Fashion History Friday: Did the Corset Embrace Femininity, or Discourage It?

The chances are, you’ve probably seen a picture of a corset at some point in your life. They were an integral part in women’s fashion, for both aesthetic and “medical” purposes, and have remained relevant for four hundred years. That being said, most modern-corset wearers aren’t using the corset for medical purposes; instead, it’s most often used to give its wearer a desired, hourglass shape.

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The widespread use of the corset started in the 1550s, when the wife of King Henry II of France enforced a ban on thick waists. After that, for better or for worse, corsets essentially became part of the woman anatomy. It was the primary means of support for a woman, serving similar benefits to that of a medieval…bra? Slouching wasn’t an option when you had a whalebone laced against your spine, that’s for sure. Some women’s corsets were bound so tightly, they could only breathe through the top of their lungs, causing the bottom part to fill with mucus. How lovely!

As the corset evolved throughout the 17th and 18th century, subtle changes started to develop in the structure of the corset. What started out as a simple bodice became a cylinder-shaped, laced-up corset with extra boning and support added to the bust. It sounds absolutely painful, and that’s because it was. Women in the 19th century were even expected to wear “maternity corsets,” which hid the appearance of pregnancy. Tragically, this often lead to miscarriage, as the restrictive nature of the corset could easily damage the growing fetus.

While the corset has been celebrated for embracing the womanly figure and offering support for the torso and bust, I think it also offers a darker look into society’s outlook on femininity. The womanly figure, especially during the natural and unavoidable changes during pregnancy, were essentially scorned and nervously hidden, as if there was something wrong with going through motherly changes as a woman.

By the time the 1920s hit, corsets quickly fell from fashion and were replaced with girdles and elastic brassieres. This new style offered more comfort and flexibility to women, and also gave ladies a new silhouette that had not been widely seen before in the US. Though there was a brief revival of the corset in the 1940s and 1950s, girdles had forever taken over the scene. I mean, who doesn’t love that pointy-breast glory?

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The greatest movement of corset/undergarment liberation came in 1968, when at the feminist Miss America protest, women threw their bras into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Corsets were included in this protest, which ladies referred to as “instruments of female torture.”

Periodically, corsets continue to make comebacks in modern times, though mostly they are used for historical costumes, fetishes, and in the gothic subculture. Whatever your view on corsetry may be, it’s undeniable that the garment has created a long-lasting impact on culture, fashion, and feminism.


Picture sources: Wikipedia, 

Coming up next: My Favorite Winter Recipes

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