Corsets

The corset, a tightly fastened body suit designed to push up or flatten a woman's breasts, or to hug her waist until her figure as

sumed an "hourglass" shape (big on the top and bottom, but slim in the middle), was an essential foundation of fashionable dress for women for over four hundred years. Derived from the French word for body, it has been worn throughout the Western world from the sixteenth century to the present. First introduced in the Spanish and French royal courts of the sixteenth century, corsets were designed to mold women's bodies into the correct shape to fit changing fashions of dress. Corsets were not seen, but they provided the shape a woman needed to wear the latest dresses. Because the needed shape changed so often, corset designs changed as well.

By the eighteenth century corsets had become sophisticated and complex. The clothing worn by wealthy women of this period was highly decorative, made of the best materials. Corsets too were made of lavish materials and often had a concealed pocket into which women would tuck fragrant herbs or small packets of perfume. The shape was similar to a funnel, tapering from chest to waist in a straight line, and stiffened with strips of whalebone. These replaced the wood or metal supports of earlier corsets and were used to shape the body into the figure desired. During the eighteenth century it was fashionable for a woman to show much of her bosom. Corsets were designed to force the breasts up and together into a position known as "rising moons." Most women's figures did not conform to this ideal, however, so the corset put a great deal of strain on the body, tearing the skin, breaking ribs, and in some cases even bruising the internal organs. There are recorded cases where women actually died because their corsets were tied too tight.

In France one of the popular corset styles was the Corps Baleine. It was tight fitting and long-waisted, had over-the-shoulder straps, and was worn over a blouse. Its whalebone supports were so rigid they alarmed many medical professionals of the day. Doctors protested, and by 1773 some women in the royal court were excused from wearing whalebone-stiffened corsets. By the

Court Royal Corsetry
The corset, a tightly fastened body suit, was designed to push up or flatten a woman's breasts, or to hug her waist until her figure assumed an "hourglass" shape. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Napoleonic Era (1793—1815; so named because it coincided with the rule of Napoleón Bonaparte I [1769-1821], emperor of France), cotton had emerged as the most popular corset fabric. Softer, more natural lines became fashionable, and the painful supports briefly went out of favor. In the nineteenth century, as slim waists and the hourglass figure came back into style, corsets again grew very constrictive. Late in the nineteenth century, however, increasing calls for female independence contributed first to the development of freer, less constrictive corset designs, and finally to the garment's decline. In the twentieth century the primary garments for defining a woman's shape were the brassiere and the girdle, a kind of slimming, elastic underpant. Early in the twenty-first century there was a brief return of the corset's popularity, now worn either alone or on top of a blouse for mainly decorative purposes. This most recent corset interest was merely a fad, however, and was never widely adopted.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. London, England: B. T. Batsford, 1954.

[See also Volume 3, Sixteenth Century: Farthingales; Volume 4, 1900-18: Brassiere]

JJp until the end of the eighteenth century, the sleeve of most women's dresses ended near the elbow. From beneath the dress sleeve, the ruffled white sleeve of the cotton undergarment was revealed. The exposed ruffles or bits of lace were called engageantes. Engageantes could be a single layer of ruffle or several tiers of frilly lace gathered around a woman's lower arm. Often the lace on the engageantes matched the lace used on the woman's cap and the tuft of lace she often tucked into her bodice near the bustline of her

dress. Engageantes continued Europeans' love affair with lace until the end of the eighteenth century, when dress sleeves were shortened to small shoulder caps.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press,

1965.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Old Egyptian Fashion

A grandmother, with engageantes peeking out from her sleeves, and her granddaughter. Engageantes continued Europeans' love affair with lace until the end of the eighteenth century. Reproduced by permission of © Geoffrey Clements/ CORBIS.

Fashion à la Victime

During the later years of the French Revolution (1789-99) at the end of the eighteenth century, many fashionable young people of the upper and middle classes adopted a style called h la victime, or "like the victim." This fashion imitated the look of the thousands of people who were executed by the government during the bloodiest period of the revolution. Sporting scarlet ribbons to symbolize the blood of the dead, and cutting their hair short the way the executioners cut their victims' hair, these young people celebrated the fall of the old government while cheering themselves through a horrifying period in history.

The French Revolution led to sweeping social changes in French society. The luxurious lives of the wealthy had created a great deal of anger among the French poor and middle class. This anger at the nobility exploded in many violent acts during the revolution. Some of these acts, such as the opening of the great prison

A grandmother, with engageantes peeking out from her sleeves, and her granddaughter. Engageantes continued Europeans' love affair with lace until the end of the eighteenth century. Reproduced by permission of © Geoffrey Clements/ CORBIS.

called the Bastille and attacks on the homes of wealthy nobles, were carried out by mobs of poor people. Other acts, like the "Reign of Terror" and other executions of enemies of the revolution, were carried out by the new government with the support of cheering crowds. The Reign of Terror is the name given to a nine-month period in 1793 and 1794 when over sixteen thousand so-called "enemies of the state" were executed in a public square in Paris, France. These enemies, mostly wealthy nobility and royalty, were killed with a new machine called the guillotine, which executed people quickly and efficiently by dropping a heavy blade to slice off their heads. The wonder at the modern marvel of the new killing machine combined with the fear, rage, and excitement aroused by all the deaths, led to the creation of fashion d la victime.

The revolution had brought an end to the excessively ornate fashions of the early to mid-1700s. Gone were the tall powdered wigs and hairdos and brilliant jewelry. Fashionable men and women cut their hair short and ragged, high on their neck in the back with curls falling over their foreheads in the front. This d la victime cut imitated the way the executioner sheared off the hair of those who approached the guillotine, so that the blade could cut cleanly through the neck. Women's gowns became simple loose dresses, like the nightgowns and underclothes worn by those who were herded from prison cells into carts bound for the public square and death. Red ribbons became stylish, worn around the neck to indicate the bloodline where the head was cut, or wrapped in an "X" across the breasts and around the arms to represent flowing blood. Both women and men wore small reproductions of the guillotine as jewelry. Ladies' hats were designed to look like the Bastille, a prison that had symbolized the cruelty of the old government. For supporters of the new government, these fashions symbolized the demise of the oppressive old rulers.

Though fashion d la victime was mainly for those who wanted to show support for the new government, there were also bals d la victime, or "dances of the victim." These were large parties to which only those whose relatives had been guillotined were invited. Guests wore black neckbands and armbands and danced together to mourn their dead by celebrating life. The simple styles of the fashion d la victime transformed into the Greek-inspired styles of the late eighteenth century such as the robe en chemise.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988.

[See also Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Robe en Chemise; Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Titus Cut]

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  • maddalena padovesi
    How were corsets fastened Knee in back?
    7 years ago

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