Over the years, the corset has been considered a tool of both seduction and subjugation. But whatever your take, its feminine curves will not be ignored. At a given moment, the hourglass figure has been all the rage, then falls from favor again and again. Here, a timeline of some of the most provocative moments.
The women of Crete pioneer the corseted look in 2500 B.C. Their bare-breasted goddess figures are bound around the middle, playing up their curvy shapes. A little later, the girdled lovelies of ancient Greece, Athena (left), Aphrodite, et al., inspire sculptors and send Homer into a reverie.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, men and women alike don corsets stiffened with wood. And they wear them tighter than ever. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer extols the carpenter’s sexy wife, noting that, “As any weasel’s, her body was slim and small.” The look, however, is lampooned.
Fashionable types give up those metal cages during the 17th century, in favor of busks — bodices with sewn-in wooden or iron rods. Over the next 200 years, corsets are stiffened by leather or whalebone in addition to metal. The busk look, below.
In England in 1463, Edward IV’s sumptuary laws forbid any woman below the rank of knight’s wife or daughter to wear ornate corsets. Of course, those gold-wrought waist pinchers are all the rage at court. In 1560, Emperor Joseph of Austria takes a stand against rampant tight-lacing by banning corsets in any place where girls are educated, especially nunneries.
Catherine de Medici takes corseting to the extreme in 1579, ordering up a steel piece designed to slim her royal waist down to a mere 13 inches, or so the story goes. Not only do all of Catherine’s ladies and her son Henry III adopt the style, but, across the channel, Queen Elizabeth suits up in a metal corset of her own.
Enormous panniers and hoop skirts help create the illusion of a tiny waist in the 18th century. At the court of Louis XVI, women like Marie Antoinette (right) are laced to the limit, then sewn into their elaborate dresses. In the 1790s, however, after the French Revolution, adventurous ladies shed their corsets and embrace the au naturel Empire style.
The early 1800s bring back the hourglass figure and the wasp waist, a look best attained by lacing up tighter-than-tight. Girls as young as 10 are corseted, and by 1850, doctors blame tight-lacing for earaches, nose bleeds, whooping cough, asthma, consumption and hysteria, among other ailments. Among the few women heeding these medical warnings: Amelia Bloomer, who prescribes wearing shorter skirts and, of course, bloomers.
Women begin riding bicycles, and even swimming while bound, providing corset makers with a new angle, one of more healthful, comfortable constriction. Ferris advertises its most popular model as the “Good Sense Corset.” The turn of the century brings anti-rusting techniques and elastic inserts, and a 22-inch waist becomes the ideal. Of course, the curvaceous Lillian Russell promotes a far more extreme silhouette, one her press agent insists is a result of milk baths, not corsetry.
Wearing a corset during World War I isn’t just impractical, it’s unpatriotic. The garment restricts movement and uses up valuable steel. No matter. Back in 1909, fashionable women had already begun to ditch their corsets in favor of Paul Poiret’s softer silhouette and Empire waistline. At right, the kinder, gentler foundations of 1915.
The corset favored by Gibson girls in the early 1900s runs long to the thigh and creates a “kangaroo” silhouette, straight in front and curved in back.
The 1920s shilouette creates a corsetless era, but for women whose figures are more ample than boyish, a youthful shape could be attained by wearing the newer girdle-type garments and a “flattener” brassiere.
Improved elastic technology eliminates the need for boning during the early 1930s, though the first elastic step-in corset was created in 1910. Corsets and girdles follow the Jazz Age models, but now with just a hint of a nipped-in waist.
Welcome back! In 1947 Christian Dior introduces his New Look and reintroduces the good old corset. Of course, the latest models are made with nylon and are lighter than ever. Below, a corset style from the early Fifties.
Caged and curvaceous looks new once again. In 2000 and 2001, designers such as John Galliano at Dior, Tom Ford at Gucci and Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga all reprise and revamp the look. Long live curves!
After a stretch of bralessness and spare lingerie, in the 1980s, innerwear becomes outerwear, and the corset gets plenty of play on the runway. The look is girlish yet naughty and is favored by Madonna, who famously wears Jean Paul Gaultier’s outlandish gear at the end of the decade.