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20th Century Corsets

Courtesy of Hanky Panky lingerie available at La Petite Coquette in New York City.

Corsets changed shape over the centuries as the clothing style changed and as the desired female body shape changed. Up until the early 19th century, for the most part, corsets were cylindrical and went to the waist. Then in the 19th century corsets went down to the hips, creating an exaggeratedly curvaceous look.  Gradually an elongated slim silhouette became desirable and the corset went all the way to the upper thighs. As you can see in the photo to the left this corset style stopped under the bust and then required a brassiere. In order to deal with wearing such a corset, women would have to take small dainty steps. No running in marathons, horseback riding, or gardening in these clothes. These corsets are meant for women who stay placid and demure (but witty laughter is allowed). As fabric technology and elastic and plastic developed, corsets became outmoded, replaced with bras and girdles.

Fed up with the boning poking into her, British socialite Mary Phelps Jacob invented — i.e., received a patent in 1913 — for the first brassiere, which she fashioned out of two handkerchiefs and pink ribbons. It was a hit and requests came pouring in for more brassieres.

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Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), Queen of France, wife of Henri d’Orleans, betrayed by Diane de Poitiers, she was a ruthless monarch, rumored to have poisoned and assassinated people she didn’t like, disposing of their bodies through secret trap doors, and responsible in part for the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 when thousands of Hugenots (French protestants) were killed in Paris and throughout France. She was the inspiration for haute cuisine in the French court (inspired by Florentine culinary secrets), instigator of the still surviving protocol of separating savory from sweet dishes at a meal, mother of high-heeled shoes, and brought ballet to the French court. Her unfaithful husband insulted her further by giving the chateau that she wanted — Chenonceau — to her rival Diane de Poitiers. Chenonceau is one of my favorite French chateaux. It’s no wonder she was grumpy.

On top of it all this formidable woman influenced fashion for the next 350 years by banning thick waists at court. Beauty and tyranny often go hand in hand. If a woman were so severe as to make people wait to eat dessert until after their savory meal, then it’s no wonder she was offended by women’s natural waists. Since then waists were diminished by whale bones and steel cages.

Corsets have been around since antiquity. To the left we have the Minoan Serpent Goddess where her dress includes a corset. Her corset is certainly not representing constraint of her powers No! Her clothing reflects her feminine power and beauty. Her breasts are bared, showing her fecundity and nurturing, feeding her children who are all people. Her holding two snakes represents fearlessness and power. She is calm and strong and clearly in control.

Corsets became widespread in the later Middle Ages. Nobles in France would wear expensive corsets to be fashionable but gradually they became mainstream. By the Renaissance era almost everyone wore corsets. The desired silhouette at that time became a straight, conical torso with the bust pressed flat, rather than pushed up. (Think of paintings of Queen Elizabeth and all the fatefully beheaded wives of Henry VIII.) It wasn’t until the 17th century that corsets began to be worn under clothes, as underwear.

Napoleon considered corsets an abomination, probably influencing the Regency style of dresses (most commonly seen now in Jane Austen movies) with a high waistline right below the bust and a loose, flowing skirt to the floor. Because the natural waist was undefined there was no reason for a corset.