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A little Corset History, 1820 - 1870

When the waistline started slipping down towards its natural location in the 1820's, the bust again needed support beyond that given by the dress itself. The earliest corsets appear already by about 1800, but they are usually simply reenforced bodices of petticoats or adapted earlier styles.



A completely new style of corset needed to be developed. Whereas prior to 1800 the "stays" were a stiff, unyielding garment, which pressed the female figure into a completely unnatural inverted cone, the new corsets were designed to follow the female figure and enhance its forms as fashion demanded.

Stays in the 1700's created
an unnatural shape
for the female torso
(Jean Hunnisett, 1991)

Initially the corset was made from almost straight pieces of strong cotton fabric (jean) and inset gussets at the bust and hips achieved the necessary curving.


From the 1820's on the shaping was achieved by inset gussets and quilting and cording (Jean Hunnisett, 1991)


The center front was held straight by a wooden busk slipped into a pocket in the corset. Cording and quilting of the fabric gave the stiffening so that fewer bones had to be used. Whalebone even then was rather expensive.

The corset of the 1820's was high waisted, but long in the hips, because the skirts were gored and required a smooth hip line.


Early 1830's fashion with high
waistlines and gored skirts
(La Mode, 1831)

As the waist moved lower the corsets became tighter in the waist and the overall line was stiffer. The corset had shaped pieces as well as inset gussets.  
1830's corsets gave a high waist
and sloping hips (period lithograph)

The stiff restrictive
line of the 1840's
in a lovely
period Daguerreotype

A corset pattern from 1844, shaped and gusseted for a wooden busk (Allgemeine Modezeitung, 1844)
The busks continued to be made from wood until well into the 1840's, which lead to the stiff upright stance seen on many early photographs

The fashions in the later 1850's are still long
waisted, but softer in their overall appearance
(Allgemeine Modezeitung, October 1856)


In the 1850's the lines of fashion became softer and more curved than straight, this was also mirrored in the corsets worn. The wooden busk was now discarded and replaced with a springy steel busk.

The steel busk also permitted the front opening corset to be introduced, so now it was possible for a woman to put her corset on by herself. The waist was still rather below its natural position, so the corsets were still long over the hips.

But with the widening skirts and the invention of the cage crinoline in about 1857, the waist returned to its natural position. The wide skirts also allowed the waist to be a little thicker, as there was sufficient contrast to the hips covered by the extended skirt.




The ideal fashion line of the 1860's upper body was a broad chest with sloping wide shoulders to make the waist appear small. The corset did not need to make the hips smaller, but it did need to be supportive of the weight of the crinoline and skirt.

So the corsets of the 1860's were rather shorter than those worn before or after, and less restrictive.

  A big skirt will make the waist look small - naturally. But note how the bodice trim and the large sleeves add to the optical effect. By now the waist has moved up to just above its natural position. (Peterson's October 1862)

However, this effect only works if the crinoline extends the hips and the chest appears wide - then the waist narrows optically

There were two main styles of corsets now; one made of lots of shaped or gored pieces, the other of fewer shaped pieces but with inset gussets.

The new "Victoria Corset" advertised by Madame Demorest in 1862 is not stiff at all but follows the idealized female shape of the 1860's  

When the crinoline was discarded in the late 60's a new corset shape was needed to help define the ideal figure - the new corsets were steam molded, had stiffer spoon-shaped busks, more boning, and were all in all much heavier, stiffer, and far more restrictive.

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