Tightly fitted from below the chest to hips and meant to shape the figure, for a long time they were the most coveted piece of garment for every woman.
History reveals that the first corset originated in Crete, Greece. Ancient images depict men and women, both wearing fitted belts with leather rings which shape the waist. These corsets were extremely tightened to show bare breasts of women.
During the 15th Century, corsets were staple for women belonging to wealthy households in France.
Corsets remained a fashion staple throughout the 16th Century. They actually brought a fundamental shift in the concept of clothing, instead of shaping clothes according to the body type, as was done throughout the middle ages and renaissance, corsets were used to achieve a desired body type. A lot of people believe that the corsets were designed to achieve a smaller waistline, rather it was designed to support the breasts and achieve a fashionably flat torso shape. Many western physician also argued about the harmful risks it had on a women’s health. In fact, the corset was widely perceived as an ‘instrument of torture’ and also a major cause of ill health and even death.
Early 17th Century witnessed bare breasts which solidified a women’s beauty, corsets had a fabric bodice and boned lining with decorative designs made with lace. However, during the later half of the 17th Century, Madame de Maintenon, 2nd wife of King Louis XIV, was successful in putting an end to female corsets worn to uplift breasts. It gave way for corsets which accentuated the shape of breasts and the cleavage. That is when corsets with inverted conical shape structured with steel were invented.
When the French Revolution took place in the early 1800s, women temporarily gave up their corsets (along with other symbols of aristocracy) for loose clothing which seemed to emphasise on new ideas of freedom in political life. After the First World War, when there was a lack of supplies (as metal had been a necessary resource), women’s fashion began to evolve into simpler lines. Loose shapes with straight silhouettes from shoulder to hem became the norm. This led to the invention of girdles, also known as the new corset.
Post World War II
This is when the classic corset was back in fashion and Christian Dior ‘The New Look Collection’ which featured the new shape of modern woman – floor length skirts, slimmer waists and fuller busts were the new norm and corsets were used to achieve this ideal body shape. This is also the era, when push-up bras and padded bras were introduced.
During this period, Girdles were a necessity and women who didn’t wear corsets after childbirth were looked down upon. Made of nylon and latex rubber, girdles were meant to give women an appearance of a flat bottom.
1970s to 1990s
Corsets were always worn as an undergarment traditionally. However, in 1970s punks began wearing corsets as outerwear and these corsets were Victorian-styled. Very soon, Paul Gaultier and Viviene Westwood showcased outerwear corsets on the runways and this led to women flaunting their corsets in public spaces.
Corsets are now relegated to costume dramas and few fashion designers. However, they remain a staple for the lingerie industry. These days, instead of using corsets to shape women’s bodies, we resort to exercising and dieting to achieve a desirable figure. Celebrities like Beyonce, Shikara and Lagy Gaga wear corsets for their on-stage performances to add drama and femininity. Corsets are worn more like an ornament along with a dress or skirt.
Other celebrities like Gigi Hadid have also embraced the corset and flaunted them, both on the runway and street.
With changing times and wider acceptance of all body types, wearing corsets to achieve a particular type of body shape isn’t imperative for women, as it was earlier. But, this fashion piece will never truly go out of fashion for years to come.