For most people, hearing the word corsets brings to mind images of women in period dramas. The act of cinching the corset by a maid until they’re unable to breathe properly is often accompanied by a scene where the lady faints from wearing a corset that is too tight. Gone With the Wind and The Pirates of The Caribbean 1 are famous examples.
Corsets a common misconception
If you would recall a scene from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film when actress Kiera Knightley wears a corset that is so tight that it causes her to faint and fall into the water only to be rescued by Captain Jack Sparrow. This is a common misconception brought about by incorrect depictions in various media forms. Corsets are garments, in which the cinching is actually tightlacing and this practice was very uncommon and most definitely not done on a regular basis.
Corsets are a supportive undergarment used by women and sometimes men in the western world for centuries. They are also known as ‘stays’ and ‘bodies’ depending on the country and the time period. The time period being the 16th century to the early 20th century.
Corsets as men’s fashion
During the early 1800s, the most popular look for men was form-fitting jackets and trousers. Hence, to acquire this smooth silhouette, men turned to corsets. However, they were still taboo until the late 19th century when companies started advertising corsets for everyday wear.
Roxey Ann Caplin (1793 – 2nd August 1888), a British writer who invented corsets, received a prize medal to recognize her as a Designer, Manufacturer and Inventor in 1851. There onwards, coming to be known as the ‘inventor of the corset’. Though Caplin definitely was not the first person to make or design a corset but was awarded the title since her designs were considered innovative at that time.
Corsets were worn by women from different social strata, right from the aristocracy to the common working woman. They always had a more practical use than an aesthetic one as they supported the back and breasts and helped by carrying the weight of the heavy and layered petticoats and overskirts.
When bras took over corsets
It should be noted that corsets were worn before the popularization of bras. Bras came into common use in the 1900s. The first brassiere was patented by Mary Phelps Jacob under the pseudonym ‘Caresse Crosby’ on November 3rd, 1914. Her business never really took off until she sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company.
Corsets are traditionally an undergarment (however, they are now being worn on their own or over other clothes) made of material stiffened with starch or a paste. The type of material used to make the corset depended on the wealth and status of the owner. They were mainly linen, but lower-class women would have worn ones made of cotton. Some were also made out of satin or silk.
Did you know, ‘Whalebone’, from baleen whales, was used in corsets to help hold their shape? Whalebone is a bone at all, but rather a material from the upper jaws of the baleen whale that filter krill and plankton. However, incorporating whalebone into corsets, among other reasons, resulted in the overfishing of whales and hence had to be stopped.
Were corsets really ‘torture devices?
When talking about corsets, the term ‘torture devices’ is often brought up. No, corsets weren’t torture devices for the simple reason that otherwise, women wouldn’t have worn them for centuries. The aim of a corset was to create a silhouette and not to reduce the size of the waist. This idea was a trend in the 19th century but was, however only followed by a few aristocratic women.
This perception or stereotype is further compounded by movie stars acting in period dramas. These actors often complain about how uncomfortable corsets are. There are multiple reasons behind these complaints. Firstly, corsets have to be broken in just like Doc Marten’s shoes. Secondly, corsets have to be well fitted to the wearer’s body shape. Some movie costumes are not specifically made for the actor due to limitations such as budget and time. Why do we have this particular idea of corsets? The main reason is inaccurate portrayals and depictions in media, movies and television shows. As I mentioned earlier, there were typical scenes with corsets that perpetuates the stereotype that corsets are ‘torture’ devices.
How World War I changed women’s fashion
Corsets fell out of fashion during the first World War when women had to take up jobs, that was usually done by men, which gave them a sense of freedom and liberation. During this time, the concept of fashion changed drastically as gender dictated dress codes became more relaxed and also more practical and ‘Natural Bodies’ came into style.
Women began wearing pants, skirts became shorter, colours become dull and muted. In the US, the US War Industries Board in 1917 asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for the war effort as corsets had been made using steel since the 1860s. By the 1920s corsets were replaced by girdles. ‘Girdles’ are a fitted garment that supports the lower body, specifically the stomach and hips. Its purpose was to make the wearer’s stomach and waist look smaller.
Current trends for corsets
Corsets have been making a comeback in recent years due to celebrities and popular media alike. Forbes has listed corsets as one of spring 2021’s biggest fashion trends. In 2020, due to the Bridgerton series on Netflix, the sales of corsets rose. Etsy saw a 91% increase in searches for corsets. According to social shopping service Like To Know It, searches for corsets in 2020 have increased by 1,000 per cent since Bridgerton hit our screens.
Corsets are making their way into everyday use even in Indian wear. Corsets are being worn paired with jeans, over a white shirt and in multiple other ways. In India, people are switching out their saree blouses for corsets. Go ahead and adorn the corset as a modern-day fusion wear complimenting your confident self!
Contributor: Ananya Sampath
About our Writing Program Student
Ananya Sampath is a 11th Grade student studying at Legacy School, Bangalore. She enjoys reading, playing badminton and dancing in her free time. She is passionate about history and enjoys learning about new cultures and mythologies.