Corset, cotton

I recently visited the Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where corsets of different sizes, colours, and materials were on display. All were beautifully crafted with incredible details sewn onto the bodices. The corset that caught my attention, however, was the one you see to the left. It is made from a densely woven fabric called ‘coutille’ that was able to stand up to the tension caused when the corset was being tightened. The corset itself is light brown with the whalebone strips running from top to bottom of the bodice being covered with a darker brown coutille. The strips of whalebone helped to structure the figure and the ‘cinching’ belt around the waist helped the wearer to gain the desired hour-glass figure with the small waist that was fashionable during the 1800s. As I stood admiring this beautifully crafted undergarment, I wondered what it would be like for women and girls in the 1800s, considering myself very lucky that I never have to put a corset on for work in the mornings! Corsets are well-known to be restricting and uncomfortable to wear. The x-ray images displayed in the exhibition of a woman wearing a corset that was crushing her rib cage confirms this. Yet, despite all this, the corset is still worn by women today. Could it be, though, that the corset as a symbol has simply changed over time?

In the days before the corset, women wore ‘stays’ made from linen and silk materials. Early versions of ‘stays’ were even made from metal, looking much like a cage encasing the upper body. It was only from the 1800s that the word ‘corset’ started to be used and with it came the fashion of the well-known hour glass figure. It is at this point that I’m reminded of Pirates of the Caribbean when Elizabeth Swann is putting on a new dress, exclaiming that “women in London must have learned not to breathe!”, and later she faints over the side of a cliff after desperately gasping for more air. Scenes of women fainting from wearing corsets are likely to have happened, especially when undertaking physical activity such as dancing at a ball, but for ordinary wear many would have slackened their corsets to avoid this.

It wasn’t until 1914 that the first bra was made by Mary Phelps Jacob. The bra was the new way forward with thousands of women entering the workplace during the First World War and taking on more physical jobs that required more movement. For many the bra helped to give women a sense of freedom not felt before. Despite this, though, corsets were worn by women of all ages and social classes through to the 1960s. In earlier periods of history upper class and military men also wore corsets for support and to shape their figures. It was in the 1960s though that diet and exercise became the main form of figure control, rather than the use of the restrictive corset. All the while we find the small waist figure ideal remaining desirable for both genders, and is something that continues to this day.

Corsets today are worn more for costume and special occasions than for everyday wear. We see photos of magnificent corseted dresses worn by celebrities for award ceremonies and film premieres all the time. The most outstanding was a trompe l’oeil corset dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in 2009. In everyday life we see countless wedding and prom photos of beautiful dresses with a bodice or corset that defines the figure of the wearer. Times have clearly changed with the V&A writing that corsets are no longer the symbol of women’s oppression and have instead become a symbol of sexual empowerment.

If you would like to read the articles used to write this blog, please visit the following links:

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until March 2017 and is well worth a look!

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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