The Corset: A Cultural History

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Overview

The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world’s most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this notorious garment and revealing new information and perspectives on its changing significance over the centuries.

Whereas most historians have framed the history of the corset in terms of oppression vs. liberation and fashion vs. health and comfort, Steele contends that women’s experiences of corsetry varied considerably and cannot be fully understood within these narrow frames. Drawing on extensive research in textual, visual, and materials sources, the author disproves the beliefs that the corset was dangerously unhealthy and was designed primarily for the oppression of women. Women persisted in wearing corsets—despite powerful male authorities trying to dissuade them—because corsetry had positive connotations of social status, self-discipline, youth, and beauty. In the twentieth century the garment itself fell out of fashion but, Steele points out, it has become internalized as women replace the boned corset with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery. The book concludes with insightful analyses of such recent developments as the reconception of the corset as a symbol of rebellion and female sexual empowerment, the revival of the corset in contemporary high fashion, and its transformation from an item of underwear to outerwear.

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Editorial Reviews

Toronto Globe & Mail
. . . In an attractive. . .readable style,Steele. . . examines the garment's controversies. . . with plenty of shocking and beautiful images along the way.
Toronto Globe & Mail
. . . In an attractive. . .readable style, Steele. . . examines the garment's controversies. . . with plenty of shocking and beautiful images along the way.
Publishers Weekly
For 400 years, women wore corsets that controlled their shape and constricted, and sometimes crushed, their ribs and organs. In the 18th century, "tight-lacing" was a common phenomenon, but in the 19th century, technology allowed for more effective corsetry. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the corset became less popular and gradually faded almost completely from use, though recently, it's come back into fashion as sexy outerwear. In The Corset: A Cultural History, Valerie Steele, chief curator and acting director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, takes on an item of clothing that has achieved notoriety among many historians. But Steele challenges the popular view that corset-wearing women were merely the victims of fashion, and delves into the "complex gender politics surrounding the corset controversies of the past." The hundreds of color and b&w photos and illustrations provide entertaining visual evidence for Steele's scholarship. (Dec. 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
What is it about corsets that so fascinates costume historians and fetishists alike? For more than 500 years, women and occasionally men rigidly laced themselves up in whalebone or steel in order to be molded into some sort of physical ideal. Consider the work of contemporary designers such as Gaultier and Lacroix, and it becomes apparent that this strange obsession continues to this day. While there is no shortage of information on this fashion curiosity, Steele here emphasizes the aesthetic, social, and historical aspects. As chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and the author of nearly 12 books on costume history, she is well qualified to tackle the subject and to attempt to answer "why." The text is scholarly, yet lively and readable, and the numerous images drawn from a variety of sources such as trade cards, paintings, advertisements, book illustrations, and contemporary photos help illustrate her point. This book would be a good purchase even for libraries that already have material on this subject. Margarete Gross, Chicago P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300090710
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/10/2001
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 9.49 (w) x 11.59 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Valerie Steele is chief curator and acting director, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. She is founder and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture. Among her many publications are Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now and China Chic: East Meets West (with John S. Major), both published by Yale University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Steel and Whalebone
Fashioning the Aristocratic Body


The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion. Worn by women throughout the western world from the late Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was an essential element of fashionable dress for about 400 years. Yet throughout its history, the corset was widely perceived as an "instrument of torture" and a major cause of ill health and even death. Today the corset is almost universally condemned as having been an instrument of women's oppression. Historians argue that especially during the Victorian era, corsetry functioned as a coercive apparatus through which patriarchal society controlled women and exploited their sexuality. Many women supposedly "tight-laced," achieving waist measurements of less than eighteen inches, thereby crushing their ribs and internal organs. Fortunately, progress in women's emancipation resulted in the demise of corsetry at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    In this book, I shall challenge the reductiveness of this picture, which frames the history of the corset in terms of oppression versus liberation, and fashion versus comfort and health. Corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all unfortunate women experienced before being liberated by feminism. It was a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times. Some women did experience the corset as an assault on the body. But the corset also had many positive connotations — of social status, self-discipline, artistry,respectability, beauty, youth, and erotic allure. Far from being just a bourgeois Victorian fashion, the corset originated centuries earlier within aristocratic court culture and gradually spread throughout society — to working-class women, as well as women of the ruling class. Moreover, women wore different kinds of corsets; they laced their corsets more or less tightly and to different ends. In short, their embodied experience of corsetry varied considerably.

    Research across a range of textual, visual, and material sources complicates our understanding of corsetry in fruitful ways. Everyone knows the famous scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O'Hara is laced into her corset. "Twenty inches! She groaned aloud. That was what having babies did to your figure! ... 'See if you can't make it eighteen-and-a-half inches or I can't get into any of my dresses.'" The scene confirms a powerful stereotype that goes back to the eighteenth century, when caricatures portrayed female vanity in precisely this form. John Collet's print, Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease (1770-75), is one of the first and most influential examples of this image. But how tightly were stays or corsets really laced? When Collet's print was displayed at Colonial Williamsburg, the curators noted that the image was misleading, since the smallest of the eighteenth-century stays in the Williamsburg collection measured 24 inches (61 cm) around the waist, while the largest measured over 30 inches. In other words, they are not especially small. In the nineteenth century, technological developments made it possible to lace corsets more tightly, as we shall see.

    Conversely, many women defended corsetry, and women were intimately involved in the production and sale of corsets. Some men also wore corsets.

    To understand the changing and multifaceted significance of the corset, it is necessary to explore its history. Yet popular costume histories usually provide a misleading genealogy of the corset. The "origin myth" of the corset almost always incorporates several key themes. It is often argued that corsetry began in the ancient world — such as Greece or Minoan Crete. Alternatively, the first corset, "a tortuous device of steel," is attributed to a particular European aristocrat, usually Catherine de Medici. Sometimes examples of corsetry in nonwestern cultures are also cited. Thus, we are informed that "The corset of the woman of the Iban tribe of Borneo is a series of brass or copper rings."

    This constellation of myths obscures the degree to which corsetry was a historically situated phenomenon. An emphasis on the antiquity of the corset implies that some such garment has often or always been a component of "civilized" dress or, indeed, human culture. When the corsetier Ernest Léoty wrote Le Corset à travers les âges (1893), he argued that the modern corset combined the best features of the Greek zona, which shaped the waist, and the strophium and mamillare of Rome, which supported the breasts. Like many advocates of the corset, Léoty liked to think corsetry was necessary, either to support women's breasts or because the slender waist was an essential, yet vulnerable, component of female physical beauty.

     After the excavation of the palace at Knossos, Minoan Crete was increasingly cited as the origin of the corset. It is true that in the third millennium BCE, wall paintings and statues depicted female figures wearing tight bodices that expose their breasts. Mosaics and wall paintings also show that the women of ancient Rome and Pompeii wrapped cloth around their breasts. A number of cultures have developed different types of waist-cinchers and bust-bodices, which have been interpreted as forerunners of the corset. Yet there seems to be no significant cultural continuity between these archaic garments and the European corset as it actually developed in Renaissance Spain and Italy. Admittedly, we know little about the history of underwear in the premodern period, but it seems to have been quite basic, consisting of garments such as breast cloths and loin cloths. Clothing in the ancient Mediterranean world was based on the draping of rectangular pieces of cloth. Neither stiffening nor lacing was typical of ancient garments. It is possible that some women bound their torsos with tight bandages of cloth but, until the sixteenth century, "There is no sign of any corsets or restriction other than fit."

    The second component of the origin myth emphasizes the role of an individual woman, a queen, who is associated with a cruel, tortuous fashion. Thus, the author of the fetishistic book The Corset and the Crinoline (1868) claimed that metal corsets were customarily worn "in the time of Catherine de Medici," when "extraordinary tenuity was insisted on, thirteen inches waist measure being the standard of fashionable elegance."' This statement is inaccurate in all particulars, as we shall see. However, elements of the story certainly caught the popular imagination. For example, a corset advertisement from the 1920s stated that "Because a queen named Anne was endowed with a thirteen inch waist, a generation of women wore perforce a thirteen inch corset." This myth not only focuses attention on the royal origins and high status of corsetry, it also serves to emphasize how modern corsetry has improved in comparison with the "cruel constriction" of the past.

    There do exist in museum collections certain notorious iron corsets, which are usually dated to about 1580 to 1600. But were they really the first fashionable corsets? Modern scholars who have examined them tend to believe that these metal corsets were probably orthopedic devices designed to correct spinal deformities — "when they are not, as is commonly the case, fanciful 'reproductions'. There is no evidence that they were worn by women as stays." Instead, it seems that two types of corsets appeared in the sixteenth century: fashionable corsets created by tailors, which sometimes incorporated metal as well as whalebone stays, and orthopedic corsets constructed from plates of perforated metal, hinged at the sides, which were used by surgeons.

    Ambroise Paré (c. 1510—90), a French army surgeon who became famous for reforming and modernizing the practice of surgery, described these metal corsets in his work, stating that they were used "to amend the crookednesse of the Bodie." "In order to correct and to hide such a defect, they will be made to wear iron corsets, which shall be full of holes so that they will not be so heavy, and they will be well fitted and padded so as not to hurt at all, and will be changed often if the patient ... [is] still growing." Paré also suggested metal boots to straighten a crooked leg. According to him, some deformities were congenital, others the result of accidents. In addition, he believed that some girls became "hunched and deformed from having had their bodies too tightly bound," and he complained that mothers put their girls in tight clothes "with the aim of making their waists smaller." Although Paré was a critic of fashionable corsetry, which he thought carried the risk of deformity by incorrect or excessive binding, he was an advocate of orthopedic corsets. Metal corsets were still sometimes recommended in the eighteenth century to correct crooked spines, although canvas stays were more commonly used (for example, by Alexander Pope); and, indeed, orthopedic corsetry continues to be used by doctors today as part of the treatment for scoliosis.

    Accounts and illustrations of iron corsets seem to have resulted in the production of modern replicas or forgeries, just as we see with accounts of medieval chastity belts. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, for example, owns a metal corset that looks suspiciously similar to the one illustrated in The Corset and the Crinoline. Madame Kayne, a fetish corsetiere of the 1930s, apparently owned a metal corset, and Cathy Jung, a modern tight-lacer, has a silver corset or, more correctly, an over-corset, since, like all such metal devices, it cannot be tightened and must be worn over a laced corset. Such oddities notwithstanding, the factual history of corsetry is interesting enough without recourse to fantasies about women imprisoned in metal corsets.

    Popular histories of the corset often reproduce a picture of the so-called "fiend of fashion," a demon in "an ancient manuscript" who is dressed as a woman in a laced bodice resembling a corset. This image from an illuminated manuscript of the twelfth century in the British Museum is indeed striking, but it does not prove that corsets as such date from this era, only that fashion increasingly focused on displaying the body. In contrast with ancient dress, modern fashion as it emerged in medieval Europe was essentially tailored clothing, designed to follow the shape of the body. Shaping was accomplished through the gradual development of seams, gores, buttons, and lacing. In 1244, Leonor, Queen of Castille, was buried in a closely fitting gown that laced at the side. As loose robes gave way to fitted garments, men's and women's clothing became increasingly differentiated, but the techniques used to create a fashionably close fit were applicable to both sexes. Men wore tight doublets and leg-revealing hose, while women wore gowns with fitted bodices. In medieval French, the word "corset" seems to have referred to both doublets and gowns, as well as body armor.

    By the fifteenth century, fashionable European ladies often wore dresses that laced closed, so as to make them fit more tightly and to emphasize the bosom. Jean Fouquet's painting of Agnes Sorel as the Virgin Mary depicts her wearing just such a form-fitting dress that laced up the front. This type of fitted and laced dress might be considered an immediate precursor of the corset. The other precursor of the corset was the basquine or vasquine, a laced bodice to which was attached a hooped skirt or farthingale. The vasquine apparently originated in Spain in the early sixteenth century, and quickly spread to Italy and France. Rabelais, for example, described women wearing "a corset [vasquine] of pure silk camblet, and over this a farthingale [verdugale] ... on top of which was a silver taffeta skirt...."

    This "corset," however, was merely a cloth bodice, albeit a tight-fitting one. As luxury fabrics, such as heavy silk brocade and velvet, came to supplant woolen cloth among the fashionable elite, dressmakers began to focus on constructing a separate bodice and skirt, rather than a one-piece gown. A higher priority was placed on how well clothing fit the body, and it is easier to fit clothes over a firm foundation? When Eleanora de Medici, by birth a Spanish princess, was disinterred and her clothing removed from the grave, it was revealed that she was wearing a velvet bodice fastened at the center front with eighteen pairs of hooks and eyes. This bodice (c. 1560) measured about 24 inches (61 cm) around the waist. Over it, she wore a satin bodice that laced up the back.

    The first true corsets date from some time in the first half of the sixteenth century, when aristocratic women began wearing "whalebone bodies." In other words, their cloth bodices gradually began to incorporate more rigid materials, such as whalebone, horn, and buckram. The style seems to have originated in Spain and/or Italy, and spread rapidly to other European countries. Catherine de Medici (1519—89) may well have helped introduce the whalebone corset from Italy into France. In 1579, Henry Estienne described the new style: "The ladies call a whalebone (or something else, in the absence of the latter) their stay, which they put under their breast, right in the middle, in order to keep straighter." This center front "stay" was generally referred to as the "busk." At some point, additional bones or stays were also added around the sides of the corset. The fact that early corsets were known as whalebone bodies — corps à la baleine — is extremely important, because of the way it blurs the distinction between fleshly bodies and the garments that cover and fashion them. The role of the body, and especially the female body, as a site of signification is implicitly emphasized.

    In the sixteenth century and for some time thereafter, corsets or "bodies" were primarily worn by aristocratic women and girls. Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example, purchased "a peire of bodies of sweete lether" from the craftsman William Whittel. Several years later, in 1583, another artisan, William James, made her "a payer of bodyes of blake vellat lyned with canvas, styffenid with buckram." Stays could be closed or open, decorative or plain, underwear or outerwear. Closed stays laced up the center back. Open stays laced up the front, and the lacing was concealed by a decorative stomacher. Sleeves could also be attached with laces at the armholes. The Queen's dwarf Tomasen received two new pairs of bodies in 1597, one, apparently an outer bodice or visible corset, made of velvet, trimmed with silver lace, with a stomacher of white satin and attached sleeves; the other was "a payer of French bodies of damask lined with sackecloth, with whales bone."

    Most portraits, of course, show only the stiffened outer bodice, and not the stays underneath. However, around 1595—1600 an unknown artist painted a rare depiction of a woman who is only partly dressed. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, is shown in intimate dishabille, combing her hair in her dressing room, her jacket open to reveal a pair of pink silk stays. The lower edge of her stays is tabbed and the front is laced. The bones are set vertically. According to the dress historian Naomi Tarrant, "The Countess has left her beautiful embroidered jacket undone whilst she does her hair, probably because she would not have been able to lift her arms with it fastened." In other words, the jacket was physically more restrictive than the stays.

    One of the most extraordinary textual accounts of corsetry comes from a manuscript of 1597, which describes how a 14-year-old English girl, the daughter of a gentleman named Mr. Starkie, was allegedly possessed by a devil, which caused her to shout out various sartorial demands, including a prestigious and luxurious pair of bodies:


I will have a fine smock of silk ... [and] a French bodie, not of whalebone, for that is not stiff enough but of horne for that will hold it out, it shall come, to keep in my belly ... My lad I will have a Busk of whalebone, it shall be tyed with two silk points, and I will have a drawn wrought stomacher imbroidered with gold ...


This statement demonstrates the prestige associated with fashionable corsetry, although one longs to know why such a young girl would want a hard, stiff horn body to keep her belly in. Perhaps she was pregnant, for it was sometimes suggested that a hard busk and tight stays might causes miscarriages. As Stephen Gosson wrote in 1595: "The baudie buske ... keeps down flat/The bed wherein the babe should breed."

    The busk that Miss Starkie coveted was an important component of the corset. To ensure that the wearer maintained an erect posture, a piece of wood, metal, or some other hard material was inserted in a slot down the center front of the corset, where it was tied in place with ribbons. The stay busk was sometimes decorated with amorous images or phrases. One metal busk from the seventeenth century, made for Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, Duchesse de Montpensier (today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), is decorated with a crown and fleur-de-lis, as well as the text: "How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory. You will be here the day and I shall be there the night." Other seventeenth-century busks, variously made of metal, horn, or ivory, are decorated with images of Cupid, a heart pierced with arrows, and a flaming heart, together with inscriptions such as "love joins them" and "the arrow unites us." An eighteenth-century busk depicts a man holding a heart, which a woman pierces with a sword.

    Men of the ruling class did not wear corsets as such, but with their stiffened doublets and padded codpieces, they also adhered to a model of physical restraint and sartorial display. Moreover, sixteenth-century soldiers did wear what was known in French as a corselet, armor that covered the torso. The similarities between the male and female cuirass were noted by contemporaries. As Philip Gosson put it, in his poem of 1591 entitled "Pleasant Quippes for Upstart New-fangled Gentlewomen":


These privie coats by art made strong,
With bones and steels and suchlike ware
Whereby their back and sides grow long,
And now they harvest gallants are;
Were they for use against the foe
Our dames for amazons might go.


Allegorical images of women in Roman-style body armor existed at the time, but Gosson's references to "bones and steels" make it clear that he is describing fashionable corsets, not those made entirely of metal.

    Contrary to popular belief, no one person is responsible for "inventing" the corset. Clothing styles develop out of earlier styles, in accordance with other social, technological, and aesthetic phenomena. During the sixteenth century, "sartorial culture" increasingly "grant[ed] privilege to rigidity and rectitude, as well as geometric shape." In his analysis, "The Upward Training of the Body from the Age of Chivalry to Courtly Civility," Georges Vigarello argues that developments in fashion "complement[ed] other indicators which how a new awareness of the straight body. The court nobility ... brought attention to the straightening of posture." Deportment, he adds, became "more rigorous."

    Training began in infancy. As a sixteenth-century text on women's childbirth put it: "A young tree, if it is kept straight and bent, keeps the same shape as it grows. The same happens with children, who, if they are well and properly bound in their little bonds and swaddling clothes, will grow up with straight body and limbs. On the other hand, if they are bound sideways and crookedly, they will remain the same way as they grow." By the seventeenth century, girls as young as two years wore miniature corsets to support the body and "prevent deformities of the skeleton," as well as to "procure an agreeable waist and a well-positioned bust." Mme de Sévigné wrote (May 6, 1676): "One must put them in small stays which are a little stiff if you want to keep the waist under control" ("Il faut lui mettre un petit corps un peu dur qui lui tienne la taille"). Little boys were also put into stays, at least until they were breeched at about age six.

    A polished and disciplined mode of self-presentation was important for members of the elite, and control over the body was established through a range of social practices, from dancing to dress. One learned how to stand correctly, how to move, how to handle a fan or a sword. Castiglione's Courtier 0528) argued that aristocratic grace and civility were innate, but the book came to be read as a manual of civility. Although liberty was a major theme of Renaissance discourse, it did not impinge on this training in physical discipline, because the codification of refined, proper social behavior implied that appearances mirrored and supported aristocratic privilege. Indeed, it has been argued that European aristocrats were inclined to regard the body as a work of art.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from The Corset by Valerie Steele. Copyright © 2001 by Valerie Steele. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 Steel and Whalebone: Fashioning the Aristocratic Body 1
2 Art and Nature: Corset Controversies of the Nineteenth Century 35
3 Dressed to Kill: The Medical Consequences of Corsetry 67
4 Fashion and Fetishism: The Votaries of Tight-Lacing 87
5 The Satin Corset: An Erotic Iconography 113
6 The Hard Body: A Muscular Corset 143
Notes 177
Selected Bibliography 186
Index 195
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