Mainbocher-corset 1939

"Mainbocher Corset", Horst P Horst

A corset is a garment worn on the torso to hold and shape it into a desired silhouette for aesthetic or medical purposes. This adjustment can be either temporary and last for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect. Both men and women can wear corsets and are known to do so, but they are more commonly designed for women.

In recent years, the term "corset" has also been borrowed by the fashion industry to refer to tops which mimic the look of traditional corsets without actually acting as one. While these modern corset tops often feature lacing and/or boning and often feature elements of more traditional corsets, they have very little, if any, effect on the shape of the wearer's body. Genuine corsets are usually made by a corsetmaker and should be fitted to the individual wearer.


The word corset is derived from the Old French word corps, which in turn derives from corpus, which is Latin for body. The craft of corset construction and the general wearing of them are both known as corsetry, and the word is often used as a collective plural form of corset. Someone who makes corsets is a corsetier or corsetière (from the French), or sometimes simply a corsetmaker.

The word corset came into general use in English in 1785, when it was used in The Ladies Magazine to describe a "quilted waistcoat", which was known as un corset by the French. The word was used to differentiated the lighter corset from the heavier stays of the period.


Main article: History of corsets

The corset has been (erroneously) attributed to Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France; she enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendance during the 1550s. Some researchers have found evidence of the use of corsets in early Crete.

For nearly 350 years, women's primary means of support was the corset, with laces and stays made of whalebone or metal. Over the years, it has undergone many changes. Originally known as stays in the early 1500s, the 16th century corset was a simple bodice with tabs at the waist and stiffened by horn, buckram, or whaleboneª, and the center front was further reinforced by a busk made of ivory, wood, or metal. I was most often laced from the back and was, at first, a garment reserved for the aristocracy.

Stays began to change shape in the 18th century when more boning began to be used, usually whalebone, and the garment became low and wide in the front and reaching as high as the upper shoulder in the rear. It could be strapless or have wide shoulder straps attached at the back and tied in the front. The purpose of these stays was to supposrt the bust and confer the fashionable conical shape while drawing the shoulders back. Eyelets were reinforced with stitches and were staggered instead of paired, which allowed the stays to be spiral laced. Tightlacing was not common at this time, and indulged in only by the very fashionable (and very wealthy), although stays were worn by women from all social classes. Another less popular variations of stays were jumps, which were looser stays with attached sleeves like a jacketª.

The ancestor of the modern corset was a quilted waistcoat made of quilted linen that laced in front and was un-boned. This garment was meant to be worn on informal occasions, while traditional stays were worn for court dress. Interestingly, it was the Dandies (men of the court) who began to wear corsets (the fashion persisted through the 1840s, although after 1850 men who wore them claimed they needed them for "back pain"*). However, in the 1790s, stays fell out of fashion during the French Revolution with the adoption of neoclassical styles of dress.

Corsets in the 19th century changed form more rapidly than their predecessors, especially as industrialization allowed fashion to change from year to year. Early 19th century corsets lengthened to the hip, the lower tabs replaced by gussets and the bust acommodated by more gussets, and the back lowered. The waistline lowered almost back to the natural position in the 1820s, and the shoulder straps had mostly disappeared by the 1840s. They became a garment for all social classes when they began to be mass-produced. Steel boning became popular in 1850 as corsets shortened, and remained the choice boning even as they lengthened again in the 1870s.

The Edwardian period (1902-1910) saw the birth of the straight front corset (also known as the S-Curve corset). Sometimes advertised as a "health corset", it was straight in front with a pronounced curve in the back that forced the upper body forward and the derrière out in the famous Gibson Girl silhouette.

The corset reached its longest length in the early 20th century. The longline corset at first reached from the bust down to the upper thight. There was also a style of longline corset that started under the bust and necessitated the wearing of a brassiere. It was a boneless style much closer to a modern girdle than the traditional corset. The longline style was abandoned during World War I, and all corsets lost popularity after President Woodrow Wilson asked women in the US to give up the fashion with the rationing of steel.

Corsets fell out of fashion in the 1920s in both Europe and North America, replaced instead with girdles and brassieres, but survived as an article of costume. There was a brief revival in the late 1940s and early 1950s with Christian Dior's New Look, in the form of of the waist cincher sometimes called a "waspie". However, use of the waist cincher was restricted to haute couture fashions, and most women continued to use girdles. The revival was brief, and the New Look soon gave way to less dramatically-shaped silhouettes.

Since the late 1980s, the corset has experienced periodic revivals, which have usually originated in high fashion and occasionally have trickled through to the mainstream. These revivals focused on the corset as an item of outerwear rather than underwear. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the autumn 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!. Another fashion movement which has renewed interest in the corset is the "steampunk" style, which bases its aesthetic a late-Victorian fashion with creative additions or alterations. The look originated in costumers' workshops with the advent of the Steampunk science fiction literature subgenre.

Special TypesEdit

There are some types of corsets and corset-like devices which incorporate boning.

Corset dressEdit

Main article: Corset dress

See also: Bondage corset

A corset dress is a long corset similar to its ordinary sibling, but long enough to partially or completely cover the legs. It is sometimes called a hobble corset due to its similarity to a hobble skirt. A person wearing a corset dress can have great difficulty in walking up and down the stairs and may be unable to sit down if the boning is too stiff.

Neck corsetEdit

Main article: Neck corset

A neck corset is a type of posture collar incorporating stays and is generally not considered to be a true corset.



Main article: Fashion corsets

The most common and well-known use of corsets is to slim the body and make it conform to a fashionable silhouette. For women, this most frequently emphasizes a curvy figure by reducing the waist and thereby exaggerating the bust and the hips. However, in some periods, corsets have been worn to achieve a tubular or cylindrical shape, which involves minimizing the bust and hips.

For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from about 1820 to 1835 when a wasp-waist figure was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.

An overbust corset encloses the torso, extending from just under the arms to the hips. An underbust corset begins just under the breasts and extends down to the hips. Some corsets extend over the hips and, in rare instances, reach the knees. A shorter kind of corset, which covers just the waist area (low on the ribs to just above the hips) is called a waist cincher. A corset may also include garters to hold up stockings.

A corset normally supports the visible dress and spreads the pressure from large garments, such as a crinoline or bustle. Sometimes a corset cover is used to protect outer clothes from the corset and smooth its lines. The original corset cover was worn under the corset to provide a layer between it and the body. Corsets were not worn next to the skin, possibly due to difficulties with laundering these items, especially during the 19th century when they included steel boning and metal eyelets that would rust. The corset cover would be in the form of a light chemise made of cotton lawn or silk.


Main article: Medical corsets

People with spinal problems such as scoliosis or with internal injuries may be fitted with a form of corset which does not constrict the figure in order to immobilize and protect the torso. Andy Warhol was shot in 1968; he never fully recovered, and wore a corset for the rest of his life.


Main article: Fetish corsets

Aside from fashion and medical uses, corsets are also used in some types of sexual fetishism, most notably in BDSM activities. In BDSM, a submissive can be forced to wear a corset to restrict movement, or a dominant can wear one (often black) for entirely different reasons, such as aesthetics, and to achieve a severe, armored, unbending, and commanding appearance. A very common form of fetishwear for women is the dominatrix costume, which usually consists of mostly dark clothing like a corset, stockings, and high-heeled footwear like tall (knee-high or thigh-high) boots, as well as accessories such as a whip or a riding crop. A specially designed corset, in which the breasts and vulva are left exposed, can be worn during any kind of sexual activity and is often found in adult stores and lingerie shops that do not necessarily cater to a BDSM community.


Main article: Corset construction

Corsets are typically constructed of a flexible material, like cloth (particularly coutil or leather) and stiffened with boning (also called ribs or stays) insterted into narrow pockets or channels in the material. In the 19th century, bones of elephant, moose, and whale were favored for boning. Plastic is now the most commonly used material for lightweight corsets and the marjority of those of poor quality. Spring or spiral steel is preferred for stronger and better quality garments. Other materials used for boning at some point include ivory, wood, and cane. By contrast, a girdle is usually made of elasticized fabric without boning.

Corsets are held together by lacing, usually (but not always) at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing produces corresponding changes in the firmness of the garment. Depending on the desired effect and time period, they can be laced from the top down, from the bottom up, or from both top and bottom with the laces meeting in the middle. It is very difficult -- though not impossible -- for a back-laced corset-wearer to lace him- or herself. In the Victorian heydey of corstes, a well-to-do woman's corset laces would be tightened by her maid, and a gentleman's by his valet. (Self-lacing is also almost impossible with tightlacing.) However, Victorian corsets also had a buttoned or hooked front opening called a busk. If the corset was worn very loosely, it was possible to leave the lacing as adjusted and remove it or put it on using the front opening. It should be noted, though, that if it is worn snugly, this method damages the busk unless the laces are significantly loosened beforehand. Corset and bodice lacing became a mark of class, with most front-laced clothing worn by women who could not afford servants.

Waist reductionEdit

Main article: Tightlacing

By wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods, men and women can learn to tolerate extreme waist constriction and eventually reduce their natural waist size, a process known as tightlacing. People who practice tightlacing are known as tightlacers.

Corset comfortEdit

See also: Wearing a corset

In the past, a woman's corset was usually worn over a chemise. It absorbed perspiration and kept the corset and the gown clean. In modern times, an undershirt or corset liner may be worn.

Moderate lacing is not incompatible with vigorous activity. Indeed, during the second half of the 19th century, when corset wearing was common, there were sport corsets specifically designed to wear while bicycling, playing tennis, or horseback riding, as well as for maternity wear. There are modern corsets designed for similar activities as well.


ªSteele, Valerie (2001). The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300099533.

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