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History of Corsets
Corsets before 1500
We cannot be sure if corsets existed before 1500, as information about them is unreliable. Many books say that Cretan women used the corset ca. 2000 BC when they made idols in the shape of a cross. The idols were originally two round pots from bottom to bottom, with the handle of the top pot being the nose of the idols and the edge line from bottom to bottom being the waist. The shape was traditional for idols and not the shape of Cretan women. The detail of the idols tells us that the ancient Cretan idols wore large loin cloths and the later idols have a tunic of open lace and a loin cloth. The corset-shaped figure of the idols was a primitive Cretan style.
Some 15th century maidens wore a long tight lace garment, but it was only a dress, not a corset.
Iron cross cover, around 1500
Iron corsets are Victorian era corset covers that were made of metal. There are several that can be found in museum collections today.
It is sometimes claimed that these corsets were everyday wear for women and girls throughout Europe in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, it is more likely that they are orthopedic instruments used by very few women whose posture was not considered acceptable by the health and beauty standards of the time.
It seems likely that the iron corset was originally a type of armor worn only by men.
Later, the “iron corset” was used by both men and women, but only on dress occasions. Both your iron and the dress were heavy, and the iron was padded underneath like armor. The silk of the time was extremely expensive but of poor quality and it did not stretch well. It looked beautiful on the shiny metal though. The iron corset also served as a bulletproof vest, as murder with a knife to the heart was a common risk.
The padded “iron cross” and armor was known as a corset on women and a waistcoat (vest) on men.
Corset Stays, 1550 to 1890
Stag is an old type of corset. A stay is worn over the dress or skirt and laced at the waist, as opposed to a more conventional corset that extends below the hips. Stays were typically made by hand in 1860 or earlier in some countries. Over time the stays got shorter and shorter and eventually evolved into an early form of bra.
A brace set has a shoulder strap as opposed to a waist.
Victorian Corsets, 1831 – 1901
When most people think of a corset, they have an idea of a “Victorian corset”; however, the British Victorian era consisted of a long period of change in culture and fashion from 1837 to 1901. During that time, many styles of corsets were in use. The most ubiquitous feature was the “horizontal waist” which was common from about 1850 to 1899. The “Victorian corsets” on sale today are most likely New Look corsets.
The S-Curve Corset (1900) and the Straight Fronted Corset, 1903 – 1912
The straight-front corset (also known as the swan-beak corset and s-curve corset) was a type of corset worn from the early nineteenth century until about 1907. Its name is derived from the very stiff, straight bush that was used in the center of the front.
It was the most complicated form of corset ever made, with high quality corsets consisting of up to 48 intricately curved and shaped pieces. The straight-fronted corset was intended to be less harmful to the wearer’s health than other corsets; however, when worn too tightly, these corsets were the most uncomfortable and damaging style of corset ever to be very popular. The silhouette from just in front of the cross is known from the Gibson Girl of the period.
The straight front of the cross was popularized by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, who was a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. The style was probably the result of several like-minded corsetieres and doctors. It was intended to create fewer health problems and be less restrictive than previous types of corsets. The hourglass corset “suppressed the bust” and the spoon bush, which often curved inwards for part of its length, “forced the organs downwards” argued Gaches-Sarraute in his 1900 study Le Corset: Etude Physiologique and Pratique (The Corset: A Physiological and Practical Study ).
Gaches-Sarraute proposed a corset that: freed the chest by starting below the breasts; supported, rather than constricted, the abdomen with a very stiff, straight body and inflexible boning.
The first element was not problematic, but to create the ‘monobom’ effect that was in vogue, women began to wear bust supports, the design of which eventually led to the brassiere.
However, the second feature created more problems. When the straight front corset was worn laced moderately tight, very little pressure was placed on the abdomen and some of the compression was transferred to the sides of the waist where boning was easier. However, due to the extreme stiffness at the front of the corset, it was possible to achieve greater reductions in the waist than with the hourglass corset. When tight, just in front of the corset put a lot of pressure on the lower abdomen. This caused the S-curve silhouette: the wearer’s hips were pushed back, giving a deep curve to her lower back, and her chest was pushed forward. In most cases, tight lacing in a straight front corset caused lower back pain, breathing difficulties and knee problems (through hyperextension).
The Pipe-Shape Corsets, 1912 – 1928?
Pipe-shape was a name sometimes given to a type of corset in fashion from 1908 to 1920. It helped give the slim, straight silhouette that was a reaction to the exaggerated curves of the S-shape corset.
The tubular corset is not to be confused with the tube-stem waist sometimes found on other corsets, especially the hourglass corset.
The corset fell out of fashion in the 1920s in Europe and America, replaced by belts and elastic bras, but survived as a costume. Originally a lingerie, the corset has become a popular outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures.
There was a brief revival of the corset in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of the waist cincher. This was used to give the hourglass figure dictated by Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’. However, the use of the waist cincher was limited to haute couture, and most women continued to use belts. This revival was brief as the New Look gave way to a less dramatically shaped silhouette.
Since the late 1980s, the corset has seen periodic revivals, usually originating in haute couture and occasionally seeping into mainstream fashion. These revivals focus on the corset as an outer garment rather than an undergarment. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the Fall 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!, where the costumes featured many corsets. More recently, Kylie Minogue once again reignited public interest in corsets by wearing one on her 2005 tour.
The majority of garments sold as corsets during these recent revivals cannot be counted as corsets at all. Although they often have lacing and boning and generally mimic a historical corset style, they have very little effect on the shape of the wearer’s body. This is not the case with the Vollers corsets that we stock.
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