Saturday, April 5, 2014

From Bodies to Corsets: A Brief Overview of the Corset

This piece was originally written for a Powerhouse Museum blog called 'Inside the Collection', and it was going to accompanied by items from their collection (hence the reason why many examples post 1800 are Australia-centric). However it was never published, and doesn't look like it will be in future, so I've decided to go ahead and publish it here on my blog. I hope you find the social history of the corset just as interesting as I do! 

From Bodies to Corsets: A Brief Overview of the Corset

During the 1980s feminist author and journalist Susan Brownmiller stated that “no discussion of the feminine body in the western world can make real sense without getting a grip on the corset” for it has played a “starring role in the body’s history.”[1] For more than five hundred years the corset, and its many variants, lay under the clothing of women changing their shapes to conform with the silhouette of fashion. Whether a corset was used by a woman to achieve a desired body shape, for modesty, or simply because it was a standard part of underwear, the corset was an everyday part of life for nearly all western women until the 1920s.

The earliest garments that could be termed ‘corsets’ originated in the sixteenth century and were termed ‘bodies’ in English (and similarly, ‘corps’ in French). However this does not mean that earlier forms of body shaping in Western Europe did not occur.  There is evidence from as early as the thirteenth century that women tried to achieve a slender figure with un-boned bodices called “bliauds” made from materials which tightly fastened around the waist and were laced at the back.[2]  However the greatest evidence for some sort of female body shaping device in the middle ages comes from archaeological excavations of Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol, Austria. During excavations undertaken in 2008, approximately 2,700 individual textile fragments were discovered in the insulation of a vault. On closer inspection, male and female undergarments were discovered and carbon dated to the mid-fifteenth century.[3] Among these undergarments were many female ‘bras’ and a garment that resembles what were would now call a ‘corselet’.  The very design of this undergarment indicates that it must have lent itself to some form of body shaping by women in the fifteenth century; most probably it was used to create a sleek and slender looking torso in the upper body, removing unsightly bulges from where medieval gowns would have hugged the figure.

Add captiLengberg Castle, East-Tyrol: 15th century linen “bra” in comparison to a longline-bra [corselet] from the 1950´s, Institute for Archaeologies, Universität Innsbruck, Austriaon

     Up until the sixteenth century the shape of women’s bodies had been fairly unrestricted.  Despite fragmented evidence of breast binding or medieval girdles; there is very little evidence for boned or the wooden devices that would come to shape women’s bodies from the late-sixteenth century onwards. The rigid shape of dress in the early half of the sixteenth century, seen on ladies of Henry VIII’s court is believed to have been achieved by cardboard or paste on linen which stiffened the bodice.[4]

The earliest references to the corset, during this period called ‘bodies’ (laced on one side, front or back) or ‘pair of bodies’(laced at the front and the back) begin to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. A reference to ‘bodies’ appears in the wardrobe accounts of English Queen Mary I from the 1554[5], whilst in in 1577 the Venetian ambassador at the French court Jerome Lippomano remarked that:
“French women have extremely narrow waists… Over the chemise they wear a bodice they call ‘corps piqué’ which makes their shape more delicate and slender.”[6]
Corps pique was one the many French terms for the corset (this name referred to a quilted corset) which also included ‘corps’ and ‘corps baleiné’. However fashion historians such as Valerie Steele and Christopher Breward have suggested that these devices seemed to have originated in Spain or Italy and may have been transferred from Italy to France with Catherine, and then were adopted in England.[7]

Although the exact origins of the corset may never be known, by the end of the sixteenth century it had secured its place in female dress. These ‘bodies’ consisted “of two layers of closely woven linen or canvas with rows of stitching to form casings…”[8] In these casings were placed the stems of reeds and later whalebone.  The wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I indicate that these bodies were further stiffened by undergoing a starching process or were “lined with canvas styffenid with buckeram [buckram].”[9]  During this century the female torso was shaped into a long and lean cone which extended down past the natural lines of the hips at the front into a point, narrowing the waist whilst flattening the bust, thus producing a small waist but in a geometric way, essentially creating a triangle (shoulder-shoulder-pubis).

Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley Portrait'), Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1592. National Portrait Gallery, London.

There are only two known surviving examples of ‘bodies’ from this century, the earliest found on the corpse of Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg who was buried in what is now Germany in 1598. This corset was made from ivory silk, with linen lining and silk stitching which held in place the rigid shaping element thought to have been whalebone.[10] Down the front of the corset was placed a rigid piece of wood or metal called a busk, whilst it was laced up at the back.

‘Pair of Bodies’ or corset of ivory silk worn by Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabin von Neuberg, c. 1598. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich.

Another ‘pair of bodies’ dating from 1603 were worn by the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I at her funeral. On closer inspection of this corset, the whale-boning can be seen to be positioned nearly vertically and quite low beneath the waist, giving the body that very slender conical shape that is so visible in portraits of Elizabeth. Unlike the Pfalzgräfin bodies, this garment was laced at the front.

‘Pair of Bodies’ from the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603. Westminster Abbey, London

The silhouette of the female body changed multiple times throughout the seventeenth century, as waistlines and bust lines rose and fell.  By the 1630s the waistline had risen dramatically, and the small, slender figure that had been so desired years earlier seemed to disappear. Although portraits of court personalities and European monarchs during the same period show this apparent relaxation in style it seems that the heavy shape of the body during this period was the result of superfluous material use rather than a relaxation in corseting. Surviving ‘bodies’ from 1620-1640 belonging to Dame Elizabeth Filmer attests to this showing that women’s bodies were still very much shaped by these devices.[11]  

Stays and Stomacher of Dame Elizabeth Filmer, c. 1630-1640. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester

By the middle of the seventeenth century the torso was a long and lean again with a very straight back from shoulder to waist, which was flexible enough to allow for movement, albeit restricted.[12] However whilst women of the courts, and increasing those in the middle and lower classes, embraced these stays not everyone was pleased. Stays during this period were brought into the heated debates that were waged over court artifice and perceived excess, as these items were essentially products of a court culture where keeping up appearance was key and morals were loose. To critics such as one Englishman John Bulmer, women wearing stays was the equivalent of  “shut[ting] up their Wasts in a Whale-bone prison…”[13]

During this century ‘bodies’ (or ‘stays’ as they were coming to be known) were increasingly incorporated into the gown itself in the form of boned bodices. Busks – long pieces of wood, metal or whalebone placed in a channel in the centre-front of the stays  - seem to have been used in all seventeenth century stays and boned bodices, and their function was to flatten the belly and straighten the posture. Unlike other aspects of stays, they were removable, often elaborately decorated or inscribed and were usually tied in place at the bottom using a piece of ribbon called a ‘busk pointe’.

A Sleeved pair of Stays and Busk of pink watered silk trimmed with pink silk taffeta ribbons, English 1660-1670. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

One surviving boned bodice which depicts the fashionable figure of the 1660s to 1670s and is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These stays with detachable sleeves are made from pink watered silk and linen, and are constructed in ten sections with nearly all of them being extremely finely boned using whalebone.[14]   The front of the bodice extended quite low, even further elongating the length of the torso. A pocket for the busk is visible below the lacing and this busk would have extended right down to the groin area, making it incredibly uncomfortable to sit unless a straight back and rigid posture was maintained.  Other surviving items from the late seventeenth century, such as a ‘Wool, Silk and Linen’[15] stays from the Museum of London also produced a long and slender looking torso which was achieved by the insertion of a busk.

Wool, Silk and Linen Corset, English 17th century. Museum of London, London
Although boned bodices seem to have been preferred to separate corsets throughout the seventeenth century with the invention of the French mantua or ‘sack dress’ in the 1680s, these bodices became undergarments once again and started to resemble the ‘stays’ of the eighteenth century. A women could now wear the same stays with many different dresses rather than having to have an expensive whale-boned bodice incorporated into each dress.

Comtesse de Mailly wearing a mantua, 1698 (Fashion Plate, French)

During the eighteenth century a very straight silhouette was preferred, waistlines rose slightly, busts were lowered and the boning came to be placed on an angle around the torso rather than straight up and down as in the preceding centuries.[16][17] The low, straight cut of eighteenth century stays pushed the breasts upwards making movement sometimes very revealing. Due to the design many women started to wear cotton handkerchiefs to cover the décolletage as evident in an entry from Ms Delany in 1739 which reads, “The stays were while silk covered with a lacing through which a handkerchief (neck wear) was passed." [18]  

In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum there is a pair of English stays dated to ca. 1750. These stays are very typical of this mid-century era with a low bust line, no shoulder straps and centre back lacing. It is made of almost entirely of linen, except for the outer lay which is sateen, and is fully boned with whale bone (baleen). The stays have seen much use and the lining has been replaced multiple times, drawing attention to the fact that garments were often re-gifted and used until they fell apart. The quality of construction of this garment indicates that it probably began life as a high class stays that were then gifted to servants as fashions changed.

Corset, sateen/linen/metal, England, c.1750. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney - A8211-33
Stays during the early and mid eighteenth century were almost always fully boned, however from the 1770s onwards half-boned stays became popular and came to be those that were most commonly used. 

Stays Silk damask, lined with linen, reinforced with whalebone, hand-sewn, English 1770-1790. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

The stitching channels for the boning in the Victorian and Albert Museum example above are clearly visible showing that they were much more lightly boned than the earlier example in the Powerhouse Museum collection, and this boning was placed on an angle which allowed the torso to be drawn in and shaped when laced.

Corset, third quarter of 18th century, C.I.39.13.211. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Many contemporary sources draw attention to the fact that who and how stays were worn was determined by regional variation. According to many visitors to England in the early eighteenth century English women wore stays much more often than their European counterparts, as this commentary from 1733 reveals, “They are always laced, and ‘tis as rare to see a Woman here without her Stays on, as it is to see one at Paris in full Dress.”[19]  Although many of the surviving sources concern women of the courts and other elite, stays were not just reserved for the wealthy. There is evidence that they were becoming more and more common among women of the middle and lower classes who often acquired them second-hand or made their own lighter boned versions from cheaper materials called ‘jumps’. There is also ample evidence from collections that show that lower class women wore unboned or lightly boned leather stays which gave support without restricting bodily movement.

There is also much visual evidence in portraiture to show that children had been dressed as ‘mini adults’ throughout the early modern period, and for girls this meant wearing stays from a young age. By the early eighteenth century this practice of putting children in corsets came under scrutiny, possibly reflecting the blossoming philosophical thought on what constituted the states of ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ which was occurring that the time. Stays also came under scrutiny from those in the medical fields, and a French critic of stays Dr Jean-Baptiste Winslow is reported to have read a paper in 1741 before the Paris Academy of Science in which he described the damaged caused to internal organs from stays.[21]

"Portrait of a young girl seated wearing a white dress and a bonnet, a tame bird resting on the arm of her chair, tied with a blue ribbon" by Christian Lindner, late 18th century

Towards to the end of the eighteenth century the stiff and restrictive fashions of the previous three centuries gave way to more flowing and soft draping forms influenced by Greek and Roman classicism. The French Revolution (ca. 1787 – 1799) is using seen as a turning point in Western Fashions, and like clothing, stays became much less restrictive and more lightly boned. In fact during the Regency period many stays were not boned at all, but simply corded with thick material to give lift and support.

Portrait of Madame Récamier by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard, 1802

These stays were much more modern in appearance and rather than molding the female form into a stiff conical shape embraced the natural female curves with gussets and even contained soft cups to support and lift each breast. The purpose of the Regency corset was to support the breasts and smooth out all the lumps and bumps, not to drastically reshape the body. As a result when they were boned it was very minimally and most contained a busk that was placed down the front of the corset to maintain posture.

Transitional Stays c. 1790. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

In fact during this era much emphasis was placed on supporting the breasts in corsetry, and with the ever lowering necklines of regency fashion it predictably came under criticism from moralists. One conduct book from 1811 called ‘The Mirror of the Graces; Or, The English Lady's Costume’ stated that:

“The bosom… has been transformed into a shape, and transplanted to a place, which deprives it of its original beauty and harmony with the rest of the person… and bosom shoved up to the chin, making a sort of fleshy shelf, disgusting to the beholders, and certainly most incommodious to the bearer.”[22]

Still this did not persuade young women from wearing them and adopting the popular fashions of the time. There are three main types of Regency stays: short stays, which only covered and supported the bust area, transitional stays, which covered the bust and waist to support and smooth, and long stays which covered the entire torso supporting the breasts and smoothing out the stomach.

Long Stays c. 1810, American. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

During the early nineteenth century these garments were still referred to as ‘stays’. It was not until the 1820s that the word ‘corset’ came to be commonly used to refer to these boned shaping devices.

As the long and slender cut of regency gowns changed into the full skirt of the late 1830s and later the crinolines of the 1850/60s, corsets once more became shorter and started to become more heavily boned. Although an example in the Powerhouse Collection from the 1830s is completely un-boned, proving that regency comfort was still often preferred.

Corset, woman's, off-white cotton, handsewn, England/Australia, c. 1830. H6966 Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

It was in the nineteenth century that exaggerated emphasis was placed on the hourglass shape. It is this silhouette that would come to define Victorian corsetry and lead to an increase in the phenomenon of ‘tight-lacing’ (where women laced their corsets tightly to achieve unusually small waists) which seems to have emerged as a practice in the 1830s. In preceding centuries there are sporadic surviving references to women who intentionally laced themselves too tight, however it is not until the nineteenth century that it became a very public issue that was discussed in newspapers, magazines and journals. Although many women believed that corsetry was a necessity, only a small few advocated the practice of tight-lacing and many of their views often aroused anger among ladies of the general public.[23] However this did not stop newspapers from making sensationalist claims about the practice. One Australian article from the Sydney Gazette in 1831 titled “Death from Tight-Lacing’ reported on the death of Miss Betsey Harris aged 22 who fainted and died suddenly. It was explained that "she was removed to the back parlour, and she (witness) assisted in loosing her clothes, which were extremely tight around the body". Upon examination by a surgeon who found the deceased’s brain "in a state of congestion" her death was ruled as being caused by apoplexy "produced by her stays being too tight".[24] Another article from the Ballarat Star in 1859 titled ‘Morality Among Females’ went so far as to blame the higher female death rate from consumption on corsets and the women who laced them tightly.[25]

“A correct view of the new machine for winding up the ladies” by Wiliam Heath, 1828 (British)

Although tightly laced stays probably did aggravate respiratory conditions such as consumption, many modern historians are wary about believing any of these claims, due to the limited Victorian knowledge of medicine and the body. By the end of the nineteenth century and even today, tight-lacing was often eroticised and associated with fetishism, and there were many famous tight-lacers, such as Ziegfeld actress Anna Held and French singer/actress Polaire, who proudly displayed their incredibly small waists.

From the 1850s to the 1880s the shape of stays changed very little. During this century the front opening steel busk replaced the wood and metal ones of previous centuries, metal eyelets were invented in 1928 and metal boning came to be more frequently used, especially in the 1870s and 1880s when whalebone was in such high demand that it became very expensive.[26]

Corset, silk / steel, England, 1860-1870. 90/536. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

As the crinoline disappeared and the bustle came into fashion in the 1870s and 1880s, the corset became longer covering the abdomen not just the waist. A new type of busk that resembled a spoon in shape was also invented with the larger end curving in and compressing the abdomen.[27] These corsets became increasingly difficult to make at home and as manufacturing became relatively inexpensive the corset industry boomed.[28]

Corset, cotton / metal, Australia, 1885-1890.  A8211-1. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
In the eyes of many dress historians the increase in boning and the introduction of restrictive fashions such as the Victorian corset and the crinoline has often been linked with the oppression of women. Feminist historians have long held this belief calling the Victorian corset a construction of a “submissive” and “masochistic” feminine ideal.[29] More recently Australian historian Leigh Summers has also supported this view arguing that The corset… [offered] masculine critics a safe platform to discuss dangerous sexual issues, while ingeniously providing a vehicle to shape and control female sexuality... corsetry operated to construct, maintain and police middle-class femininity.”[30] 

Historians such as Valerie Steele have also rejected the idea that corsets oppressed women by drawing attention to the fact that it was mostly men who rejected corsets, and that all Victorian women were well aware of the ways that the corset could to used to aid female beauty as it gave them a way to achieve the “ideal version of the female body” in order to attract suitable partners.[31] Historians such as David Kunzle have also commented on corsetry in regards to fetishism, stating that ““The socio-sexual symbolism of tight-lacing and its ritual components reveal its essentially ambivalent purpose – to enforce the sexual taboo by objectively oppressing the body, and simultaneously to break that taboo by subjectively enhancing the body.”[32] Therefore the corset actually played a very important role in displays of Victorian female sexuality.[33]

Nana, Edouard Manet, 1877

However the corset also had a utilitarian function, every woman in Victorian society whether in Europe, the USA or Australia, wore a corset. In fact the corset of the nineteenth century was the like brassiere of today, in order to be decently dressed a woman had to wear a corset as most women now feel they must wear a bra.

Corsets in Anthony Hordens department store catalogue, 1895, Australia. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney  

In the early 1900s a new style of corset emerged nicknamed the ‘s-bend’ corset. The ‘s-bend’ created an exaggerated figure:  it sat low on the bust line and forced the breasts forward, whilst the new heavy and straight front busk pushed the adnominal flesh to the sides and behind, forcing the bottom backwards. This new style essentially forced the lower back to arch and as a result the corset created an ‘S’ shape to the body.[34]

Corset, lace-up, pink satin, black silk, France/England, c. 1905. A8389. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The design of this corset was by far the most complex out of any in history, with as many as 10-15 pieces of curved fabric needed on each side. In addition gussets, whalebone and steel were used to shape the body. Unlike previous eras suspenders were now also attached to the corset itself. This style of corset lasted from about 1900 to 1908 until French designer Poiret, whose designs promoted a slim and streamline shape, took over the fashion world.

In just under ten years the fashionable shape changed from those obtained by the ‘S-bend’ corsets above, to the long line corsets of the post-Edwardian period.

1912 Corset Advertisements from Mark Foy's Catalogue, Australian. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Corsets during the teens era were under-bust, long bodied and more lightly boned than their Victorian and early Edwardian counterparts. This change in style is mostly due to the fashions like Poiret’s, where a streamlined and slender body shape was required for the empire waisted, close fitted dresses and skirts. Unlike the styles of the previous century these corsets placed little emphasis on the waist, as they were designed to bring in and smooth out the torso, hips and buttocks. As a result, critics lamented the demise of the waist. In an article titled “The New Figure” one writer explains that while “no society woman will turn herself into a pillow-shaped bundle for anyone in the world” she will have to “renounce her waist-line if she wishes to have the silhouette ‘à la mode’” much to the dislike of most Englishwomen.[35]  As the decade progressed and events such as the outbreak of World War One led women to demand more comfortable clothing, corset manufacturers developed marketing strategies which drew upon constructed ideas of femininity that were so persuasive in the preceding eras, namely those of beauty, of maintaining a youthful figure and the morality of “unrestrained [un-corseted] women.”[36]

Corset, 1915. 1981.518.9 . Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Although World War One did not stop the fashion industry, it did bring design to a halt in corsetry. Women now began to favour even less restrictive fashions and the looser style of clothing that would come to define the 1920s. Slowly a garment called the ‘brassière’, which had first appeared in around 1907[37], came into fashion. Very lightly boned ‘sports corsets’. which had previously been introduced at the beginning of the century, and contained a new elastic fabric, were being more commonly used. These types of corsets existed in one form or another into the 1920s and early 1930s, however garments like girdles and elastic waistbands also became popular replacements to the corset.

Photograph of a model wearing a Berlei corset, 1930. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The corset, in one form or another, played a role in the lives of women for the better part of nearly five hundred years. It was however not without controversy. Many people were opposed to the corset and the influence that it had on women and their bodies. As society changed so to did the shape of the corset. In many cases the shape of the corset reflected the social history of the time, whether it was its armour like appearance in the Hasburg courts of the sixteenth century, its lightly boned form in post French Revolution Europe, to its slow demise during and after World War One. At various points in history the corset could also mean completely different things: a tightly corseted woman in seventeenth century England in the eyes of moralist represented court vice and vanity[38], whilst a tightly corseted woman in Victorian England was virtuous and pure.

Corset/bloomer combination, 1950 - 1960. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Although women today tend to look down on the corset and on those who wore them as prescribing to some sort of archaic form of body discipline, is the reign of the corset really over? Corselets, which came into fashion in the 1950s to achieve the small waists that Dior’s ‘New Look’ promoted, are still available in any lingerie store for consumers to buy today. In recent years ‘spanx’ and other body shaping underwear has become increasingly popular. Although these garments are now made from modern fabrics such as spandex and elastic rather than bone and buckram, their function is essentially the same: to shape the ideal female figure.

The corset was a garment that offered protection for the female body, enabled women to obtain their contemporary ideals of beauty when they did not naturally possess it, and it played a large role in expressions of female sexuality. As the fashion industry and society still continue to promote certain ideals of beauty that for many are unattainable naturally, the corset and its many variations still do hold a place in the wardrobes of modern women just as it did for our ancestors.

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Femininity (Simon & Schuster, London, 1986), p. 19
[2] David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 69.
[4] Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism, p. 71.
[5] E101/427/11 f 34 Item 3; E101/427/11 f 38 Items 2, 31, 34, cited in Hilary Doda, Of Crymsen Tissue: The Construction of A Queen: Identity, Legitimacy and the Wardrobe of Mary Tudor, M. Arts Thesis, Dalhousie University (2011), p. 56.
[6] M. Niccolo Tommaseo, Relations des Ammbassadeurs Vénitiens sur les Affaires de France au XVIe sièle (recueillies et traduits par N.M.T., t. II, Paris, 1838), cited in David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 72.
[7] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 7.
[8] Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, v. 3, p. 126.
[9] Wardrobe warrant from 1587 requests “for mending washing & starching of a payer of bodies & slevis of white nettworke layed…”  Quoted in: Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd : the inventories of the Wardrobe of Robes prepared in July 1600, edited from Stowe MS 557 in the British Library, MS LR 2/121 in the Public Record Office, London, and MS V.b.72 in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC (Leeds: Maney, 1988), p. 146.
[10] Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, v. 3, p. 46
[11] Stays and Stomacher of Dame Elizabeth Filmer, c. 16-1640. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, accession number 2003.109/2.
[12] Stays and Busk 1660-1670, <>; Iris Brooke, Dress and undress: the Restoration and eighteenth century (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 14.
[13] John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis: = man transform'd: or, the artificiall changling historically presented, in the mad and cruell gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy finenesse, and loathsome loveliness of most nations, fashioning and altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature, (London: Printed by WIlliam Hunt, 1653), p. 339.
[14] Avril Hart and Susan North, Seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashion in detail (London : V&A Publishing, 2009), p. 12
[15]  Wool, Silk and Linen Corset, 17th Century, Museum of London, London, accession number A6885.
[16] Iris Brooke, Dress and undress: the Restoration and eighteenth century (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 29
[17] Christopher Breward, The culture of fashion : a new history of fashionable dress (Manchester: St. Martin's Press, 1999) p. 114.
[18] 1739, Ms. Delany’s Autobiography.. Handbook of English costume in the 18th century
[19] C.L. Von Pollnitz, Travels from Prussia Thro, Germany, Italy, France, Flanders, Holland, England, etc. (London, 1745), vol. 3, p. 287
[21] Fashion to fet, pg. 86
[22] The Mirror of the Graces; Or, The English Lady's Costume: Combining and Harmonizing Taste and Judgment, Elegance and Grace, Modesty, Simplicity and Economy, with Fashion in Dress.. p. 96
[23] Corset a cultural history, 52
[24] Trove article
[25] ‘Morality Amoung Females’ The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Saturday 5 March 1859, page 4
[26] Nora Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines’ (Routledge New York: 1954)
[27] Corsets and crinolines, corset a cultural history p. 46
[28] Corsets and crinolines, corset a cultural history pg. 46
[29] Helene E. Roberts, “The Exquisite Slave: The Makin of the Victorian Woman” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2, (1977)
[30] Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (London: Berg, 2001), pp. 2-9. 
[31] Valerie Steele, Corset a cultural history, pg. 46
[32] From fashion to fetishism, p. 3
[33] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, p. 35
[34] Corset and crinolines
[35] ‘The New Figure’ in The Queen quoted by Norah Waugh in CC p. 112
[36] Jill Fields, '"Fighting the Corsetless Evil": Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930, in Journal of Social History, VOl 33, No. 3 (1999), pp. 355 & 357
[37] Corset to crinonolines pg. 87
[38] Sarah Bendall, 'Bodies, Stays, Bodices and Busks': The Early Modern Corset and the performance of Gender and Sexuality in Sixteenth and Seventeeth-century England' (University of Sydney: Unpublished Thesis, 2012)


  1. An excellently researched and written article, thoroughly appreciated :)

    1. Hi Sarah! Thanks for your comment! It's quite a brief overview really but I'm glad you enjoyed it! Oh and thanks for following my blog! :)

  2. Okay first of all, this is AWESOME! I'm a wanna-be historical costumer and I'm sure I'll come back to this post again and again as a reference.

    Second, I've got kind of a weird question. Looking at those gorgeous red damask stays from the V&A, I'm fascinated by the boning channels at the top front which are curved into a 'smile.' How did they get the boning to curve into those channels? I'm working on my first-ever pair of stays and they have a similar detail; I can't figure out how I'll get my corset boning (ahem, cable ties) to behave like that.


    1. Hi Joni!! I've actually asked myself that same question too! For a while I've actually been considering making that exact pair of stays but haven't gotten around to it. I think the answer lies in the materials that they used, ie. whalebone or baleen. Although strong and rigid, its actually incredibly flexible and can be cut super small in width - something which the modern cable ties that most historical costumers use can't really mimic. You'll notice that pretty much all modern reproductions can't really look exactly like the original because (and for good reason!) we can't use whalebone anymore.
      I have seen a couple of reproductions of this corset that people have done quite well though. Bridges on the body has some awesome blog posts about her experience making these stays (which I am definitely going to reference when I get around to making them!):
      And another blogger and amazing costume desginer/maker, Before the Automobile, has also made them:

      I hope that helps, and good luck!! :)

    2. Thank you! I will definitely be checking out those links.