Plus Size Corsets – The History of Corsets
16th Century – Conception
The evolution of the corset started in the 1600’s and was originally called “payre of bodies” which eventually became known as “stays”. Some have said that it’s actual conception was in men’s iron breastplates used in the 1600’s to show his status in society. The purpose of the stay was less about creating a small waistline and more about creating an inverted cone shape bodice that complimented the cone shaped undergarment called a farthingale which was worn under heavy full skirts of the day. The stays of the early 16th century actually pushed the natural waistline downward. By the middle of the 16th century corsets were being worn as a common undergarment. These were made of several layers of stiffened linen with wooden busks or shafts that were inserted in pockets at the front in order to keep the corset and figure straight. The corset survived in this form until about 1860.
18th Century: A change in fashion
The main purpose of 18th century stays was to lift and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture to help a woman stand straight, with her shoulders down and back, and only narrow the waist slightly, creating a ‘V’ shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn. This type of corset raised the waistline closer to its natural position.
At this time the eyelets of the corset were stitched in a zigzag fashion allowing the corset to be spiral laced in the back. The wearer had to hold onto something to tighten the laces, as this method of lacing pulled the wearer from side to side as it was tightened. (Steele, 22)
In the 1790’s stay went out of fashion which coincided with the French Revolution when the neoclassical form of dress was adopted. Interestingly it was men who began to wear corset again, a fashion that lasted through the 1840’s, however after the 1850’s they insisted it was for “back pain”.
19th Century: Tightlacing
With the advent of metal eyelets and steel bones in the mid 1800’s tight lacing became possible. The metal eyelets were changed from the zigzag placement and situated across from each other in the back. This corset also fastened with busks in the from so a woman could set the tightness of the corset then remove it herself when she needed to.
Although corsets were usually designed for support, with freedom of body movement an important consideration in their design some have taken it to the extreme by wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods, known as tightlacing. Some men and women learned to tolerate extreme waist constriction which over time reduced their natural waist size. Tightlacers dream of 16 to 17 inches waists, but most are satisfied with anything under 20 inches. Until 1998, Ethel Granger held the Guinness Book of World Records as having the smallest waist on record at 13 inches. After 1998, Cathie Jung took the title of the “smallest waist on a living person” with a 15 inch waist. Other women also have achieved such reductions, such as Polaire, (14 inches in her case).
20th Century-The end of an era
In the 1900’s during the Edwardian period the straight front corset was introduced. This corset was straight in front, with a pronounced curve at the back that forced the upper body forward, and the derrière out. This style was worn from 1900-1908 (Steele 144).
This was perhaps the last change before the end of a great era. It is at this point to where there is some conflict as to who was actually responsible for the end. The person who gets credit for ending the long spanning fashion trend was Paul Poiret although it was Madeleine Vionnet who arguably should have taken the credit.
Isadora Duncan an American Dancer performed in Paris in 1906 dancing bare feet without a corset or a bra. This dancer caused quiet a sensation and was the inspiration for Madeleine Vionnet’s first design collection without a corset called deshabilles that could be worn in public. Vionnet said;
“I threw everything to the winds. What to do? Women don’t need a big collar. I have never been able to tolerate corsets myself, so why should I inflict them on other women”
This collection did not bode well with the house she currently was designing for in Paris “The House of Doucet”. They basically suppressed her designs and it was shortly after this that Paul Poiret introduced his collection which gave him the credit for the ellimination of the corset fashion era.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s there was a brief revival of the corset in the form of the waist cincher sometimes called a “waspie”. Dictated by Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, it was used to give an hourglass figure . However, use of the waist cincher was limited to haute couture, and guirdles was still the primary choice of most women. The New Look eventually gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.
Although the corset fell from fashion in the 1920s in America and Europe, replaced by elastic brassieres and girdles, it survived as an article of costume. Originally considered lingerie, the corset has become a popular item of outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures.
The corset has experienced periodic revivals since the late 1980s, usually originating in haute couture and occasionally trickling through to mainstream fashion. These revivals no longer focused on the corset as underwear but as outerwear.
In the 21st Century it is no longer considered a ladies duty to wear a corset but instead has become a symbol of individualism and beauty in the eyes of men and women.
Written by Bobby G Keith for American Islander gothic corsets for plus size women.