Corsets Part 2: A Brief History Of The Corset

Waist cincher from 1860

Corsets have been around for centuries though their shape and function have changed considerably over the years. The earliest corsets were made of iron or leather and likely served medical purposes as well as aesthetic ones. However, by the 18th century, they were mainly used for aesthetic reasons.


The earliest proper corsets were made of linen and often stiffened with whalebone. They had shoulder straps and were meant to lift and support the bust. They were often covered with decorative materials like silk and colored ribbons.

1790s-mid 1800s

During the Regency period, high-waisted dresses with simple lines became the popular fashion. In response, corsets became longer and were often made out of cotton rather than linen. These were stiffened by a wooden piece that could be inserted in the front of the corset, the earliest busks. Raising and supporting the bust was still the primary function of corsets in this period.

Mid 1800s- 1900s

Waistlines gradually lowered and as they did more attention was drawn to the natural waist. By the early Victorian period corsets were heavily reinforced with whalebone or steel. They were also primarily made of cotton though would sometimes have facings made of silk. The corsets in this period were designed to shape the body from bust to hips creating the sought after hourglass figure.

Early 1900s

Corsets changed again in the early 1900s when the straight fronted corset came on the scene. This particular style was designed to relieve pressure on the abdomen. However, it altered  a woman’s posture pushing both the shoulders and the hips back creating a more ‘S’ shaped silhouette. This relieved the pressure on the abdomen but created a lot of stress on the lower back.

World War I-World War II

Corsets became much looser fitting during World War I. Women needed to be able to move more freely and more natural waists became fashionable. During World War II women were even encouraged to discard corsets as the steel could then be used for tools of war. Women’s fashions had become much less restrictive and much more favorable to natural body shapes.

Modern Era

Today corsets are often viewed as fashion in themselves. It is much more common to see corsets worn as outer garments rather than as undergarments. This means that they are generally decorative and at least covered with fancy materials. Some modern corsets have strong boning and lacing, while others do not. It is not uncommon to see shirts that look similar in style to a corset to be referred to as such though it may not shape the wearer’s body at all.

If you’re interested in checking out more detailed information I’d recommend checking out Antique Corset. It has a lot of information and pictures about corsets and other underclothes and how they changed over time.

Image courtesy of WikiCommons

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