The corset got a major makeover following the overwhelming popularity of the Netflix hit series Bridgerton. The constrictive undergarment was brought out from under its layers, and versions like the viral Urban Outfitters corset have taken over the internet.
Let's take a closer look at how the modern corset came to be, and how this recognizable garment changed throughout history.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
One of the earliest iterations of the corset was found in ancient Greece, more specifically, the Minoan people. According to a blog post from the Hagen History Center, the Minoans lived on the island of Crete around 1,600 BC. An unearthed statue of a Minoan snake goddess depicts her wearing a garment that closely resembles a corset. The blog says that the Minoan beauty standard emphasized a small waist, something that we still see today in modern beauty standards.
Source: Hagen History Center
Its appearance during the Bronze Age was brief, and the corset fell out of fashion history until the Middle Ages, where the corset gained traction in the wealthy class. Britannica says that during the 16th century, corsets were actually worn by both men and women. The corset was a separate undergarment made of fabric and stiffened using wood, horn, or bone. Focus wasn't just on making the waist smaller, but accentuating the breasts as well. Laced in either the front or the back, the garment was incredibly restrictive, and we can't imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to wear.
Since the garment was reserved for the upper classes, embellishments like fur, pearls, and embroidery were typically added to showcase the wearer's wealth.
The popularity of the corset in the noble class trickled down to the masses by the Regency Era, which just so happens to be the time setting for Bridgerton. We all know the scene where Prudence Featherington gets tight-laced into a corset, but did you know that the Netflix series got that wrong?
According to the Wildcat Tribune, the ways in which women could wear corsets were multiplying, and tight-lacing like we saw on the show wasn't all that common. The article says that corsets - called busks or stays during the era - were made of soft cotton with stiffer cotton acting as a support. It wasn't until the advent of metal eyelets in the early 1800s that tight-lacing became the norm.
Source: Ilse Gregoor Costume Design
Corsetry reached its peak in the Victorian era, with the addition of metal eyelets, at which point safety concerns about the garment were raised. Vogue France says that during this time period, doctors began to connect excessive restriction from the corset to lung damage and limited respiratory capacity. The immense popularity of such a restrictive piece of clothing gave way to an unexpected interior design trend, the fainting couch. Placed in a specific room, the fainting couch gave breathless Victorian women a place to recover after an inevitable fainting spell caused by the corset.
The design of the corset also became more confining during the Victorian era when the garment was extended to cover not just the waist, but several inches down to the hip. Accompanied with tight-lacing, the corset drew criticism during the first wave of feminism, where corsets were demonized for their detriment to women's health and its constricting nature, which many believed was a patriarchal trap to keep women subservient.
Source: Susana Aikin
By the early 1900s, the corset's popularity took a sharp decline after Mary Phelps Jacobs patented the design for the modern bra in 1914. Aside from a far less uncomfortable undergarment finally entering the market, the materials used to make corsets were in high demand for other reasons. During this time, corset boning shifted from using whale bone to steel. World War I all but ceased the production of the corset as there was a dire need for steel to support the war effort. According to The Archive, enough steel was diverted from corset production to produce two whole battleships.
Source: Atlas Obscura
The 1920s continued the corset's decline in relevance as the flapper look took over, which favored a straight and boyish figure over the desirable curves of centuries past. However, corsets weren't completely gone just yet. The Gossard Corsetiere revamped the corset's design for the era by creating a below-the-bust design that slimmed the hips and thighs to further enhance the flapper figure.
Dresses at this point in time were designed to be more straight and flowy, and were typically accessorized with fringe to create movement while dancing. The design changes of the Gossard corset gave women more freedom in their movement.
Source: Click Americana
Phelps Jacobs's brassiere design was soon incorporated into corsetry in subsequent decades, and the 1930s saw corsets becoming a multi-functional undergarment. According to Vintage Fashion Guild, the emphasis on the waistline was beginning to make a return despite the popularity of drop-waisted dresses. The materials constructing the garment changed, too. Cotton remained a fabric of choice, but new materials like rayon and elasticated fabrics made the corset significantly more comfortable for everyday wear.
Girdles also re-emerged during the 30s and continued their rise into the 1940s, where World War II placed heavy limits on the usage of luxury fabrics like the ones used to construct corsets. Brassieres were more commonplace, but Dior's 1947 collection, dubbed The New Look, brought back the corset during the post-war era.
Dior completely revolutionized corsetry after decades of dormancy from falling out of fashion. Vintage Connection says that Dior's corset, nicknamed "the waspie," was a modified version of the Victorian corset designed to take several inches off the wearer's waist. The designers collection was hyper-feminine and reintroduced the hourglass body shape into modern fashion once again.
A common New Look ensemble was a corseted top and full calf-length skirt, designed to accentuate Dior's vision of how a woman's body should look. After the bland and limited fashions that World War II required, women flocked to Dior and its cheaper alternatives to reclaim their femininity and embrace being fashionable once more. Despite its overwhelming popularity, it was criticized by many as being a step back in women's freedom of dress by forcing women back into clothing that limited movement.
Source: Rarely Wears Lipstick
Lycra and other stretchy materials entered the market in the 1960s and 70s, and early shapewear we recognize today began to take form. A focus on health took over, and women all but abandoned the corset in favor of pursuing a healthy diet, exercise, or plastic surgery to achieve their ideal shape.
The youth culture of the 60s and 70s gravitated toward mod designs like mini skirts and hot pants, making the traditional longline corset all but useless. However, the rise of the punk aesthetic powered by designers like Vivienne Westwood brought corsets back to the forefront in the subculture. Westwood subverted the traditional meaning of the corset by reconstructing the garment as a symbol of female empowerment rather than oppression. Cult films like Barbarella in 1968 strengthened the corset's appeal in fetish subcultures.
Source: The Guardian
The 1990s brought corsets from underwear to outerwear, and corsets decorated with embellishments like frills and bows entered the marketplace. The continued rise of fetish attire alongside the burlesque movement helped the corset regain some of its modern popularity we know and love today. Companies like Agent Provocateur capitalized on the perception shift of corsets and marketed it as an empowering lingerie staple.
The most iconic moment in modern corsetry is undoubtedly Madonna's Jean Paul Gautier corset, worn on the first night of her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour. The pink satin cone bra has become an instantly recognizable pop culture phenomenon, and corsetry became all the rage in New York City nightlife. Major backlash from conservatives followed, but her daring statement cemented the push of sexual liberation for women.
A new form of corsetry emerged in the 2000s: Spanx. Instead of using boning like a traditional corset, Spanx made shapewear more comfortable by creating a garment similar to compression materials worn by athletes today. The goal is no longer to force a woman's body into an unnatural shape, but to displace any areas of insecurity by creating a smoothing effect overall. From shorts to full bodysuits, Spanx created a more livable version of corsetry coupled with the benefit of increased blood flow.
The fundamental design of Spanx can be seen in modern brands like Skims and Yitty, who are working to make shapewear more size and body inclusive. Before those brands came along, though, we saw all the Instagram celebrities and influencers promoting waist trainers, practically a corset under a different name. The same health problems discussed in the Victorian era reentered the public concern, with the added issue of potentially damaging waist-slimming products being marketed to impressionable young people.
Source: Hourglass Angel
Finally we reach the modern day, and corsets are more popular than ever. We already discussed "the Bridgerton effect" in bringing back the corset's popularity, but the garment's newfound inspiration can also be spotted in shows like HBO Max's Euphoria, where the pandemic-era frills and Regency-inspired embellishments have been replaced with bright colors and edgier details. We're less focused on the shaping aspect of the corset, and the corset tops that are on trend today are more closely related to bustier tops.
On the runway, it's clear that the corset isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Mugler has dedicated themselves to innovating the traditional corset, and their Fall/Winter 2023 collection showcased a number of intricately detailed corsets.
Source: Teen Vogue
From a Minoan snake goddess to Mugler, the corset has cemented its place in fashion history. The garment may have had restrictive and controversial roots, but the design has evolved into a wardrobe staple designed to make women feel empowered and beautiful. The introduction of body-inclusive shapewear brands has demonstrated that the focus has shifted from confidence rather than an unattainable and unhealthy body standard. All in all, corsets are here to stay.