The History of Corsets in the Context of Fashion History
The History of Corsets in the Context of Fashion History Research Paper
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Updated: Jan 29th, 2022
Fashion history includes garments that remain popular after hundreds of years and are always in high demand. One of such garments is a rather peculiar article of clothing known as a corset that makes a woman more gracious and elegant. Corsets may be a perfect illustration of the expression beauty has its price, and ladies from the past centuries were willing to sacrifice the health in order to look beautiful and win attention.
For all fashion lovers, it is of peculiar interest to trace the history of corsets. Many sources cite Minoan Crete as the origin of corset (Steele, 2003). The excavations at palace Knossos revealed wall paintings and statues featuring female bodies wearing a garment reminiscent of a corset. However, there is not much in common between the Victorian corset which emerged in Renaissance and the ancient corsets (Steele, 2003).
With this in mind, corsets that we know today originated in the Victorian era in the mid-18th century (Winter, 2005). Some museums nowadays contain collections of iron corsets dating back from 1580 to 1600, however, those items are hardly articles of fashion. Modern scholars who have closely researched them agree that those metal corsets were probably orthopedic devices used to treat spinal defects (Steele, 2003).
If one is asked to speculate on the nature and purpose of corsets, most probably, theyll be attributed to the articles of fashion that were used to place an emphasis on a womans beauty and show them in a most flattering manner. However, status and class were fundamentally essential in the society of the Victorian Era and women were required to adhere to high moral standards. Aside from being an indicator of high fashion, tight-fitting corsets and garments were worn to differentiate the women of various classes (Winter, 2005). If corsets belonging to women of the lower class might contain rolls and bulges, they were totally unacceptable for the higher class. Wearers of corsets could not only win the attention of men but could also be accepted in high society circles and marry more affluent husbands.
If wearing corsets today is mainly associated with adults, during the Victorian era childrens garments were not different in any way from adults wear. In fact, children were dressed as little adults. Girls were taught to wear corsets or metal belts riveted round them from the early age up to adolescent years preparing them for more restrictive corsets (Kunzle, 2006).
The range of corsets in the Victorian Era was as wide as the plentiful choice of jeans offered in todays market. There was a tough competition between multiple manufacturers searching for customers (Winter, 2005). Interestingly, if we look at the clothing articles sold today, we will see various design shapes and concepts. Interestingly, the same versatility was true of corsets. They evolved and kept up with womens trends. Corsets were made for every leisure activity such as swimming, bicycling and more. Special corsets were designed to be worn by women during different stages of pregnancy. The lacing in their lower part expanded in order to support the increasing stomach (Winter, 2005).
Although wearing corsets is strongly associated with Europe and countries like Spain or Italy, the culture of wearing corsets was so wide-spread that it became an obsession throughout the United States. If, in Europe, corsets were a part of high class womens wardrobe, in the US the culture of wearing corsets reached into the working class and even farming (Taylor, 2001). In 1890 corsets were so popular in the US that women wore them when working in the fields or even in the kitchen.
Those researching the history of corsets have heard the statement that wearing a corset might be viewed as a sacrifice made by women and it is true. Corsets did inhibit movement, and as some doctors claim, might have had an adverse effect on the internal organs, especially if laced up to tight for the sake of a slender waist. Readers of Gone with the Wind will remember a shocking 18-inch waist of Scarlett OHaras and women sacrificed their health to fit into the beauty standards imposed in those days.
Aside from that, keeping corsets in good condition was also a major problem. Metal parts rusted with time, leather shrank and washing it was not always practical as it could damage it (Taylor, 2001). Furthermore, a corset became one whole with the owner after many years of use and giving it as a gift to someone else was out of the question as it simply wouldnt fit none but the owner.
It should be noted that women of the Victorian Era were psychologically dependent on corsets and the notion that nice ladies wore corsets was very strong. Fitness and physical exercise for attaining a slim waist were not common then and a slim waist was attained by tight lacing. Womens attitude to slender and fit bodies has changed dramatically since the Victorian Times. Women today choose to look fit and slender by jogging, dieting and exercising and not by restraining their bodies with the use of laced garments. Perhaps this paradigm shift has contributed into making corsets a fashion phenomenon of the past. However, admirers and advocates of corset wearing may detect and reveal concepts and ideas of corset culture in many of todays garments.
Kunzle, D. (2006). Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight Lacing and Other Forms of Body-sculpture. Stroud, United Kingdom: The History Press.
Steele, V. (2003). The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Taylor, C. (2001). Where have all the corsets gone? Web.
Winter, D. (2005). Cinching Up in the Victorian Era Corsets! Web.
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