The Writer’s Guide to the History of Corsets & Other Boned Garments

There are few garments in human history that are surrounded by more myths and misinformation than corsets. Some wild claims have been made about the effects of corsetry and the reasons why women and men wore corsets. Today we will be diving into the history of boned and laced garments and over the next two weeks we will be busting myths.

I recommend this video from Abby Cox about the difference between pair of bodies, stays, and corsets.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

A Brief History

Women have been lacing themselves into various garments for roughly 500 years. There is even some evidence that Minoan women of early Crete were using a version of the corset. [1]

A statue of a Minoan goddess wearing what is believed to be the ancestor of the corset. Photo source.

16th Century Pair of Bodies

The first boned and laced garment was the 16th century pair of bodies (also spelled bodys). [2] It spiral laced in the front or back through thread-enforced eyelets and had shoulder straps. The pair of bodies also had tabs at the bottom that fanned out over the hips and helped support the weight of the skirts and petticoats and prevented them from cutting into the flesh of the waist.It was used to create the conical torso that was fashionable at the time as well as to lift the breasts.

However, the idea of a woman lacing herself into a garment wasn’t new. The kirtles of the 15th century usually laced snugly and provided support for the bust. But the pair of bodies were the first to use boning. During this same period, lower class women began boning their bodices to provide lift to the bust and maintain a straight line. They also acted as a back brace for hard work. Reed and whalebone were used to provide structure. Neither of these materials is very stiff and over time they mold to the wearer’s body. [3] Some pairs of bodies had a pocket in the front for a busk, a piece of wood, horn, ivory, metal, or whalebone that insured the front remained straight.

A pair of bodies worn by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Photo source.

18th Century Stays

During the 18th century, the pair of bodies transitioned into stays. [4] The shape changed but the basic function did not. Stomachers and other clothing were commonly pinned to them. Just as with the pair of bodies, the point was to create the fashionable conical silhouette. Plus, the shoulder straps pulled the shoulders back into the proper posture and the tabs supported the weight of the skirts and protected the waist. Unlike the pairs of bodies that were only worn by the upper class, stays were worn by all classes of women. It was considered improper to go without, sort of like going without a bra today.

The term “corset” was used during this period to describe an unboned support garment. Obviously, a lot of changes were made to get to what most modern people would recognize as a corset.

Stays from the 1780s. Photo source.

19th Century Corsets

Stays shortened to just below the bust during the beginning of the 19th with the high-waisted Empire styles. When the waistline began to drop again during the 1820’s, several changes were made, and this garment began to be referred to as a corset. Gussets for the bust and hips were added, and the shoulder straps became less common, disappearing by the 1840s. [5] Ironically, the corset was originally designed for men and favored by the dandy, but male corsetry is a topic for another post. [6]

Regency short stays. Photo source.

The metal eyelet was first developed in 1828 although it wasn’t until Henry Bessemer developed a faster method in 1856 that they become more widely used. [7] It allowed corsets to really be cranked tight for the first time, a practice known as tight lacing. However, tight lacing was only practiced by a minority of high fashion ladies and was also an erotic fetish.

The other big change was the invention of the metal busk also known as front claps. The loop and post closure allow the corset to be opened and closed from the front with the lacing still in the back. This made it much easier to put on and take off.

Various styles of metal busks. Photo source.

The corset changed shape and length throughout the 19th century. Curved panels created a dramatic hourglass shape, even when the garment wasn’t being worn. With the introduction of metal boning and the invention of the steam heated torso at the end of the 1860s to shape the boning, even more drastic curves were achieved. [8] The hourglass shape was replaced in 1897 by the straight front or S bend corset, which pushed the bust forward and the hips back. [9]

An 1878 drawing of a corset. Photo source.
A 1902 advertisement for a straight fronted corset. Photo source.

Into the 20th Century

The corset continued into the beginning of the 19th century but by the 1920s it was being rapidly replaced by the girdle and the brassiere. Since then, corsets have seen brief periods of revival such as the waist cincher of the late 1940s and early 1950s and the corset fashions of the 1980s. It survives in a modified version today in the modern waist cinchers and shapewear as well as fetish wear and cosplay such as steampunk.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Steele, Valerie (2001). The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09953-3.
[2] Waugh, Norah (December 1, 1990). Corsets and Crinolines. Routledge. ISBN 0-87830-526-2.
[3] Bendall, Sarah (2019-01-01). "Bodies or Stays? Underwear or Outerwear? Seventeenth-century Foundation Garments explained". Sarah A Bendall. Retrieved 2020-07-18.
[4] Bendall, Sarah (2019-01-01). "Bodies or Stays? Underwear or Outerwear? Seventeenth-century Foundation Garments explained". Sarah A Bendall. Retrieved 2020-07-18.
[5] Waugh, Norah (December 1, 1990). Corsets and Crinolines. Routledge. ISBN 0-87830-526-2.
[6] Steele, Valerie (2001). The Corset: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09953-3.
[8] "1860s corsets". Archived from the original on 2011-01-08. Retrieved 2010-06-20.

10 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to the History of Corsets & Other Boned Garments”

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