The corset, confining women and distorting their bodies in the name of fashion, is perhaps the most controversial garment in the history of western fashion. Yet from the Renaissance until the early-twentieth century generations of women willingly laced themselves into corsets in pursuit of the fashionable shape and support for good posture that they provided. From being mainly an item of elite wardrobes, the corset became more widely available in the latter part of the eighteenth century, being adopted by working women who wore leather stays to support their upper bodies as they carried out their manual labour.
Stays provided the necessary moulding to achieve the curvilinear torso and narrow waist, which formed the idea of formal beauty throughout the eighteenth century. This shape was created using a series of narrow channels of very fine stitching, which contained thin strips of baleen or whalebone, which was in fact hair, while a heavier strip of baleen or steel would lie under the chest. Stays were pointed at the front to sit low over the waistline, with flared tabs splayed over the hips to give a fuller shape to the overlying petticoat skirt. This arrangement narrowed the waist and forced the bosom upwards towards the neckline to create a fashionable V-shaped silhouette.
This completely rigid and inflexible structure was designed to push the bust up and narrow the waist. Such a garment was cruelly uncomfortable – some women complained of bruising to the ribs and waist. In 1777, the diarist Horace Walpole recorded, “There has been a young gentlewoman overturned and terribly bruised by her Vulcanian stays. They now wear a steel busk down their middle, and a rail of the same metal across their breasts.” It is clear that the stay-maker was aiming not for comfort, but for form.
The construction of stays was an entirely male role due to the heavy work involved in manipulating and stitching the baleen between layers of canvas or linen. A contemporary account reveals that the job of the stay-maker was to “[take] the Lady’s Shape as nicely as he can; if it is natural. And where it is not, he supplies the Deficiency…” The British were particularly fond of correcting this “Deficiency”. Stays were notable for their harshness of line, being higher, longer and tighter than Continental styles. French fashion also favoured a lower décolletage although even in England fashionable necklines dropped perilously low creating a narrow line between fashion and immodesty.
William Hogarth also had a word to say on the subject. In The Analysis of Beauty (1753) he suggested that the ideal body shape was an elongated S, following the “line of beauty”, and that stays should be a “shell of well-varied contents”. This idea of a definitive formula for the perfect female was an attempt to rationalise the natural into an artistic template – the idea of “nature tamed”. Towards the end of the eighteenth century there was increasing hostility to the corset, with philosophers and doctors condemning the garment as unnatural and restrictive: there was no room for constricting and distorting stays in the Age of Reason. Caricaturists satirized the corset as the epitome of irrational female vanity in cartoons depicting women forcing themselves into constricting corsets and being laced in by aristocratic men at the cost to both parties of gross bodily distortion and huge effort. The coming of the French Revolution undermined the market for corsets as their aristocratic associations and restrictive character – seen as being in conflict with the new freedoms of revolutionary society – led to them falling out of favour. A new feminine ideal came to the fore, influenced by the ‘return to nature’ and the revival of interest in classical Greek and Roman models of civilization: freely flowing lines, thin body-hugging fabrics, high waists and low-cut bodices could not be combined with the stiff and constricting corset. Between 170 and 1810 fashion became revolutionised both inside and outside.
Corsets did not disappear entirely, however. Their nature changed, becoming shorter and less stiff, but many women still chose to trust their stays to ensure that they continued to display a fashionable figure. During the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars and in their immediate aftermath the fashion for high-waisted Neoclassical gowns waned: and as the waistline descended, so stays increased in length and began once again to exert a controlling influence on the female shape. The front piece of the corset became a solid panel and the laces moved to the back as the corset, formerly a garment in its own right, retreated beneath the clothes to become an item of underwear – a transformation that was completed during the early Victorian era.