From Then 'Til Now: History of the Corset

From Then 'Til Now: History of the Corset

From Then 'Til Now: History of the Corset

A recollection of the coveted garment from the 20th century to modern day.

A recollection of the coveted garment from the 20th century to modern day.

Text: Michaela Zee

For centuries, women would grace the streets in elaborate attire and flaunt these designs with drastically contoured waists. The corset — a structural garment that molds the torso — allowed women to achieve this quintessential, curved silhouette. 

The origin of the corset mainly derives from Western society during the 15th century, although corset-like garments date back to the Minoan civilization in ancient Greece. 

During the Renaissance era, Catherine de’ Medici influenced corseted fashion by banning “thick waists” within her court. The elite women of Western society frequently wore these stiffened garments to attain a slender waist, with lacing from both the back and front and a “stomacher” to conceal these laces. Rather than mask these corsets under layers of fabric, Renaissance fashion showcased these decorative, structural adornments cinching womens’ figures. In the end, this era of “rebirth” defined this continual desire for a slimmer stature, including the eventual hourglass figure of the 1800s and the “S-bend” silhoutte of the 1900s. 

Despite its controversial history of restraining the female body, the corset remains a prominent garment within fashion. Here, V recalls the evolution of the corset throughout 20th century fashion into modern day society. 

Edwardian Era (Early 1900s)

Camille Clifford (a.k.a the 'Gibson Girl')

Corsets of the Edwardian Era formed an “S-bend” curve to achieve this puffed-out demeanor, often referred to as the “Porter Pigeon.” The straight-front and curved backside of both long and short bodices emphasized the proportions of the female body, creating an arched back and enhanced monobosoms.

Skilled corsètieres were in high demand during the early 20th century as idealized fashion attire became publicized through postcards and cigarette cards. Actors and other refined female figures were depicted on these commercial outlets, illustrating the fashion trends of that era. The Gibson Girl was the most notable portayal of this ideal womanhood, and signified “The New Woman” through her tiny waist and elongated figure. 

1920s

The Reese's, print ad for Spencer Corsets, Ladies' Home Journal 1920.

During the First World War (1914-1918), women who entered the workforce shifted the fashion trend of contouring the female body to supporting it instead. This latest progression in women’s fashion remained a favored design entering the 1920s, signaling the change for a more active lifestyle. With the introduction of elastic, sports corsets provided women mobility through looser construction and flexibility. 

The La Garçonne look became well-renowned postwar, emphasizing a boyish, pre-pubescent style that required a more column-like figure. Corsets in the 1920s were designed to slim the hips and create this youthful stature; the additions of garters were included to attach stockings. Flapper girls in particular needed this freedom of movement to dance, so corsetry veered towards cylindrical, elastic corsets to support this latest activity. 

1930s/1940s

Gone with the Wind, 1939. Getty Images

The desirability for a fitted, slender silhouette emerged during the 1930s. While women still exhibited slimmer hips from the previous decade, their waistlines were enhanced with laced and featherlight boned corsets. Beauty became associated with health, leading to this figure-hugging bodice seen within corsets and shaped brassieres; a shapely frame alluded to a robust physique. 

With the Great Depression and World War II, utilitarian attire stressed the need for boxier cuts and hanging silhouettes during this period of repression. However, those who rejected this modernistic fashion turned towards neo-Victorianism. This aesthetic favored ornamentation and extravagance, and often provided audiences a form of escapism during the Great Depression. Period pieces in the '30s such as Gone with the Wind and Little Women depicted these elegant gowns and corseted imagery, while designers such as Norman Hartnell fabricated ensembles with thin, modeled waistlines (i.e. Neo-Georgian Ball Gown). 

Following World War II, utilitarian undergarments were gradually superseded by delicate designs that exuded femininity. This was especially featured in Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947. A billowed skirt and cinched waist were emphasized within his haute couture collection, returning to a period of finesse. 

1950s

Corsets circa 1957

The introduction of nylon in fashion provided a more light-weight, constructed bodice that became known as the girdle. The girdle was often made of nylon and latex rubber, and offered women a flattened posterior in comparison to the corset. Many women still wore constricted waspies, consisting of a boned bodice fastened by lace and/or hooks that narrowed down the female waistline. While these women retained the more restricting components of traditional corsets, younger generations usually preferred the girdle’s structure. Conical cups were an additional feature used for girdles and brassieres, achieving this pointed breast shape that was epitomized in the ‘50s. 

1980s/1990s

Madonna, Blonde Ambition Tour 1990. Courtesy of Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Fashion witnessed the gradual decline of corsets as sporty, healthier lifestyles became prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than confine their figures underneath tight-fitting garments, women often focused on their diet and exercise regimens to acquire this silhouette. 

With the emergence of the punk aesthetic, however, designers resurrected the corset during this contemporary revival of Victorian-esque styles. Acclaimed fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier experimented with corseted silhouettes during the 1970s and 1980s. As an aficionado of historical punk, Westwood re-interpreted the corset as a symbol of empowerment rather than the suppression of women. In regards to Gaultier, his pink satin corset worn by Madonna circa 1990 is perceived as one of the most iconic designs in fashion. 

Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, and Thierry Mugler also incorporated corseted designs into multiple collections throughout these decades, most of which led to the trend of underwear as outerwear. 

Present 

Moschino FW20. Courtesy of Filippo Fior/Gorunway.com

Corsets for a time were primarily reserved for costume design and seductive lingerie. However, this classical garment is once again appearing on fashion runways and pop culture, revitalizing the trend of corsets as outerwear. Moschino’s FW20 show consisted of eclectic ensembles reminscent of Marie Antoinette and French fashion. Models wore an array of artistic designs that embodied the iconic quote, “Let them eat cake,” and featured contoured torsos. 

Celebrities and fashion influencers have also integrated corsets into their street style, including Bella Hadid, Kim Kardashian, and Rihanna. This iconic garment of feminine sexuality is still a traditional component within the history of fashion.

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