Corsets - An Origin
When watching older movies, it seems like every woman is wearing a corset, probably because everyone was doing it in the 16th century. The corset introduced a new concept to fashion, it was no longer about shaping clothes to the body, instead it was making the body conform to the emergence of fashionable clothes.
It was never intended to pinch the waist in order to create that famous hourglass figure, instead it was designed with the intention to flatten the bust line and raise it, and then mold the torso into a cylindrical shape. While there is a reference to the fashionable small waist in the 16th century, the real fashion was a flat torso and that was what the corset was designed for.
Most of these myths come from Elizabethan England, and another one of those is their discomfort. However, when a corset is fitted and then laced correctly it is comfortable. There are some women who happen to be well endowed that feel a corset is more comfortable and offers greater support than the modern bra. Not only that, but a boned-tab corset can offer excellent back support.
Corsets spent the 16th century hidden underneath layers of clothing, so it isn’t the easiest piece of fashion to find out about. However, there is a German woodcarving showing the 1520’s woman clearly wearing a corset. Though it appears that for many years it was part of the clothing, as opposed to a separate piece. The original corset, or the kirtle was the rage in the 15th century, but as fashion changed with silhouettes becoming flatter and flatter, the kirtle wasn’t sufficient. This is where the corset evolved into its own garment, at the time it was called the “payre of bodies”. However, in written references the “payre of bodies” could also refer to a gown’s bodice.
The first certain reference to corsets came from the 1550’s, in Mary Tudor’s wardrobe accounts. There were four items of clothing that matched this description.
While her favorite choice of fabric was satin, and the prevalent wardrobe color was crimson, the stiffened bodice of a corset was a practical way to distribute the weight of the gown.
It wasn’t just Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth also had a large amount of corset like garments in her wardrobe accounts.
These accounts show different materials from leather, bents and buckram, were used to stiffen the bodies of corsets and it was near the end of the 16th century that whalebone became the preference.
So from their conception, corsets were constructed by professional tailors. Those women who were unable to afford a tailor would make their own corsets at home, using small reeds to stiffen their sackcloth material.
They were created in three pieces that were made separately, this meant that if the wearer was to gain, or lose, weight the back panel could be changed out in order to accommodate the weight change.
Throughout the 16th century corsets were made using linen, and for the nobility: silk or satin. The stiffening materials were: horn, reeds, corded rope and whalebone.
What they do? They eliminate the bulk at the waist, whether it is to flatten the torso or cinch the waist.