The corset is an undergarment traditionally made of stiffened material laced tight to the body in order to slim a woman's waist. Evidence shows that some type of waist-cinching garment was worn by Cretan women between 3000 and 1500 B.C. , but narrow waists became the fashion among women in Europe during the Middle Ages. Women from that period wore a forerunner of the corset, called a body or stay, or a pair of stays. The rigid, bust-to-hip corset became popular in the sixteenth century and persisted in various guises up through the middle of the twentieth century. It was considered beneficial to women's health by some doctors and writers, while others considered the constricting garment a virtual torture. Corset making was a specialized sub-sector of the garment industry. Tailors called staymakers were experts in the fitting and forming of corsets, which were sewn laboriously by hand. With the development of elastic textiles, corsets eventually became more yielding. Around the 1930s, women's fashions started emphasizing a more natural figure and the corset gradually became extinct. The closest thing to a modern corset is the all-in-one foundation undergarment.
Archaeological evidence shows that women wore surprisingly modern-looking undergarments as far back as 3000 B.C. in Babylonia. A Cretan figure dating from about 2000 B.C. was unearthed by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the late nineteenth century. It showed a bare-breasted woman with a tiny waist cinched tight by what looks like a ribbed belt. Ancient Greek writings refer to a women's undergarment made of linen or kid, cinching in the waist, and perhaps flattening the bust. Roman women also probably wore some sort of undergarments, but the general style was for long and loose clothing. This style persisted, for both men and women, through the Middle Ages. It was around 1150 that European women's clothing had a recognizable waistline. This was accomplished by lacing in an otherwise loose dress. A twelfth century British manuscript gives evidence of a tightly laced "shapemaker" worn as an outer garment.
The tailoring skills to make intricately cut and shaped clothing did not really develop in Europe until the middle of the fourteenth century. About this time, women began wearing an undergarment of stiffened linen, tightened by front or back laces. In the fifteenth century this item was known as a pair of stays or bodies in English and corps or cors in French. The English word corset presumably comes from a version of the French cors. At first corsets were made of two layers of linen, held together with a stiff paste. The resulting rigid material held in and formed the wearer's figure.
From the sixteenth century on, corset makers started using thin pieces of whalebone—shaped like quills or knitting needles—in between two layers of corset material. The whalebone corset was much more confining than the paste-stiffened one and often worn in conjunction with other undergarments that further exaggerated the female shape. In Queen Elizabeth's time, the fashion among the court classes was for a long, stiff corset reaching from the bust to below the natural waistline, paired with a huge, whale bone-stiffened hoop skirt called a farthingale. In the nineteenth century, women wore their corsets along with a cage-like hoop contraption—a crinoline—that held her skirts far out to the sides and back. The corset also accompanied the bustle, a padded device that emphasized the woman's backside. Corsets changed with fashion, becoming longer or shorter, supporting the bust or minimizing it, depending on the whim of the day.
Improvements in the manufacture of latex in the early 1930s led to workable elastic threads that could be woven or knitted into fabric suitable for undergarments. Soon the elastic corset became the norm. This was a much more flexible garment than the earlier rigid corset, and as the garment changed the name changed too. What had been called a corset became the roll-on, then came the step-in and the corselette. By 1940, women's underwear in Europe and the United States had evolved in favor of a two-piece arrangement; a brassiere for the bust and a roll-on or panty-girdle for the waist. The corset returned briefly after World War II in the guise of the waspie—a short, boned corset to wear with the tight-waisted dresses in high style at the time—but was never an everyday item again.
European women throughout the Victorian era wore tightly laced corsets that were assuredly uncomfortable and in many cases actually injurious to health. Young girls were put in corsets to grow accustomed to the restrictiveness. Many illustrations and contemporary references from the turn of the century depict the painful process of tightening the corset. The corset wearer would lie on her stomach on the floor, while someone else put a foot on her back and pulled the laces. Women who perpetually wore tight corsets suffered from a variety of health problems, including deformed spines and ribcages, difficulty breathing, and compression of the internal organs. Around the turn of the century, several corset makers introduced new corsets designed by doctors. These aimed to support a woman's figure without undue compression.
In the early twentieth century, upper-class women had more access to physical activities such as sports and bicycling. With the tango craze just before World War I, women took to removing their corsets before a dance. Corset manufacturers introduced sports and dance corsets to accommodate these new activities. While some corsets were becoming looser and more comfortable, women were still admonished to wear them. Though some doctors spoke out about the danger to women's health of tight lacing, a conflicting and equally scientific-sounding opinion claimed that going without a corset was unnatural and unhealthy. Historical evidence—from the Cretan figurine to cave paintings—was used to uphold the idea that women had always needed figure support. One popular opinion was that evolution was more difficult for women than for men and the corset was essential to keep women upright. Thus only a small, radical minority actually advocated abandoning the corset.
Corsets were made of a variety of materials, depending on the time period and the fineness of the article. The main fabric for the body of the corset might have been linen, stiffened with paste or starch. Lower-class women would have worn corsets of a cheap, sturdy cotton cloth. Corsets were also made of decorative fabrics like satin or silk.
The whalebone used to stiffen corsets was technically not bone at all but the teeth-like structures, called baleen, of a baleen whale. Baleen whales have hundreds of horny plates arranged in their upper jaws that serve to sieve tiny marine animals out of the water. Baleen is somewhat of an intermediary material between horn and hair, made up of many parallel hair fibers encased in hard enamel. Each baleen plate is about 10 in (25.4 cm) wide and 9-13 ft (2.74-3.96 m) long. Baleen can split along the parallel fibers and—when softened by steam—is easily shaped. Once dry, it holds its shape proving to be an enormously useful material for corset-making. Over-fishing led to the demise of baleen whale populations, and corset makers were driven to find substitute materials. They used cane or steel, and later plastic. The corset maker inserted thin slivers of whalebone into the corset to hold its shape. Whalebone was also used in some corsets for a front piece called the busk. The busk gave a smooth line to the front of the corset and was also sometimes made of wood, horn, or steel.
Metal eyelets for corset lacing were introduced in France in 1828. Elastic was used in corsets as early as the 1890s, but at first this material was suitable only for small shaped pieces called gussets. Around 1930, manufacturers learned to extrude latex into long fibers, making it possible to knit or weave a variety of elastic fabrics. Elastic became the norm in corsets and other undergarments in the 1930s.
Corsets were finished with a variety of decorative effects, including lace and ribbon. The thread used to stitch the corset together may have been strong silk or waxed cotton, depending on the garment.
Corsets were designed to fit exactly to an individual wearer, otherwise the effect was lost or the garment would be even more uncomfortable. Though a corset maker might follow a standard design, each had to be modified for the individual customer's height, weight, and figure. For a fine corset, the wearer would be fitted twice. First, the corset maker made basic measurements of the customer's torso, then cut the material to measure. The garment was roughly sewn, using long stitches called tacking. The customer was then fitted again and any adjustments noted. The tacking was undone and the corset sewn back together, using fine, short stitches.
In terms of the fashion aspect of design, the corset changed along with the mode of dress. If dressmakers brought out a line of small-waisted gowns, then corset makers obliged them with tight corsets. The fashionable figure of the "Gibson Girl" in the early years of the twentieth century brought on a craze for the S-curve corset, which thrust the bust forward and the hips back. In the 1920s, the flapper style of dress needed no corset or only a straight-lined, non-constricting one. As noted above, several doctors designed what they considered healthful corsets, and corset makers also responded to cultural trends, such as the tango, by producing special use corsets.
Corsets were most often made by specialized corset makers. Elaborate corsets required great ingenuity in cutting and stitching and each had to be specially ordered and fitted, but simpler corsets for every day could be made at home. The following manufacturing process is for an eighteenth-century corset made by a professional corset maker.
Corsets were generally very finely constructed articles made to order, so quality control was not an issue. In the 1930s, when corsets were waning in popularity, the corset industry made a concerted effort in the United States to train corset saleswomen in "scientific" fitting. Clerks in department stores specialized in corset fitting and generally spent a long time with customers, making sure each left with a suitable garment. Controlling the quality of the fit was very important and depended on a knowledgeable sales force.
The most notable byproduct of corset manufacturing was the whale. Though whales were also hunted for their oil, it is a fact that the craze for corsets and hoop skirts led to an over-fishing of baleen whales. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Atlantic Right whale was almost extinct in the popular Bay of Biscay fishing ground. When Biscay whales became hard to find, the whaling industry moved to waters off Greenland. This fishing ground was also seriously depleted by the late eighteenth century. After the 1840s, Bowhead whale were hunted for their whalebone, primarily caught by American fishermen in the Arctic. Whale oil was not used much after the discovery of petroleum in 1859, so whales hunted in the late nineteenth century were killed almost exclusively for their baleen. The Bowhead was almost completely extinct by the early twentieth century, just as the use of corsets was declining and new elastic materials made whalebone obsolete.
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