Centuries before Madonna made headlines in pink satin Jean-Paul Gaultier, women (and sometimes men) were lacing themselves into corsets
The corset – a garment with a rigid, boned bodice that is laced together in order to shape the torso – has a controversial history. Long derided as a patriarchal instrument of torture that deformed the female body, historians now argue that that there was no one experience of wearing a corset, and that some women may even have found them positive.
Corsets were worn by women – and sometimes men – in the Western world from the 16th to the early 20th century, although corset-like garments can be traced as far back as 1600 BC. What began as a close-fitting sleeveless bodice evolved into an undergarment with stays made of whalebone, and then steel, that encircled the ribs and compressed the natural waist. The shape of the corset evolved over the centuries, alternating between longer varieties that covered the hips and shorter versions that centred on the waistline. Corsets helped shape the body into distinctive silhouettes, from the hourglass shape popular in the 1800s to the “S” figure of the 1900s.
The introduction of elastic in the 1920s gave rise to flexible sports corsets, used by women attracted to a new, active lifestyle. However, ads for corsets and articles about the newest corset styles appear in Vogue throughout the early 20th century, showing that women still sought these external garments to shape and support their body alongside girdles, compression underwear and brassieres. With the shift towards sport and healthy lifestyles in the ’60s and ’70s, the corset as an undergarment was abandoned, but its focus was already internalised. Instead of relying on a garment, women turned to diet, exercise and plastic surgery to shape their bodies and trim their waists.
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