The corset and controversy
shoulder straps; expensive ones could be works of tailoring and embroidering art. Although tight-
lacing was not de rigueur, rela-
tively complex rear lacing usually meant the assistance of a maid-
servant was required; thus did the most florid costume of the age imply some level of privilege, and explains a backlash against such modes of dress with the French Revolution.
A more relaxed form of dress, particularly for women, did not last long, and the nineteenth century saw the peak of corset fashion, with different styles and corsets for specialised use prolif-
erating. Corsets were developed for nuptial use, for singing, riding, travelling, for morning wear (lightly boned), for night wear (unboned), for attending balls (ornate, and formal), for seaside bathing, and so on. Around 1830 the thrusting bust came to be countered with an exaggerated posterior by crinolines first of stiff-
ened cloth and then of whale-
bone or cane hoops; finally, there was the cage crinoline of steel. Then the bustle, most often of
horse hair, replaced the crinoline in the second half of the nine-
teenth century. The combination of corset, crinoline and bustle created the “S” silhouette synonymous with the Victorian-era woman.
Other nineteenth-century devel-
opments saw the corset made of two pieces, clasped together at centre–front with an external, two-part steel busk; new sys-
tems of lacing meant a woman could tie her own corset behind her back. Stainless steel became the material of choice for the stays, also known as “bones”. Terms derived from corset-wearing through the ages ent-
ered the language: “strait-laced” and “loose woman”, for example. At various periods corsets were tailored for men.
Fashions for the corset came and went and worked their way through numerous styles, but by the late nineteenth cenury the corset was nearing the end of its time as a ubiquitous item of cos-
tume as the newly invented brassière rapidly gained accept-
ance and evolved much more quickly with the advance of tech-
nology in the twentieth century. The bra reversed the system of support for women’s breasts from the push-up effect of the corset,
to suspended-from-the-shoulder. While the corset creates a “monobosom”, a bra, con-
structed of soft, pliable but still supportive materials, separates the breasts.
A number of other social and industrial fact-
ors contributed to the corset’s eclipse. At various times through the history of this form-altering device, anti-corset campaigns had been conducted by medical profession-
als, philosophers and women; debates over the negative or positive effects of the corset on health and vitality gathered momentum in the nineteenth century. A fashion for the tango and other forms of Latin American dance that required free-
dom of movement swept Western Europe and North America in the early twentieth century and lasted to the beginning of the First World War. And it was the slaughter of fully industrialised warfare – the very first day of the 1916 Somme Offensive left some 30,000 Allied soldiers dead and 60,000 wounded – that saw women working in armaments and other factories and occupying jobs that had hitherto been the preserve of the men who were now dying on the battlefields of Europe in such obscene numbers. There was little place
for a corset in these new circumstances.
After hundreds of years of evolution and perhaps two centuries of the corset as we would recognise it today, it has been fetishists, circus and burlesque and other performers, and those enamoured of the costume and the fashionable female form of bygone eras that have kept the art of the corsetmaker alive.
see note †