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The History Of The Corset

Thursday, 07 April 2016  |  Posted By Vollers Corsets

Here at Vollers Corsets we have been creating beautiful, bespoke corsets for 115 years. With well over a century in the industry, we have witnessed first hand the many cultural shifts that have both developed and popularised the alluring corset.

A dominant garment for several centuries, the corset has long since been a versatile piece for both men and women. Whether somebody is using a corset as outerwear, for the purpose of waist training or for the alleviation of physical ailments, there are many reasons why the charming corset appeals to all.

So where did it all begin?

Plain and functional, the humble corset as we know it today, made its first appearance in Europe in the early 16th century. Originating from Italy, the garment was initially introduced into French culture by the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici. The earliest corsets were constructed from stiff materials such as a linen-cotton blend or a layer of leather.

As the century evolved, busks made from whale bones and wood were sewn into the linings and seams of the corset. This was to provide a more rigid structure and a style that was to epitomise the first notable corsets within Europe.

A conical corset featured on promotional content from the Vollers archive

Related: Conical corsets

As the century evolved, fashion began to dictate more rigidity when it came to women’s attire. Corsets of this period looked somewhat conical and were designed to flatten the natural shape, they also featured busks to keep the torso straight. During this time period they took a very different approach to figure shaping than the hourglass silhouette that evolved over many years.

Corsets worn in Elizabethan England were fitted and laced properly, making them more comfortable to wear. These particular kinds of corsets are said to have felt like a back brace and have been known to alleviate problems with posture.

It wasn’t until the late Georgian period when the corset really began to progress towards a curvier shape. It was within this period that cups were also introduced to support the breasts, although a stiff busk was still implemented to keep the bust apart. The shape of the corset also widened over the hips, following the natural form. This kind of corset could be described as much straighter and less conical.

Related: The physical benefits of a corset

Considered the boom era of the corset, during the early 19th century, the focus of corsetry was to create elegant lines whilst being experimental. Colours and materials such as silk and satin, as well as brocade patterns, were introduced around this time and the corset became more prominent as a statement garment.

Supplying rigid back support for activities such as horse riding, not to mention the hugely desirable silhouette of accentuated, broad shoulders and a narrow waist, corsets notably evolved during the 1800s to be ever popular with men. King George IV was known to wear a body belt which worked in the same way as a traditional corset.

Related: Corsets for men: Choosing the right corset for you

Stylistically the era also introduced lacing eyelets. Lace was threaded through the eyelets so that the wearer was able to adjust the corset more practically.

The desired shape at the time was the beautiful, hourglass figure and the way to achieve such a look (in the Victorian mindset) was to achieve the tightest lacing possible, despite health concerns. The allure of regency fashion also changed the face of corsets as a garment, including cups to actively support the bust.

The Edwardian style of corset, otherwise known as the ‘straight front corset’ or ‘S bend corset’, was popularised by ‘The Gibson Girl’ – a personification of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness portrayed by the satirical illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson. This style of corset formed a long silhouette with a sloping bust. It caused the shoulders to sit upright, the torso to fall forward and the hips to jut out backwards.

By 1908 these kinds of corsets had fallen out of favour and the corset shape  evolved once more.  Favouring a more natural silhouette, this time the corset rested under the bust and extended to the mid thigh. This change marked the beginning of the girdle.

The Great War of 1914 caused female fashions to evolve rapidly. As the men went to war, the women took on new roles and required less constricting clothing.  At the war’s end in 1918, the age of the ‘flapper’ dawned and new elastic fabrics became more sought after. Were the days of the rigid corset gone forever more?

Promotional imagery from 1953

It wasn’t until the 1950s that a fuller figure became fashionable, with women idolising the curvy pin-up image as portrayed by icons of the era including Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. Women actively waist trained to achieve a tiny, cinched waist and a more exaggerated hips and bust, deemed at the time to be the female ideal.

The corset once again fell out of immediate favour throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the mystical corset had somewhat of a revival. The sexual revolution initiated by neo-burlesque icon Dita Von Teese reprised the allure of corsets through her infamous dance shows and characters. Some of her most notable corset wearing performances include rising from a giant martini glass and riding a carousel horse.

Related: The evolution of burlesque performance

Throughout the 21st century, the corset has continued to evoke erotic appeal and has been bolstered by the booming burlesque industry, with performers choosing to wear corsets for performance.

Whether you want to wear your corset for the purpose of waist training, aim to solve a problem with posture or simply love the empowerment of wearing a corset, discover our range of underbust and overbust styles to introduce a timeless and truly classic garment into your life.

Time for more? Guide to caring for your corset | Discover the secrets of burlesque in our little black bookHow to incorporate a corset into your wardrobe