History of the Corset
Throughout history, trends governing women`s sizes have changed in accordance with economic strength, political events and public attitudes, yet the waist/hip ratio has always been considered a symbol of beauty. Female curves are seen by many cultures as emblematic of fertility and, therefore, femininity. Attitudes governing how far women are prepared to go for beauty have dominated the evolution of corsetry since the 1800s.
The first designs were laced constrictively and stiffened with paste, leading to public health concerns dominated by the excessive constraints of the torso. Initially, these undergarments created an unnatural shape that turned the torso into an upside-down cone. As the Western world gained access to European markets, the more recognizable silk and whalebone designs offered a more extreme hourglass structure that maximized the waist/hip ratio. It was only later in the 1800s that the word, `corset` was coined, bringing with it a popularity boom that turned the garment into the foundation for every outfit worn by aristocracy.
During the Twenties, dropped waists gave women a more boyish shape, but this did not deter corset fans from wearing their favorite garment. Instead, restrictive whalebone was cast aside in favor of a more comfortable girdle that constrained the hips instead of the waist. Hair became cropped and the typical flat-chested, narrow hipped silhouette of the decade caused a massive decline in corset sales. Fun-loving flappers wanted to move freely and latex girdles kept their stomachs flat without restricting their ability to dance.
The Thirties brought with it a rebound in femininity, which brought the corset back into public focus. Women were generally unwilling to exchange comfort and health for fashion, but boned corsets were still on offer. Garters and structured brassieres were added to corsets, creating the shape that today`s women know and love. Fabricators introduced nylon and other synthetics that made room for sheer, embellished and delicate corset designs. The fashionable female wore a size ten or twelve and showed off well-rounded hips that contrasted against a narrow but curvaceous stomach.
During the Forties, large hip/waist ratios were highly sought after, yet fashion made plenty of room for a variety of sizes and shapes. Corsets focused on lifting and separating the breasts while drawing in the waist. The economic and political crises of the era left a struggling society in search of the escapism that fashion provided. During the Fifties, the famed waspie corset was born, setting a trend that would continue well beyond the twentieth century. This piece narrowed the body below the bust line and above the hips. The more feminine Merry Widow corset brought dainty lace detailing to elasticated designs that controlled without restriction. The decorative trims and conical bust lines this piece achieved made this garment an iconic symbol of its era.
The freedom of the Sixties was not quite as pervasive as many believe. Despite a dramatic decrease in the popularity of corsetry, the women`s weight loss movement began to flourish. Fashionable females stopped using undergarments to enhance their figures and began dieting instead. Women began to show off their unadulterated body shapes. The affordable, less restrictive store-bought girdles of the Sixties made way for the panty-girdles of the Seventies, which created a smoother hip and waist line without sacrificing the comfort of its wearers.
The Eighties brought a dramatic shift as designers began to use corsets as outerwear instead of underwear. The identity of this garment began to represent female sexual freedom and power. Increasingly, intricate design features were used to beautify the garment, with experimental blends of masculine and feminine features merging through wide shoulder pads and nipped-in waists. Starlets of the Nineties took ownership of their seductive powers by wearing corsets on magazine covers and on the streets. Today, women no longer demonstrate their emancipation as predominantly through their clothing. Instead, contemporary corsets are worn as designer underwear. Innovative fabrics comfortably achieve a smooth, natural-looking curve.
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Eleanor Laing writes about fashion and issues affecting full figured women for FranBlass Plus Size Lingerie