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Tying One On: Corsetry

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Tying One On: Corsetry

The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion, according to Valerie Steele, author of The Corset: A Cultural History.

It has been promoted by popular culture as a coercive instrument of women’s oppression that crushed ribs and internal organs, caused diseases, and reduced them to ridiculous slaves of fashion with their attempts at the fabled 18-inch waist. A gross exaggeration according to Ms. Steele, who believes this was largely a mythology supported by a few strategically-placed 18th century caricatures like John Collet’s print Tight Lacing (Fashion Before Ease) showing a woman being laced into her corset with great effort. Of course, across time, there are always those that kick an idea up a notch or ten.

The corset was an essential element of fashionable dress for about 400 years, beginning with aristocratic court culture then trickling down to all classes. Women wore different kinds of corsets: short and long, tight-laced and lightly-laced for various reasons, including as a mark of social status, respectability and self-discipline and for the expression of beauty, youth and sexual allure. In western civilization men, too – mostly soldiers and dandies – wore corsets to emphasize their posture, broad shoulders and narrow, almost feminine, waists. In the 18th century, children of both sexes wore stays (corsets) to ensure good posture and comportment: girls from the age of two through adulthood and boys until they were ‘breeched’ – put into pants –  around the age of six.

If the baleen (whale) or wooden stays were not successful in shaping a body from birth (making them ‘upright’ and ‘upstanding’), surgeons could strap patients into cage-like metal versions to make more substantial spinal corrections. Today, elasticized corsets continue to be used by men and women to effectively control back pain.

Since you’re unlikely to be searching for a corset as a medical device but as something more aesthetically pleasing, here are the differences between real corsets and other corset-inspired garments. Just because something is labelled as a corset it doesn’t mean that, from a performance perspective, it is. And in corsetry, performance is everything.


Overbust/Underbust Corsets
An overbust corset provides support for the chest (covering) and compression of the waist. An underbust begins under the breasts and requires a bra (at least if you’re going out in public). Both employ real boning for shape/structure and can be tight-laced for waist training. As with other types of clothing, a custom fitting plus quality of materials and fabrication determine how well the corset will fit and shape your body.

Waist Cinchers
This is a shorter/narrower version of the underbust corset, worn more like a wide belt. As the name suggest, it is used for compression of the waist.

Corseted tops
Imagine a store-bought Wonder Woman halloween costume – and then imagine the quality. Corseted tops may have the accoutrements of a bra and some light boning, but, on the authenticity scale, they are the farthest from the real deal.

Like a full-body girdle, a bustier will tighten up a bust and waist but without the support and rendering of a full hourglass shape. A bustier is considered underwear and is worn in support of other clothing.

A bodice is a piece of clothing worn over a chemise or shirt, which may include boning and can be laced. This is a piece of outerwear, like a fancy vest, and the under-shirt keeps it fresh.

Although there is no substitute for a hands-on fitting, excellent general advice is available online at The Lingerie Addict.

These select corsetieres provide an intriguing overview of the general types of corset styles available by style, form, construction, fabric and purpose.

San Francisco:
Dark Garden Corsetry & Couture
Corsets for men and women, including the Beau Brummell stealth corset with the appearance of a tailored waistcoat

Los Angeles:
Puimond Progressive Corset Design
Specializing in bridal, burlesque, fetish & tight-lacing

Atsuko Kudo
Couture latex clothing for women

Morgana Femme Couture
Made-to-measure corsets using authentic technique adjusted for the modern woman; animal-friendly (no leather or real fur)

Period Corsets
Complete period undergarment silhouettes from all historical eras as well as custom designs

Los Angeles & London:
What Katie Did
A leading brand of vintage inspired lingerie used by movie studio to create authentic silhouettes; retro underwear is inspired by designs from the 1940s and 1950s and the patterns are often adapted from vintage pieces



The Corset A Cultural History by Valerie Steele


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