What is a corset?
A corset is a type of foundation lingerie worn to mold and shape the torso into a desired shape through the use of rigid panels, boning and tight lacing. Typically they are worn to slim the body and make it conform to a fashionable hourglass silhouette. For women, this means emphasizing a curvy figure, by reducing the waist, and thereby exaggerating the bust and hips. The word corset is derived from the old french word “cors”, the diminutive of body, which itself derives from corpus, Latin for body. The word corset came into general use in the English language around 1785 and remains with us today.
Corsets throughout history
The corset evolved from the bodice of the middle ages. This was a fabric cincher that was worn around the mid-section of the body and often laced together in the front. You can see great examples of these at Renaissance fairs today. Thoughout the 18th century in Europe and North America, the bodice evolved into an increasingly ornate and sculptural piece of lingerie and became the corset. Examples of these can be seen in paintings of Marie Antoinette, and other royalty from that time. As the Victorian era of the 19th century got underway, the corset became increasingly restrictive and was quite the figure shaper. Although the Victorians are popularly described as prudish, this foundation garment was considered highly feminine and quite erotic during those days. As the 20th century began, the writing was on the wall for the corset. The most popular styles were short underbust corsets called “cinchers” which allowed for more freedom of movement. By the time 1915 rolled around, the girdle and corsolette had nearly replaced the corset in women’s fashion. Only the older generation of women kept the corset industry from closing their doors.
One may generally classify most corsets into two groups or styles, the underbust and the overbust. An underbust corset begins just under the breasts and extends down to the hips. A shorter kind of underbust corset, which covers just the waist area is sometimes called a waist cincher. An overbust corset encloses the torso, extending from just under the arms to the hips. The effect is to lift or compress the breasts while exaggerating the narrow waist. Some corsets, depending on individual style stop at the top of the hips while others may extend down over the hips. As with most types of lingerie, some are more decorative, while others are more functional.
Corsets are typically constructed of fabric panels with stiff boning (also called ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the fabric. Popular fabrics include satin, cotton, rayon, polyester, silk, PVC and leather. In the 19th century, steel and whalebone were favored for the boning. Plastic is now the most commonly used material for lightweight corset boning. Corsets get their iconic reputation by use of hook and eye fasteners in the front and lacing, usually at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing produces corresponding changes in the fit and firmness of the corset. Corsets can be laced from the top down, from the bottom up, or both up from the bottom and down from the top, using two laces that meet in the middle. It is very difficult, although not impossible for a back-laced corset wearer to do their own lacing. Once the lacing is adjusted comfortably, it is possible to leave the lacing in place and take the corset on and off using the front opening (busk). A corset may also include attached garters to hold up stockings and historically, this was one of the important functions of the corset, as it was an essential piece of lingerie.
In recent years, the term “corset” has also been borrowed by the fashion industry to refer to tops which, to varying degrees mimic the look of traditional corsets and similar lingerie. While these modern corset tops often feature lacing and boning to look like true corsets, they often have a minimal effect on the shape of the wearer’s body. Some lingerie corsets however do offer a nice compromise of both the shaping power of a true corset and the sensual experience of intimate wear.
Traditional corset construction has undergone a renaissance in recent years with a wide range of beautiful, high quality corsets now available from talented craftsmen. It has never been easier to find a real corset that fits your personality and body like a glove.