THE corset is supposed to have been invented by the Christian asceticism of the Middle Ages. Medieval asceticism is a myth, and the corset is an invention of the sixteenth century. The thirteenth century knew the fascia, very narrow strips of material wound round the body below the breasts. In the fifteenth century, these strips, now somewhat broader, were wound over the breast. The sixteenth century came to the help of stout women with the corset. For, since the Middle Ages, the ideal of beauty had been the slim, even thin woman, with small breasts---mamelettes are always spoken of with admiration. The woman who was not thin endeavoured to approach this ideal by art, not for the sake of asceticism. The Renaissance introduced the fashion of small waists and décolletage. People ate more and better, and grew stouter. The Italian and Flemish burghers became important, and their wives desired to become the standard themselves, and they were powerful, full-bosomed ladies; but there was still a desire to retain as much as possible of gentle refinement; so waists were made small, and the figure was modified according to taste. Then came the corset, which enabled the waist to be lengthened or shortened to suit the requirements of different figures. Then, as now, small firm breasts were considered beautiful, as indeed they were among the Greeks. In Dioscorides recipes may be found for preventing the breasts of young girls from growing to large, and for reducing the over-developed to a normal size.
Medieval asceticism only affected the plastic arts, for they were always devoted to religion. Conclusions about life cannot be drawn from them. Arts which were not exercised in the service of the Church, such as the fabliaux, the chansons de geste, minstrelsy, and the songs of troubadours, show no trace of asceticism.
Fashion has deeper foundations and motives than are to be found in sermons and treatises.