Gibson earned immortality after he returned from a European trip flush with the idea of drawing society women. American society women. His illustrations in the popular magazines of the time set the standard for the corseted and fashionable American woman. Plenty of ladies of the time wanted to be a wasp-waisted Gibson Girl.

Sounds good, right? Straight posture, bust forward and a slight thrust backward below the waist. In the illustrations, at least, the famous S-shape struck quite the pose. The only problem was that the human body wasn't really made to do that. In their rush to fit the image, some women chose corsets that unnaturally bent their spine and often caused permanent damage to their frame. Fortunately, while some were slavishly bending their bodies, most opted to adopt the spirit of the Gibson Girl by celebrating her lighter, active spirit and donned more liberating corsets to suit.

Like most extremes, the popularity of the S-shape corset couldn't last. Just before World War I women decided they'd had enough of the corset altogether, and the straight, flat, less restrictive style of the flapper came into her own (yes, she was partying well before the Roaring '20s), effectively killing the boned corset as a mainstream undergarment.

By Gibson's time, the corset had a few thousand years of development under its belt (so to speak), and was no simple affair. Like a well-oiled machine, it had a lot of parts. In the next section we'll disassemble one and see what makes it tick.

How do I put this thing on?

This illustration of a Victorian-era corset shows the boned structure and the busk closure at the front of the garment.
This illustration of a Victorian-era corset shows the boned structure and the busk closure at the front of the garment.
© iStockphoto.com/ivan-96

High-quality corsets from the heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries screamed femininity, and as a body-shaping garment, it needed to fit the figure better than anything else in the wearer's wardrobe. The perfect fit required a corsetiere -- a professional corset tailor -- which could be a very costly investment [source: Tyre].

High-quality coutil formed the basis of most corsets of the Victorian era. The fabric's dense weave and high resiliency against stretch made it an ideal choice, able to withstand lots of strain. Corset liners worn next to the skin protected the coutil from body oils and perspiration, minimizing the need for frequent washing.

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In the front, a metal busk clasped the front halves together [source: Morua]. Steel and whalebone were common boning elements in the 19th century, prized for their strength and flexibility. The strength of both the boning and coutil were important in order to hold the high-tension corset together day after day [source: AbsoluteCorsets].

Most corsets of this style were laced using a bi-directional method, meaning the direction the lace takes through the holes alternates back-to-front, and then front-to-back. Knots were tied at the bottom to keep the laces in place, and an ample amount of slack was left at the holes where the waist is narrowest, creating two "bunny-ears." The corset would always be laced before it was put on.

Most old drawings show two people putting on a corset: the wearer and the lace-puller. Having two people definitely helped, but it could be done with just one. Leaving a 6- to 8- inch (15- to 20- centimeter) gap at the back of the garment, the corset was wrapped around the wearer and clasped at the front busk. The laces would then be pulled so that the proper fit was achieved. Most Victorian corsets were designed to have a slight gap between the sides of the back, allowing for slight shifts in the owner's weight.

Before the Victorian era, two other lacing methods were often used. Ladder lacing, sometimes seen in the Italian Renaissance, looks like you might imagine, with a single lace going down a hole, over, down, over, etc. in 90-degree angles. Spiral lacing, popular until the Victorian era, is similar to bi-directional but only has one lace and the holes were staggered [source: Thompson].

So now that you understand how to put on a corset and the benefits of wearing a boned garment, do you think a corset might be right for you?

Me? Wear a Corset?

This medical corset is worn to correct posture.
This medical corset is worn to correct posture.
© iStockphoto.com/shoo_arts

There are four basic reasons you might want to wear a corset: historical re-enacting, fashion, health or fetish. Some corsets come with real health risks that should never be taken lightly.

Glenard's Disease, which can be caused by long-term tight-lacing, is marked by muscle atrophy and a shifting of the organs away from their natural positions [source: Orchard]. Lacing the corset too tightly can also create other physical deformities. These problems can be avoided by limiting the time you spend in a corset, and by not tightening up the laces to the point of discomfort. Extreme corsetry, like most extreme things, can cost you much more than you gain.

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A huge role in the resurgence of the corset is played by period plays and movies. Conscientious costume designers have a wealth of material to draw on to design exacting corsets that set the atmosphere, knowing that a discerning audience will notice the slightest inaccuracy. Historical re-enactment continues to grow in popularity, and many groups require that your clothing for such events pass certain accuracy standards -- right down to the undies.

If you plan on wearing a fashion corset for special occasions, a well-built, custom-made garment makes a major statement and will definitely get you noticed. You might feel or look slimmer, but don't be surprised if you find yourself unable to move quite as freely as you normally would. Don't think you can buy a corset on the day of a big event. A properly fitted corset takes time to create, and it may also take some time to break in.

Medically speaking, scoliosis and other posture problems can be treated with medical corsets. As we mentioned before, Andy Warhol had to wear one to help his back support his weight. This isn't totally dissimilar to the weight belts that support athletes' backs.

Often made of leather, fetish corsets usually link the concept of bondage with their reputation for pain. There are also many fashion corsets which borrow the shiny patent leather and hardware-laden look of fetish corsets.

The silhouettes favored by fashion and society come and go, but corsets have managed to endure as garments in one form or another. Whether you choose to wear a corset or other body shaper is entirely up to you, but remember: A healthy attitude and healthy body are always in fashion.

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