Titanic, Little Women, Enola Holmes, Bridgerton — what’s the one fashion accessory that stands out the most in these movies and TV shows? Corsets, of course!
Corsets have been around for centuries and have a long and interesting history tracing back to the Victorian era, albeit not all rosy and sexy.
And, despite being a wildly controversial piece of garment, this sensual lingerie seems to be making a striking comeback in 2022.
So, what exactly is a corset? Why did corsets become so popular? Is wearing a corset bad for you? Let’s address all these questions and explore some fascinating facts about corsets.
What Are Corsets?
A corset is a garment designed to compress one’s torso to accentuate the waist and elevate the bust. In other words, it slims the waist, flattens the tummy, and lifts the bust to give the wearer an hourglass figure.
While most innerwear corsets are made of cotton for comfort and breathability, you can also find corsets made of velvet, lace, brocade, or leather. These are usually worn as overbust corsets.
When used over a period, corsets shape the waist to enhance your figure and improve posture.
The modern-day corsets differ significantly from the corsetry of the Victorian era. Today, you can find corsets in different styles and shapes and designed for specific purposes, like corset belts, longline corsets, and waist training corsets.
While the terms waist trainer and corset are used interchangeably, there is some difference between them. Both are used for slimming the waist; however, a corset does it with the help of laces on either end that are tightened. On the other hand, a waist trainer is made of compression material that provides a tight and compressed fit. Waist trainers are also used regularly.
What Do They Do To Your Body?
Corsets are essentially body-shaping garments that allow two to four inches of reduction in the waistline to create a desirable figure when fitted and laced properly.
Corsets are generally made from stiff material like buckram or leather. Ribs or stays known as boning are interested into channels in the garment at even intervals. They have laces on either end, and when these laces are tightened, the corset pulls in your waist and midsection, creating the impression of a flattened stomach and a cinched waist.
A corset offers structure and support to your back and torso. And with regular wear, it may even change your body shape. Wearing a corset for eight to twelve hours a day can compress your midsection and help you maintain a straight posture. But, compressing the midsection can also be discomfiting, especially if it is being done for extended periods.
Today, corsets are worn as innerwear or as statement pieces over shirts, tops, and dresses.
Why Were They Popular?
Although there is evidence that corsets or corset-like garments were used way back in 2000 BC, the corset that we are familiar with today became popular in the 1500s and 1600s when small waists were considered de rigueur.
This was a period when a woman’s worth and identity were closely tied to her physical appearance, especially her figure and posture. A thin waist and an upright posture were considered markers of status and position and one of the primary reasons why corsets were so popular back in the day.
Famous Celebrities Who Donned Them
Be it in period pieces or as fashion statements, many stars have cinched up in corsets on the big screen, including:
- Cara Delevingne in “Carnival Row.”
- Elle Fanning in Hulu’s show “The Great.”
- Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
- Lily James in “Cinderella.”
- Dakota Fanning in “The Alienist.”
- Emma Stone in “The Favorite.”
- Saoirse Ronan in “Mary Queen of Scots.”
- Keira Knightley in “The Duchess.”
- Margot Robbie in “Mary Queen of Scots.”
- Natalie Dormer in the “Game of Thrones.”
- Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge!”
Wearing Them In A Way That Doesn’t Adversely Affect Your Body
If you’re thinking of wearing a corset yourself, here’s how you can wear them safely.
#1. Get one that’s the right size. A poorly fitted corset will be uncomfortable and painful. When in doubt, refer to the brand’s sizing guides to get the perfect fit.
#2. Wearing a corset for long hours is a strict no-no, especially if you are new to it. You first need to break it in and season it.
#3. The first time you wear a corset, be gentle with your body. Don’t lace the corset too tight, no matter how tempting. Wear it for an hour or two for the first few days, and let it adjust and mold to your body.
#4. You’ll know the corset is seasoned and ready for extended use when there are no gaps between the garment and your body. Ideally, it should take about two weeks if you’ve been wearing one daily for one to two hours.
#5. Once your corset is seasoned, you can tighten the laces fully and wear the corset for longer periods.
#6. If you’re planning to wear a corset for a special occasion, make sure you break in the corset a few days before the big day — just as you would a pair of shoes.
#7. If waist training is your goal, wear your corset for about eight hours a day for best results.
#8. Give your body and corset a break. Don’t wear a corset for more than twelve hours a day. Allow it and your body to breathe, rest, and get a break from compression. And ensure you air your corset in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight to retain its shape.
10 Unknown Facts About the Corset
The corsets’ long history is embellished with several interesting facts, many of which were hitherto unknown. Some of them might just surprise you.
#1. It Was All Because of A Certain Queen
So the story goes that corsets came into existence in the 16th century when Queen Catherine De Medici, the wife of French King Henry II, refused to grant court to women with thick waists.
However, corsets reached their zenith of popularity, becoming an indispensable form of fashion accessory during Queen Victoria’s reign. They helped popularize the classic hourglass waist profile that restricted the belly and a curved bustline that went overbust.
#2. Styles Changed with Rulers
Unsurprisingly, corsets changed shape based on the reign of the ruler.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, corsets were designed to focus more on the belly, emphasizing the hourglass waist, and had a pointed or sweetheart-shaped neckline.
The Elizabethan Corset covered the rib area, was waist-length, and had flat sides with shoulder straps and back lacing. It created an elevated bust line with a cone-shaped torso, padded-out hips, and wide-set shoulders.
The hourglass shape went out of fashion during King Edward's rule, and the “S” bend became popular. This corset gave the body an S curve that pushed the hips and breasts forward.
#3. Some Corsets Contained Pieces of Metal or Bone
Aristocratic women didn’t only wear corsets made from silk and cloth; museums have recorded the existence of metal corsets, too. Gradually, pieces of wood were also added to metal corsets to give them even more structure.
The Duchess of Montpensier, Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, largely had metal corsets decorated with a crown and fleur-de-lis.
#4. They Were Not Used Only To Make The Waist Appear Slimmer
Not all corsets were worn to create an illusion of a slim waist. Some corsets were unbridled and more like 21st-century bras.
Back in the day, women preferred wearing figure-hugging clothes, and lightly-boned corsets helped support and shape the outfits. These corsets had relaxed lacing instead of restrictive ones.
Also, the Victorian era was an age where femininity and social appearances were considered far superior to mobility and comfort. Besides creating an illusion of a tiny waist, tight corsets were a way to display one’s social status. Since corsets significantly restricted mobility, it was a way to demonstrate that the wearer could afford servants for their domestic chores.
#5. Women Corset-Wearers Were Susceptible to Tuberculosis and Pneumonia
Most women often laced their corsets extremely tight, leading to several health issues.
Since corsets restricted the expansion of the lungs, it made breathing painful and caused the inner organs to be compressed. Indigestion, heartburn, and cramps were other side effects of wearing extremely tight-fitting corsets.
Corsets also exerted significant pressure on the abdomen, causing reproductive problems and fainting spells.
And before the invention of vaccines, corset-wearing women were more vulnerable to pneumonia and tuberculosis since their lower lungs were almost constantly restricted.
#6. Back Problems
Women who wore corsets for long durations often experienced severe back pain. Corsets were mostly constructed to be quite rigid. Due to this, women were forced to maintain a rigid posture when wearing one. This rigidity led to back and pectoral muscle atrophy, which significantly affected their overall posture and eventually made it difficult for corset-wearers to stand upright without the help of corsets.
#7. Disappeared in the 1920s
By the 1920s, women began trading in corsets and long skirts for shorter skirts, flowy garments, and bobbed hairstyles.
Flapper dresses had established their hold in the fashion space, and the hourglass figure was no longer the epitome of feminine beauty. This gradually led to a decline of corsets which faded out of fashion sometime in the 1920s.
#8. Baleen Whales Were Sacrificed
Baleen whales were almost on the verge of extinction in the 19th century, given the high demand for their bones in corsets.
Thankfully, alternative methods emerged, and the turn of the 20th century saw the whalebone replaced by other fabrics and metals in creating corsets.
#9. Napoleon Hated It
Napoleon Bonaparte actively disliked corsets and even campaigned to do away with them. He claimed corsets were causing the decline of humanity since he believed they caused infertility.
Napoleon’s claims were backed by medical professionals who associated reduced fertility with corsets. A study by C.J. Dickinson, professor at Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, states that tight shapewear can affect the uterus lining and impact menstruation cycles, even causing endometriosis and leading to lesions on the uterus lining.
What was once considered a restrictive garment used to define a woman’s status, femininity, and respectability in society has today emerged as a statement piece in the fashion space.
However, while corsets are not inherently bad, they come with their share of discomfort.
So, whether you wish to don it as outerwear, innerwear, for back support, or simply to experiment, just ensure you give your body enough time to get accustomed, wear your corset comfortably, and rock the garment in style!