The corset and controversy

by Daryl Champion

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 proliferating. 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 stiffened cloth and then of whalebone 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 nineteenth century. The combination of corset, crinoline and bustle created the “S” silhouette synonymous with the Victorian-era woman.

Other nineteenth-century developments saw the corset made of two pieces, clasped together at centre–front with an external, two-part steel busk; new systems 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 entered 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 costume as the newly invented brassière rapidly gained acceptance and evolved much more quickly with the advance of technology 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, constructed of soft, pliable but still supportive materials, separates the breasts.

A number of other social and industrial factors 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 professionals, 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 freedom 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. SDk

In Béatrice Fontanel, Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras, trans. Willard Wood. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1997, p. 54

see note †

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