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 assumed 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 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.
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.