Up until the sixteenth century, there was no need for women to change their body shape to suit fashion. Clothes were shaped practically, to satisfy the dimensions of the individual- not the other way around. However, in the sixteenth century, the first corsets were designed to help ladies achieve the raised bosom and cylindrical torso that had become the fashion.
These early corsets were essentially bodices stiffened with buckram. They were not designed to change the body shape; they merely acted as a âboard’ between the body and the gown. However, by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reeds and bones were being added to corsets, making them adjustable. By this time, the garment was designed to mold the body to suit the gown. The corsets of this period primarily pushed up and bolstered the bosom without attempting to restrict the waist too much. Tabs spread over the hips, sparing the abdomen from constriction.
However, in the nineteenth century, corsets took a nasty turn. The emphasis shifted from the chest to the waist – with the aim to make this as small as possible. Boning became heavy with the average corset consisting of between sixty to one hundred whalebones. Whereas earlier corsets gave a certain amount of support to the body, even helping posture and the back, Victorian corsets instead restricted. They made it hard to eat and breathe and were dangerous as well as uncomfortable.
By the late nineteenth century, moves were afoot against the corset. The Rational Dress Movement attempted to promote more comfortable clothing styles that did not put fashion above health. Medical opinions of the day backed them. In 1890 and 1892, The Lancet published two articles denouncing the dangers of corsets. X-ray evidence followed in 1908, with pictures showing the effects of âoverlacing’ (the practice of pulling the corset too tight to achieve a tiny waist). The day of the extreme corset was over and by the 1920s corsets had fallen out of fashion.