Monday, September 15, 2014

Of Corset Matters

As Napoleon began to consolidate his might, he grew preoccupied with building a dynasty. To do so, he needed a male heir to assure his throne and lots of male infants to swell the future armies. So, in 1800, he issued a denunciation of corsets -- they interfered with pregnancy, he declared.

Jean Simmons in Désirée (1954)

Of course, the dictum fell on deaf ears. Fashion conscious French women, including his two wives, continued to wear corsets.

Jacqueline Bissett in Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story (1987)

Corsets gave pain a new meaning in the nineteenth century as women laced up whalebone garments to achieve an ideal eighteen-inch waist. Anna Pavlova wore a pink corset to dance her "dying swan".

Costume designed for Anna Pavlova for Dying Swan.
Sarah Bernhardt wore hers in the bath.

Sarah Bernhardt
And even in the heat of darkest Africa, missionary Mary Livingston wouldn't dream of discarding her corset.

The word comes from the French corps, or "body". Some sort of corset or lacing to make the body appear slimmer was worn as far back as the Golden Age, when Greek lovelies strapped leather bands around their breasts and hips under their chitons.

Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)

The modern corset, which shaped the bosom and hips while accentuating the waist, evolved during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. While this was far from the time of equality between the sexes, they did share some vanities: the corset was worn by men as well as women.

The shape of corsets changed continually with the changing ideal of what the body silhouette should look like. Sometimes women wore corsets which accentuated or raised their bosoms. Sometimes corsets diminished or emphasized the hips.

Abbie Cornish in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

The Effigy Corset of Queen Elizabeth I

In the sixteenth century the corset, stiffened with stays of metal, wood, or whalebone, formed a sort of armor around a woman's body. Her hips were enlarged and supported with the farthingale and her décolletage emphasized.

French Iron Corset 1580-1600 collection
Kyoto Costume Institute

17th Century Wooden Corset

Short-waisted in the seventeenth century, corsets became longer, more pointed, and cone-shaped in the eighteenth century.

Tight corset, circa 1770

Marie Antoinette's corset
Image: Pinterest
The nineteenth century vogue for Scarlett O'Hara-like waists meant that women had trouble breathing as corsets were more and more tightly laced.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

In fact, corsets were so tightly laced by the mid-1800's that they restricted breathing, causing ribs to overlap, and were a general pain in whatever they happened to be constricting.

Half-boned Stays, 1770-80's, French.
Image: Pinterest
Stays, 1765
Image: Pinterest

Corset, 1830-40's
Image: Pinterest

Circa 1902
Image: Pinterest
Rachel McAdams and Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Victorian Corset
Image: Pinterest
Doctors, philosophers, and reformers railed against the confounded contraptions. But fashion is fashion, and no matter how uncomfortable, women weren't willing to throw them out until styles changed. That happened around the turn of the century, when designer Paul Poiret created the corsetless chemise.

Finally, women could breath easier for a while -- at least, that is, until the invention of the girdle.

-- Courtesy of Let There Be Clothes by Lynn Schnurnberger --


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