A corset is a
worn to mold the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or orthopaedic
purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting
effect). Both men and women have worn and still wear corsets.
common use of corsets is to slim the body and make it conform to the fashionable
silhouette of the time. For women this most frequently emphasises a curvy
figure, by reducing the waist, and thereby exaggerating the bust and hips.
However, in some periods, corsets have been worn to achieve a tubular straight-up-and-down
shape, which involves minimising the bust and hips.
For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However,
there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when an hourglass figure (a
small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was
sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.
A corset encloses the torso, usually extending from the under the arms
to the hips. Some corsets extend over the hips and, in very rare instances,
reach the knees. A shorter kind of corset, which covers the waist area (from
below the ribs to just above the hips), is called a 'waist cincher'. A corset
may also include
garters to hold up
stockings (alternatively a separate
garter belt may be worn for that).
Corsets are typically constructed of a flexible material (like
leather) stiffened with boning (also called
ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the cloth or leather. In the Victorian
period, steel and whalebone were favored. Plastic is now the most commonly
used material; steel is preferred for high-quality corsets. Other materials
used for boning include ivory, wood, and cane.
Corsets are held together by
lacing, usually at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing produces
corresponding changes in the firmness of the corset. It is difficult
although not impossible
for a back-laced corset-wearer to do his or her own lacing. In the Victorian
heyday of corsets, a well-to-do woman would be laced by her maid, a gentleman
by his valet. Women who could not afford servants might have been been helped
by a sister or husband, or might just have worn a front-lacing corset. Current
corset wearers are usually laced by spouses and partners.
In the past, a woman's corset was usually worn over a garment
or shift, a sleeveless
low-necked gown made of washable material (usually
). It absorbed perspiration
and kept the corset and the gown clean. In modern times,
an undershirt or corset liner may be worn.
Corsets and waist reduction
By wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods
- a practice known as
tightlacing - men and women
can learn to tolerate extreme waist constriction and reduce
their natural waist size. Tightlacers usually aim for 40
to 43cm (16 to 17 inch) waists. The Guinness Book of World
Records records two instances of women reducing to 13"
waists: Ethel Granger and Cathie Jung. Other women, such
as Polaire, also claim to have achieved such reductions.
These are extreme cases. Corsets were and are usually
designed for support, with freedom of body movement an important
consideration in their design. Present day corset-wearers
usually tighten the corset just enough to reduce waists
to dimensions that range from 18" to 24".
Moderate lacing is not incompatible with vigorous activity.
Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century,
when corset wearing was common, there were sport corsets
specifically designed to wear while bicycling, playing tennis,
or horseback riding, as well as for maternity wear.
Many people now believe that all corsets are uncomfortable
and that wearing them restricted womens' lives, citing Victorian
literature devoted to sensible or hygienic dress. However,
these writings very rarely condemned corsets en toto; rather,
they protested against the misuse of corsets for
tightlacing and recommended
adoption of sensible corset styles.
Some modern day corset-wearers will also testify that
corsets can be comfortable, once one is accustomed to wearing
them. A properly fitted corset should be comfortable.
Women active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and
historical reenactment groups commonly wear corsets as part
of period costume, without complaint.
The corset fell from fashion in the 1920s
in Europe and
but survived as an article of costume. Originally
an item of
the corset has become a popular item of
outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures.
There was a brief revival of the corset
in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the
form of the waist cincher. This was used
to give the hourglass figure dictated by
Christian Dior's 'New Look'. However, use
of the the waist cincher was restricted
and most women continued to use
This revival was brief, as the New Look
gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.
Since the late 1980s, the corset has
experienced periodic revivals, which have
usually originated in haute couture and
which have occasionally trickled through
to mainstream fashion. These revivals focus
on the corset as an item of outerwear rather
than underwear. The strongest of these revivals
was seen in the Autumn 2001 fashion collections
and coincided with the release of the film
Moulin Rouge!, the costumes for
which featured many corsets.
The majority of garments sold as corsets
during these recent revivals cannot really
be counted as corsets at all. While they
often feature lacing and boning, and generally
mimic a historical style of corset, they
have very little effect on the shape of
the wearer's body.
Advantages and disadvantages
- Corsets can reduce
pain and improve function
for people with back
problems or other muscular/skeletal
women find corsets more
because the weight of
the breasts is carried
by the whole corset
rather than the brassiere's
shoulder straps. (Straps
can chafe or cut the
- Corsets can instantly
improve the figure without
dieting, slimming drugs,
or cosmetic surgery.
- Corsets can make
the wearer feel hotter.
They have been most
often worn in cool climates.
- The best corsets
are custom-made. The
more closely clothing
or lingerie clings to
the body, the more carefully
it must be fitted to
look and feel right.
In modern times, when
labour costs much more
than materials, custom
clothing can be extremely
expensive. Even finding
a competent corsetiere
can be difficult.
- A badly fitting
corset can chafe, impede
digestion, even pinch
Two doctors' opinions
and advice on corset wearing
can be found at the website
of the Long Island Staylace