So long as there have been women, it seems there have been corsets! No woman of the twentieth century who walks into a store to buy a busk-front lacing corset to support her sagging muscles, or a fashionserving luxury garment to give her a modish look, must think, therefore, that she is doing something up to date and super-civilized. She is but taking care of her physiological needs, or expressing her beautyloving feminine personality, as all her sisters in all times and all climes have done so long as records can reveal.
In the mysterious forest cities of South America, whose beginnings are lost in far antiquity, women bound their waists in long scarves, elaborately folding and looping and cross-folding them so as to mould their figures to their hearts' desire, and so were corseted from under the bust to the top of the thighs as firmly as if fitted with the most subtle of modern confections in rubber and fine fabrics. Primitive sculptures recently uncovered in that region make it perfectly clear that the aboriginal South American belle cared enormously that her shape should be controlled and lovely.
The women of ancient Israel, too, went corseted. In the Book of Isaiah it may be read that God punished his people by taking away some of their personal pleasures and adornments, among them the contemporary equivalent of the corset: "Instead of a girdle there shall be a rent, and instead of well-set hair baldness, and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth." Treasures some four thousand years old from the Minoan civilization in Crete–a civilization lost and unknown before excavations at the turn of the present century–suggest that even at that far distant date women were accustomed to mould their figures by the aid of some form of corsetry. Look at the picture (Fig. 1) of the beautiful Cretan goddess, now in the British Museum; Nature could scarcely be solely responsible for such exquisite precision of shape.
And the Greek Homer, writing a thousand years or more before Christ, told how Juno, the austere queen of heaven, borrowed the girdle of the lovely goddess Venus, in order to charm a favour from her husband, Jove–
"Give me the loveliness, and pow'r to charm, Whereby thou reign'st o'er gods and men supreme,"begged Juno.
Whom answer'd thus the laughter-loving Queen:
"I ought not, and I cannot, say thee nay,
Who liest encircled by the arms of Jove."
Thus Venus spoke; and from her bosom loos'd
Her broidered cestus, wrought with every charm
To win the heart; there Love, there young Desire,
There fond Discourse, and there Persuasion dwelt,
Which oft enthralls the mind of wisest man.
This in her hand she placed, as thus she spoke:
"Take thou from me, and in thy bosom hide,
This broider'd cestus; and what'er thy wish
Thou shalt not here ungratified return."
Thus Venus: smi'd the stag-eyed Queen of Heaven,
And, smiling, in her bosom hid the gift.
Is not that story about goddesses the simple, homely story of any women in any age–of Mrs. Smith of Suburbia, conscious of her lack of smartness and the possible effects on her husband's devotion, begging her stylish London sister to tell her how to improve e "Oh, do tell me, dear, what sort of foundation do you wear?"–and then going hopefully off to buy one for herself?
No, there is no getting away from the fact that women in all ages of civilization have worn some equivalent of the corset and brassiere. Often they have worn it for the sake of comfort and health. Equally often, they have girdled and bound themselves in pursuit of the contemporary ideal of beauty. Let us not be ashamed to admit this last. Womanly beauty is a matchless attribute; in all creation there is no beauty to surpass it. Women, the priestesses of the treasure, are serving an elemental purpose when they foster and cultivate it, spend thought and endeavour in keeping it perfect. They are serving the Life Force which animates and preserves humanity. If they have sometimes seemed to run to odd excesses in doing so, let us condone their zeal after duty, and not censure them for vanity!
The direct ancestors of the modern corset are undoubtedly the garments worn by the women of classical Greece and Rome. These garments fall roughly into two types–the zona or abdominal belt, and the fascia, which supported the bust; but they were varied considerably, apparently to suit differing figure needs. One statue in the Louvre in Paris shows a Greek woman winding her bandelette under her breasts (Fig. 2); another, a Venus, shows a bust bodice built up over the shoulders (Fig. 3). Other sculptures of the classical age show different uses of a long narrow scarf as bust supporter and as waistbandage; and of handkerchief shaped pieces of fabric used in a fashion which it is interesting to know is still followed in the peasant costumes of some parts of France.
FIG. 2. A WOMAN OF ANCIENT GREECE WINDS HER BANDELETTE UNDER HER BREASTS
(From a statue in the Louvre)
FIG. 3. AN ORIENTAL VENUS OF THE CLASSICAL AGE WEARS A VERSION OF THE BUILT UP BRASSIERE
(From a statue in the Louvre)
The most usual colour for the girdle or bust bandage, we learn from contemporary writings, was red, and the material was often, and particularly when the garment was designed for a heavy figure, a soft kid skin or other fine leather. In the earliest days, the bust and waist supports of this age were simple and mainly functional; usually, too, they were worn next the skin. But later they were developed as fashion garments and worn outside the robe; and then the most beautiful embroideries, in gold and pearls and jewels, were used to adorn them. Roman mothers, careful for the beauty of their daughters, sometimes tried to prevent the over-development of the bust by binding their girls in firm fascia,; but it is also recorded, more particularly of the Greeks, that the bust-bandage was used to lift up and accentuate the breasts. The firm bindings were also used literally as foundations, so that the tunic or other outer garment would hang well.
Women who had to perform heavy physical tasks would bind themselves very firmly round between the bust and the hips–a piece of evidence from history which might well have been quoted to our British Board of Trade during the war years 1939 to 1945, when women doing the hardest physical tasks in factories and gas-yards pleaded, all but in vain, that strong corsets were a necessity to maintain their health and efficiency!
A French authority writing in the middle of the last century divided the history of corsets into five epochs. The first was the antique period of Greece and Rome just described. The second reached into the Middle Ages over a long period of transition, when the classical types were gradually being abandoned and the rigid types of later centuries were just beginning to develop. The third extended to the beginning of the Renaissance, during which epoch the corset was incorporated in the outer dress, and not a separate garment at all. The fourth was the era of whalebone, which started in the middle of the sixteenth century and continued well into the nineteenth. And the fifth is our own age, in which the corset differs from anything ever known before in being at once firm and flexible, and in aiming not so much at moulding every figure to one conventional form,. as at fitting each figure individually and moulding it to its own most perfect and healthful form.
In reading about the corsets of earlier centuries, it seems to the modern mind that women must have suffered a great deal in their efforts to control their figures. Yet no complaints seem to be recorded. The women of Circassia, famed all over the world for their slender beauty, were slender not by Nature but by ruthless art. A traveller a century or more ago described them as wearing "a corset made of morocco and furnished with two plates of wood placed on the chest which, by their strong pressure, prevent the expansion of the chest; this corset also confines the bust from the collarbones to the waist by means of a cord which passes through leather rings. They even wear it during the night, and only take it off when worn out, to put on another quite as small."
These ladies aimed at having waists which could be spanned by the two hands, and that, indeed, was a common standard in most parts of the world, and particularly in the East. To us such extreme slenderness is unthinkable; but to countless women in other times it has not appeared impossibly hard to achieve. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the practice of tight-lacing was being attacked on grounds of health, there were plenty of champions of the practice who claimed with ardour that its sensations were so agreeable that those once addicted to it would rarely abandon it. A long and ardent correspondence published in the Englishwomen's Magazine (and copiously quoted in a fascinating book of the time, The Corset and the Crinoline) contains numerous testimonials to its "comfort and pleasure."
Not only women, of course, have practised tight-lacing. In Elizabethan times fashionable men were equally addicted to it. Henry the Third of France, the elegant son of a highly fashionable mother, had his portrait painted when wearing "eardrops in his ears, delicate kid gloves on his hands; hair dyed to the fashionable tint, brushed back under a coquettish little velvet cap, in which waved a white ostrich's feather; hips bolstered and padded out, waist laced in the very tightest and most unyielding of corsets, and feet encased in embroidered satin shoes."
In this country, the first clear representation of a laced and buskfronted corset is to be found in a manuscript dated 1043 in the British Museum. Perhaps the earliest known suggestion of the word corset in writing is in the household register of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, for May 24th in the year 1265: "Item: for nine ells, Paris measure, for summer robes, corses, and cloaks for the same."
FIG. 4. A CORSET OF THIN STEEL OP THE TIME OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI IN FRANCE AND ELIZABETH IN ENGLAND
But by the end of the sixteenth century, the corset was as common a subject of speech and writing as it is to-day. Two queens helped to make it so–our own Elizabeth, and her contemporary, Catherine de Medici, who laid down laws about fashion which the ladies of their courts were compelled to obey. Queen Catherine required her ladies to reduce their waists to as little as possible above thirteen inches for patriotic reasons, and herself invented an extremely severe and powerful form of the corset which a French writer described as "a closely-fitting fortress." In this the entire trunk of the lady was encased, and a system of gradual and determined constriction was followed out until her measurements were reduced to the desired slenderness.
Then, as now, fashions inaugurated in France were quickly copied in England, and the well-dressed Elizabethan woman, having achieved slenderness by such means as this, would then put on another of Queen Catherine's inventions, a corset of thin steel, made in two pieces hinged together at one side and fastening with a hasp and pin at the other (Fig. 4). At both front and back, a long curved bar of steel ran downwards to give unyielding firmness and smoothness to the line of the stomacher worn above. The steel plates of the corset were cut out in patterns, both for the sake of lightness and so that the dress could be sewn on to it.
Whalebone soon superseded the steel contrivance in this country, however, and the corset of the later Elizabethans, while just as powerful in its effect, at least looked a little less harsh. It was made of very stout materials, very closely ribbed with whalebone, and was quite capable of standing up to the strain of the very tight lacing of the time.
FIG. 5. A TIGHT-LACED CORSET OF PURITAN DAYS
Even Puritan girls during Cromwell's rule went on tightlacing (Fig. S), and in the luxurious beginning of the eighteenth century, when fashion had its genesis in the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, waists seemed to get smaller still above the hooped skirts of costumes of Watteau style. A corset of 1667 in the London Museum is an elegant affair of rich brocade, stiffened by rows of close hand-stitching and fastened by a very thick busk of wood. It was designed to slenderize the waist and at the same time support the bust, and this last it accomplished in no half-hearted fashion by providing a solid wall to hold the bust high and hard. There was no gentle cupping as in the brassieres of to-day.
A corset from the beginning of the eighteenth century, also in the London Museum, was meant, unlike the earlier one, to be worn inside the dress. Its material is strong brown holland, used in two thicknesses, interlined, and stiffened with close rows of stitching. The bust would still be held very high, very hard, with a smooth, round line. There is nothing of this corset below the waist.
There is an amusing commentary on the corsetry of the time suggested by a passage quoted in The Corset and the Crinoline. Speaking of the accomplishments required in a mantua-maker, the writer says "She must know how to hide all the defects in the proportions of the body, and must be able to mould the shape by the stays so as to preserve the intestines, that while she corrects the body she may not interfere with the pleasures of the palate." That, at any rate, is practical! It also expresses very much the same dual purpose as animates our present-day corset-makers, though they do not think
of their careful adaptations to physiological needs as particularly serving the palate. The intestines, however, though more commonly included now in the wider term viscera, are very definitely the concern of the modern corset manufacturer in designing his garments, and they must certainly also come within the consideration of the corset fitter and saleswoman.
By 1760, the London Museum collection shows, the corset was part of the dress again. There is a fashion for three-piece outfits of petticoat, corset, and robe, all in matching brocade, the corset lined with holland and stiffened with whalebone, laced at back and front, built up at the shoulders, having sleeves that are left open under the armpit. Below the waist, the petticoat billows out voluminously over panniers of osier or whalebone (Fig. 6).
Waists continued to be slender and very tightly laced throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, and in order to make the corset strong enough staymakers used a kind of leather, known as "bend," which was rather like that used for shoe soles, and was nearly a quarter of an inch thick. The women in drawings by Hogarth belong to this period, and one can see in them how remarkably slender-waisted the women are. How wonderfully erect they are, too! The stays were very long-waisted, forming a narrow conical case, in the narrowest part of which the waist was closely laced, so that the figure was made upright to a degree. The material of the corset can hardly have been called "bend" in a descriptive way!
Corsetry really moves into a sphere we can appreciate with personal interest when, in 1874, the first health corset, "constructed upon strictly physiological principles . . . . to preserve beauty and grace of form without injury to health and comfort," was invented by an American House (Fig. 7). The design of the garment was varied to suit different types of figure–the very first example of mass production with an aim of individual personal service. The same firm, in 1883, introduced elastic gores–and the New Age in corsetry had begun!
But the Old World in fashionable London, Paris, and Vienna did not at once know it. A reducing corset was one of the great novelties shown at the Exhibition of 1851, and the ideal corset of 1870 was still of hour-glass variety. There still had to be the Gibson Girl figure,
FIG. 7. THE FIRST "HEALTH CORSET," CONSTRUCTED UPON STRICTLY PHYSIOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES AND VARIED TO SUIT DIFFERENT TYPES OF FIGURES
(Dated 1874 From the American Warnergram)
FIG. 8. THE GIBSON GIRL FIGURE WITH ITS EXTRAORDINARY BEND AT THE WAIST
with its extraordinary bend and the waist running almost west-toeast, like the isthmus between North and South America (Fig. 8). There still had to be, for quite a long time in this country, whalebone and strong jean and hard steel.
A Bristol corsetière who retired from business during the 1939-45 war saw all the major changes take place during her lifetime. She has recorded that some of her early models were made with whalebone, and had a strong wooden busk, an inch and a half wide and fourteen inches long, down the front. They had no opening at the front and had to be laced and unlaced down the back at each wearing. She used jeans in fawn, black, royal blue, or scarlet, sometimes stitched in a contrasting colour. She spent hours and hours on the fancy stitching called "fanning," all done by hand. "The corsets were all lined and interlined then," she said. "They would stand up by themselves."
Later, she used strong front fasteners of steel, often sixteen or seventeen inches long; but by this time waists were only considered rather large if they got above twenty-four or twenty-six inches; the two-hand span ideal had been forgotten. These corsets, dating back to the early years of our century, had no suspenders and did little for their wearers below the waist, but they came well up over the bust, supporting it firmly.
The garments were so well made that they would stand up to seven years' hard continuous wear!
It took the First World War to establish the New Age corset, and it did so by anarchy–by abolishing all previous standards and clearing the way for a completely new start. Figures ceased to exist, natural lines were expunged, curves banished. The "cigarette girl," shaped like a long thin cylinder, came into fashion, with no bust, no waist, no womanly curves below the waist (Fig. 9). It was an incredible fashion, one such as had never been known before, and it nullified all experience and all aims in the field of corsetry. There was nothing good to be said of it in point of grace, or beauty, or charm; not even in point of health, for to achieve the straight line women flattened their breasts under tight, straight bodices to the frequent destruction of muscular and glandular health, and held their shoulders round so as to let the bust sag still further, regardless of what the posture did for their lungs. But one good thing came of it–it cleared the way for reform; and the new inventions of the time, the light-weight flexible steel and, above all, the elastic fabrics, inevitably conditioned the pattern those reforms would follow (Fig. 10).
FIG. 9. THE "CIGARETTE GIRL" FIGURE OF THE 1920'S, WHEN CURVES WERE OUT OF FASHION AND THE BUST WAS PULLED DOWN TO LOOK AS FLAT AS POSSIBLE
FIG. 10. FREE AT LAST! ELASTIC REVOLUTIONIZES CORSETRY, BUT CURVES An STILL OUT OF FAVOUR
(Reproduced by permission of Messrs. Clutsom and Kemp, Ltd.)
The next twenty years (with saddening delays and set-backs during the Second World War) saw a steady and rapid development of means for making corsets flexible yet firm, light-weight yet strong. Elastic fabrics, which at first were heavy because the rubber threads
could not be cut beyond a certain thinness, became at once wonderfully fine and light when it was discovered how to extrude threads of the pure rubber latex. Now the fine power nets could be devised,
as well as finer and lighter–but no less strong–one-way and twoway stretch woven fabrics of Lastex yarn and cotton or silk yarns. Immediately after the Second World War, new fibres made it possible to weave rigid cloths more finely without any loss of strength. Nylon, for example, quickly became a trusted material for corsets, and it is common in these days to see diaphanous belts and brassieres of nylon marquisette which can withstand the pull of elastic panels, of suspenders, and all the friction of hard wear, almost as well as could the jeans of half a century ago.
FIG. 11. AN ALL-ELASTIC CORSET IS LIKE A NEW LAYER OF MUSCLE FOR THE WEARER, SUPPLEMENTING THE WORK OF THE NATURAL MUSCLES BENEATH
The elasticized corset of the present decade has been described as a new layer of muscle for the wearer. The best manufacturers design the "pull" of their materials to supplement the natural movement of the muscles below, and intricately fashioned corselettes and belts are made up of numerous panels and sections of one-way or two-way or all-way elastic fabric intended to stretch with the muscles underneath and be rigid where Nature herself intends no stretch should be (Fig. 11).
Students of costume, its history and its significance, invariably point to the close connection of the corset with social conditions. "Strait-laced epochs are strait-laced in every sense of the term," is a conclusion of Mr. James Laver, Curator of Costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a historian of costume changes and their social significance. He adds that epochs when women throw away their corsets or reduce them to a minimum are periods of easy manners. He has not classified the present age of corsetry, but it is certainly not a strait-laced period, nor yet one in which women have thrown away their corsets. Anyone may see, however, that the modern corset relates itself to the practical everyday life of modern women as no other corset known in history has been able to do. It is an age in which women have engaged in sport as at no time since the Greeks. Young girls will no longer lie upon the carpet while Mamma, with one foot on the back, tugs at the stay-laces to tighten them. The girls will be out playing tennis, or hiking on the commons, or climbing in the hills. They demand appropriate girdles and brassieres, or the pantee girdles they can wear comfortably without stockings.
In all classes, too, women live active and energetic lives; all but a very few are wage-earners or housewives, and go about work in office, home, or store, field or factory, using minds and bodies flexibly and freely. They could not live their modern lives well if they were strait-laced; and if they threw away their corsets altogether they would, in most cases, lose their figures and through bad posture impair their health and power to work.
There was much agitation in this country in the early years of the I939-45 war because women engaged in exacting war industry could not get corsets to give them adequate support. As a result of pressure, but not before the beginning of 1945 when the war was all but won, the Board of Trade did at last give recognition to the corset as an "essential garment," and make it possible for stronger cloths to be made for the manufacture of better corsets. In America likewise, women had had to bludgeon their Government into realizing that good corsetry was of such importance to women that to deprive them of it might imperil great national causes. But in America they had a staunch advocate in high office in Miss Mary Anderson, Director of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labour, who declared corsets essential to the carrying out of women's tasks in the war effort. She said fatigue was the chief reason why women left their war jobs, and to provide good corset support and so reduce fatigue was one way of keeping the war effort going strongly. "Older women cannot grow their own muscular girdles," she said, and her remarks helped to persuade the country's rulers to maintain the supply of flexible supporting foundation garments.
The new type of corset fits itself to the new type of women's life in other ways also. From many causes, mainly economic and industrial, this has become and must remain an age of mass production. The modern corset can be produced in bulk in such a way as to ensure a correct fitting for every shape and size of figure; and, being mass produced, it can be put on to the market at prices to suit all purses, thus ensuring good corset service to women in even the lowest income ranges. Being now almost automatically functional, the corset can very easily be styled to be fashionable as well.
Here the history of corsets pauses. It has never travelled this way before. It seems, as we ponder events and realize the absolute rightness of the present-day corset for a healthy, active, useful and happy life, that it cannot turn back to any of the old paths. Wars, economic stresses and storms, natural causes controlling the production of materials-any of these could suddenly and uncontrollably deflect the logical course of progress, but it is not the business of this history to look forward so far.
To record the past, however, can brightly illumine the present, and to realize how corsets have changed, and what their functions are now recognized and required to be, will help all women engaged in a career in corset fitting and selling to understand the peculiar responsibilities of their work.
The importance of proper foundation garments to the general efficiency and well-being of women is now established. They are no longer regarded as merely attributes of feminine vanity. To ensure that every woman wears the garment that is correct and beneficial for her is the fitter's responsibility. The fitter, therefore, will largely determine the character of the next chapter in the history of corsets, the chapter that begins here and now.