Saturday, February 24, 2018

A brief history of corsetry

Corsets are back in fashion with the waist-cinching, bust-enhancing garments of the past enjoying a resurgence. As in Edwardian Times, the matured ladies figure is back in vogue and challenges the Androgynous Models of the female form so prevalent in the last half century. Today's corsets are made of lush, colourful fabrics, and are meant to be seen.

Robes in antiquity were worn loose with more elaborate the layers the higher the rank and wealth of an individual. Eventually costumes were given shape and tied with a girdle or a sash, later brooches and pins were used to this effect. Greeks and Romans dressed in this manner about 3000 years ago.

The body beautiful in Greek times called for thin women and they wore a leather band style corset to give definition to their hips and bust.

Cretan woman of substance went bare breasted but wore waist and hip corsets. The boy figure was also popular among Egyptian women.

During the Dark Ages, the human body was considered sinful and underwear something rather shameful. In 1300s a reinforced bodice or cotte (French for close fitting) was worn. Later a more complex cotte or basque replaced the bodice.

Fashions changed towards the end of the Middle Ages and clothes were more carefully cut and shaped to the body. From the 14th century onwards new elements were added simply for the sake of variety and change rather than function. Simple corsets were worn as outer clothing. Later in the 16th century the costumes of the Spanish Court influenced the ladies of Italian and English aristocrcy and iron hinged amour like corsets called stays’ were worn to flatten the body. This gave a smooth outline beneath gowns and the elongated boyish flattened torso was considered very attractive in Elizabethan Times.

The less restrictive stays which followed incorporated whalebone, bone, wood and flexible steel. Dress lines changed when the Farthingale (bell shaped) Petticoat was introduced to give a bell shape to the dresses. The complex and often heavy infrastructure meant these were far from comfortable to wear but it had the desired effect on deportment, ensuring a gliding action on movement. The Farthingale (derived from the Spanish vertugado meaning petticoat) was later worn with a roll of stiffened material called a Bum Roll.

Worn ring like over the waist and tied at the back, the bum roll supported the folds of skirt fabric and was used to add more width to the body, whilst spreading skirt fullness evenly. The Bum Roll had tapes which enabled it to be tied to the waist, settling over the farthingale. Sometimes it was worn without a farthingale. When the bum roll became too cumbersome, a rounder wheel style farthingale became popular, especially as Spanish influence wained.

The 17th century clothes were softer and more flowing and corsetry emphasized the waist and full skirts. Corsets, now called stays, continued to be made from bone, although some included cane and linen. There primary function was to give support and shape to the bodice especially when a higher waistline and a longer stomacher were in fashion.

Corsets were worn as part of the top fabric bodice and mounted on a boned lining. Only when the fashion for patterned bodice worn under the over-gown became vogue did corsets and stays became associated as an undergarment. From 1804 onwards, rubber was incorporated into a corset e.g. “corset elastique” As Natural waistlines became fashionable in the 1820s, busts needed to be supported beyond that given by the dress itself and the new corsets followed the female figure accentuating form and were worn tight on the natural waste.

The corset of the 1820's was high waisted and long in the hips because the skirts were gored and required a smooth hip line.

Initially the corset was made from straight pieces of strong cotton fabric and inset gussets at the bust and hips gave shape and curving. The centre front was held straight by a wooden busk slipped into a pocket in the corset. Later cording and quilting of the fabric provided stiffening and fewer bones were used.

Whalebone was expensive and young men often carved ornate designs on the corset busks as gifts for their sweethearts. Busks continued to be made from wood until the mid 1840's. The stiff upright stance or “straight laced’, meaning very strict moral attitudes, slipped into common venacular.

Corsets were cross laced from behind and in 1832, Jean Werly patented the first woven corset.

As the lines of fashion became softer and more curved (The Crinoline Period - 1840-1870), wooden busks were discarded and replaced by springy steel. These permitted the front opening corset to be introduced so now it was possible for a woman to put the corset on by herself. The waist remained below its natural position so corsets were still worn long over the hips. When skirts got wider the waist returned to its natural position. After the invention of the cage crinoline (1857) skirts got wider and the waist became a little thicker with the hips covered by an extended skirt.

The ideal fashion line of the 1860's upper body, was a broad chest with sloping wide shoulders to make the waist appear small. The corset did not need to make the hips smaller, but it did need to be supportive of the weight of the crinoline and skirt. So the corsets of the 1860's were rather shorter than those worn before or after, and less restrictive.

The new "Victoria Corset" was advertised by Madame Demorest in 1862. No longer stiff this support followed the idealized female shape of the 1860's. The crinoline extended the hips and the chest appeared wide optically giving the appearance of a narrow waist. There were two main styles of corsets; one made of lots of shaped or gored pieces, the other of fewer shaped pieces but with inset gussets. When the crinoline was discarded in the late 60's a new corset shape was needed to help define the ideal figure. The new corset was steam moulded, had stiffer spoon-shaped busks, more boning, and was much heavier, stiffer, and far more restrictive. In 1870 the bustle became the fashion and consisted of everything at the front being pulled and gathered at the back.

During the last decade of the 19th century period corsets became medicalised and the 'health' corset was designed to aid women to breathe more freely. Corsetiere, Mme. Gaches-Sarraute of Paris, introduced the straight fronted busk which was aimed at leaving the thorax free, but at the same time designed to support and raise the abdomen instead of compressing it and forcing it downwards. She rightly, aimed at removing pressure from the vital female organs and dispensed with the constricting curve at the waist which was customary in all previous corsets.

Ladies were now free to move and breathe more easily but the craze for a small waist persisted. This merited the assistance of another; a personal maid who could pull and tug at the lacing, reducing the normal circumference of the waist from 25 or 27 inches to 20 inches. The "health" corset produced a hand span waist, but at the same time the straight fronted busk forced the bust prominently forward, whilst throwing back the hips. This created the 'S' shape characteristic until 1907. The corset of 1907 achieved a long slim silhouette by starting just above the waist and fitting well down the thighs. They often included elastic gusset inserts which was supposed to increase comfort level.

Fashions favoured the mature woman in the Edwardian era. It exploited the curves of an elaborately corseted figure. The Edwardian era was the last period when the mature female figure was everyman's ideal. Buxom ladies tortured their flesh to achieve an hour-glass figure. Young or old, all laced themselves so tightly that they distorted their figures into the exaggerated 'S' shape associated with the era. The Gibson Girl (Charles Dana Gibson) became the Lara Croft of her time and inspired the original Coca-Cola bottle.

The Gibson Girls had their breasts up and their hips back. The corset prevented the lady from everyday chores and to Edwardian society was a status symbol showing she belonged to the leisure class. On a young body with about two years training a handspan 16 inch waist could be achieved. The bustle was the bulk from the front, now flat, drawn behind.

When “Neoclassical Look” was introduced in 1907, the straight simple line saw an end to the hour glass body line. The corset had ebbed and the brassier was now in vogue. By the First World War, women took on male roles in factory work and a change in garments was necessary. Corsets became lighter and the use of elastic material for support increased. This combined with the more traditional cloth and steel supports gave greater impetus to change designs. Suspenders became an integral part of corset design to assist in holding up stockings, and instead of the solid shelf that had characterized the appearance of women's breasts; the breasts became separated, in what was to become the forerunner of the modern brassiere.

As ever fashion won out and to match the new longer slimmer dress styles of 1912, corsets increased in length and almost reached the knees, making sitting down quite difficult. Women were encouraged to participate in sports such as golf, cricket, tennis and cycling and new ‘sportswomen corsets’ or health and freedom corsets’ were fashionable. These were cut high over the hips for mobility with less lacing and two attached suspenders.

The corselette was introduced in 1921. It was a tubular garment giving a smooth line incorporating brassiere and girdle, shoulder straps and suspenders. The girdle was a lightweight elasticated or rubberised corset which extended from waist to upper thigh. By the 30s a large array of other materials were used. Towards the end of the decade the bra and smaller corset combined to create the technically advanced corselette with loom elastic that extended from waist to thigh and a side fastening of hook and eyes. Lacing and boning were largely dispensed with. The glamorous thirties saw Hollywood siren influence the fashion conscious with their sleek forms of Garbo, Dietrich, Harlow, Mae West and Joan Crawford. When the talkies came at first the swish of underwear created a technical problem which was overcome with the introduction of the new synthetic materials. The zipper was invented in 1931 and was quickly incorporated into corsets.

The late forties saw the introduction of the long line bustier dress (1947). Worn as an undergarment, the long line brassiere incorporated a waist cincher (or Waspie. This was a belt worn around the waist to make the wearer's waist appear physically smaller. These under dresses were ideal for the New Look (Dior).

Hollywood’s influence continued throughout the 50s with emphasis on the bust, trim waist and firm buttocks as seen in Lana Turner's The Merry Widow (1952)

With faster dance trends it became vitally important to improve support and in 1959 Spandex`(Fibre K) or Lycra was introduced. The nude look prevailed for the next two decades.

The introduction of pantyhose (tights) in the 60s negated the need for suspenders.

The seventies saw four separate developments which would influence the next quarter of a century and beyond. Sci-fi in films like Barberella, the dance craze (disco and retro), the keep fit phenomenon, and Punk fetish. Whilst the fashion corset was passe and worn only by older women and men with need of lumbar support. Specialist companies such as Rigby and Pellier, continuing to produce quality products for firm control. They also catered for the bludgeoning interest in restrictive clothing favoured by an underground niche market of S&M. The retro rubber corsetry attracted the attention of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood.

A decade later during the Neo Punk, Grunge and Goth fashions movements the female form with curves agian began to feature. Body sculpturing using lighter fabrics appealed to younger women, who required now only a little bit of support beneath a clinging skirt or trousers. Madonna championed the new body when she appeared on stage dressed in attractive stretch Lycra in black with lace trimming supported by silicone rubber stays.

Not since Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull} in the 60s took to wearing a cod piece had the glitterati been seen with undies so prominent. Wearing underwear as outerwear became a fashion statement in its own right.

The Modern Primitive movement of the 90s took this to extremes with the reintroduction of extreme corsetry and the return of the 14 inch waist.

Today's corsets are made of lush, colourful fabrics, comfortable to wear and meant to be seen. Spanx pants are the new girdle.

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