Unless you’re completely new here (hello!), you may have noticed that here at Scarlett Gasque we’re all pretty obsessed with corsets. Our founder, Chloé, has always been drawn to the burlesque performers, pin-up stars and glamour girls of the 1950s who wore beautifully decorated corsets, waspies and lingerie as part of their alluring costumes. Corset purchases and interest in vintage underwear have been rapidly increasing in recent years and the trend doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon. But, the history of corsetry goes back much further than you may think, with the controversial garment reflecting the ever-evolving role of women in society, going from a restrictive tool of the patriarchy to control women’s bodies, to being a symbol of sexual liberation and female autonomy. Join us as we take you on a quick exploration into the history of corsetry.
Although you may think that corsets weren’t created until the Renaissance era which spanned the 15th and 16th centuries, corset-like artefacts have been found by archaeologists dating as far back as 1600 BC and seemed to be worn by both men and women alike. However, their popularity among the fashion-conscious did increase in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods when the garment was adopted into the wardrobes of European royalty, eventually trickling down to the nobility and wealthy upper echelons of Western society. Despite modern media portraying corsets as uncomfortable and restrictive, many women of this time noted their orthopaedic benefits as they supported the back and lifted the breasts to reduce pressure on the spine. The boning of corsets was often made from either whalebone, steel or iron and was designed to flatten the breasts to properly display the expensive and fine fabrics with intricate patterns that wrapped around the structure of the corset. They also had special holes at the bottom of the corset where women could attach their skirts and petticoats to keep them in place, as well as pads and hoops which helped narrow the appearance of the waist. Queen Elizabeth I was extremely fond of corsets and was supposedly even buried wearing one after her death.
During the Regency Period which lasted from 1795 to 1837 and is now famous for being the setting for Netflix’s popular period series, Bridgerton, corsets were staples of every woman’s wardrobes and came in a variety of styles, shapes and designs. They were often made from stiff cotton, not too dissimilar to jeans of the 21st century, and whilst they did have boning, they also had a slot in the front for a ‘busk’, a metal or wooden support that helped slim the stomach. Although this period was restrictive for women as they had little control or power within society, their undergarments were designed for each individual body and many women had multiple corset types, from more rigid and formal corsets for evening balls, to more relaxed and comfortable corsets that they could wear when lounging in the comfort of their own homes. A common misconception is that women were unable to move freely or even breathe in corsets during this time due to the tightening of lace strays at the back but this wasn’t actually a customary design feature till the 19th century.
When you think of a corset today, you most likely conjure images of the Victorian era corset, with its shape-defining tight-lacing at the back, and a front fastening busk that allowed the garment to be taken on and off quickly and without assistance. During the Victorian period which encompassed the reign of Queen Victoria I from 1837 to 1901, groups such as women’s rights activists and male physicians began to criticise corsetry for its physical restrictions on a woman’s body, with medical scholars at the time believed the garment could cause organ displacement and skeletal deformities, although modern historians note that there was little evidence of this. However, not all women were ready to give up their corsets, with a famous quote taken from The Women’s Suffrage Journal stating to “stick to your stays” (stays is a colloquial term for corsets and bodices). Many women felt that their fashion and in particular corsets were one of the few ways in which they could express their individuality in a socially acceptable manner, emphasising their womanly shape in a time of sexual repression. Women were also beginning to become more involved in sports and exercise leading to the invention of a sports corset which connected separate front and back pieces with thick side straps made with malleable elastic which was invented in the 1920s.
During the 20th century, corsets began to fall out of fashion in favour of separate bodywear pieces such as chemises, girdles and bras. If you want to learn more about changing lingerie trends throughout the past 100 years, check out our ‘Lingerie by The Decades’ blog where we detail what was hot and what was not from 1920 to 2023 and beyond! Due to cultural events such as WWII in which women entered the workforce en masse whilst the men were fighting at war, corsets were abandoned altogether. It wasn’t until the 1980s that corsets reappeared prominently, however instead of being worn for body support and hidden beneath dresses and shirts, corsets were now a fashion statement, proudly in full view and considered outerwear. This cultural redefinition of corsets was led by pop stars and icons such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who sparked the trend of wearing underwear as outerwear. They now came in softer fabrics such as lace and silk, or tough leather and pleather, some didn’t have any boning at all and others were cropped to show off the midriff. Post-COVID-19, more traditional corsetry designs are becoming increasingly fashionable, with the rise of trends such as ‘cottage-core’, ‘ballet-core’ and ‘regency-core’ inspired by a desire within the market to return to a less tech-focused society.
In the 19th century, women reclaimed corsetry as a form of their own sexual expression and liberation. Within the fashion industry, designers such as Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood created modern takes on corsets that they believed empowered women rather than restricted them. But as we have discovered in our quick history lesson, modern notions of the corsets of yesteryear are not always totally accurate. Many women in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries adored their corsetry, taking pride in the way it fits their own bodies like a glove, enhancing their natural curves and made from fine and ornate fabrics that allowed them to express their individuality. The burlesque performers of the 19th century wore corsets to challenge gender stereotypes and used their art form to coyly comment on political and societal topics of their time. They used this sensual and explicitly sexy undergarment to find freedom within their own sexuality, representing all the women who came before them and also adored their corsets. Find your own freedom with our beautiful range of vintage-inspired corsets, all with a modern twist of course.