Today I’d like to talk about a topic that
is very near and dear to my heart: corsetry. This is probably a bad idea… buckle in boys,
this is gonna be a long one. We’ve all seen the egregiously inaccurate
historical costumes in movies, the notorious metal bikini armor in video games, the imaginative,
but gratuitous fantasy and seampunk corsets. I find a lot of beauty in functionality, and
to me, nothing exemplifies beautiful functionality better than corsets. Every element of the design,
from the fabrics chosen, to the pattern, to the layers, to the lacing method, to the
stitching, every part of it has a purpose and fulfills more than one function. I love corsets,
and I love fantasy corsets. I just sometimes wish that artists and designers would consider
the subject more carefully. Not that I claim expertise in corsetry, but I have a fair bit of
experience and I can ponder ideas and bring you along for the ride. Fair warning, because
there’s just so much history, the following information will include many vast generalizations,
and a heavy dose of my own personal opinions. The purpose of this study is to explore the
function of different types of corsets, to help you decide which styles might be most
appropriate to adapt into your fantasy world. Or if they’re even necessary at all. So, should your fantasy race wear corsets?
Well, the short answer is, it’s your world and they can wear whatever the — you want.
But is it reasonable? Does it fit into your culture and feel justified? The long answer
requires more data. In many ways it will depend on the particulars of your race: their cultural
values, lifestyles, available materials, and technological advancement. There are also
a plethora of types of corsetry, and all of that ought to be taken into account. Bust
support is in no way a modern concept, and if your culture is even in the early stages
of developed civilization, with towns, trade and basic sewing technology, then when developing
clothing for the culture, bust support is maybe something that should be considered.
Bust support can be achieved over, or underneath the clothing. Roman bathhouse mosaics show
imagery of women with simple flattening binders, strips of linen or leather wrapped tightly
across the bust, which could have been worn discretely beneath their loose dresses. In
ancient Greece, another method was used. On top of the linen chiton, cords were wrapped
underneath and across the bust, keeping it in place more like a harness. Though evidence
suggests that both of these methods might have been primarily used by women engaged
in sporting or hunting activities, and not necessarily worn daily.
Another example from antiquity, in a neighboring region, are the Minoans of Crete. Tight, waist
cinching corsets like that worn by the fertility goddess were not meant to contain the bust,
but display. Tiny waists became desirable, and highly decorative cinchers were worn by
both men and women for a time. In Europe, for the next several centuries,
a variety of methods were used for bust support. They ranged from tightly fitted supportive
kirtles and front-lacing cottes, which relied on a combination of strategic seam placement,
lacings, stiffened fabrics, and sometimes light boning, to do the job. There are a variety
of vests, including the Norse apron dress, which can provide support if close-fitting.
There were also medieval belts, double wrapped or wide and high-waisted. Any belt worn high
on the waist would have provided a measure of support similar to that of the Greek harness.
The earliest known predecessor to a modern bra is the Lengberg bra, which I have already
covered in more depth in a separate video. It was notable as a distinctly supportive
garment, made from linen, with separate cups, designed to contain, but also give shape to
the bust, rather than flattening it as many other early garments did.
Early in the Tudor era, a flat, conical shaped torso became fashionable, and to achieve this
silhouette, upper class women began to wear what were called “boned bodies, or a pair
of bodies”. They flattened the torso, pushing the hips down and the chest up. These bodies
were made of layers of stiffened fabric, usually linen, with rows of stitching containing bones.
At first the bones were reed or cane, but they soon began to shift to the highly superior
baleen, or whalebone. I believe that these bodies were usually made with attached skirts,
but by the Elizabethan era, examples can be found of fully separate pieces.
During the 17th century, boned bodies grew in popularity, and they do not seem to have
been determined to be strictly “underclothing” just yet. They were sometimes plain and simple
and worn under elaborate dresses, or sometimes they were trimmed and worn as over-bodices
with elaborate, interchangeable triangular stomachers. Sometimes they even had detachable
sleeves. And sometimes the simple functionality was combined with the elaborate dress, and
became a boned bodice. During the 18th century, boned bodies evolved
into stays, and by that point they were a cultural mainstay, worn by women of every
rank. Stays gave a framework to the gowns and jackets, they provided bust and back support
and a degree of protection from the elements to the average working women. They were made
for little girls and boys, to promote good posture. They were made specifically for men
or women to help with a variety of bone and muscular diseases, which medical science of
the time was not equipped to handle. They provided upper class women with the ability
to conform their body shape to current fashion, and hide their bodily imperfections beneath
layers of linen, whalebone, and padding. Stays reigned supreme until a twist in history almost
erased them from existence. That twist… was the French Revolution.
The French Revolution ushered in absolutely massive cultural shifts, clearly reflected
in the complete overhaul of fashion. It was a time when wearing stays and paniers made
you look like Marie Antionette, and no one wanted to look like Marie Antionette. Aristocracy
was out of style, and Grecian ideals were in. Regency era fashion swung to an opposite
extreme, with women attempting to look as much like Greek statues and columns as possible.
Stays were minimized and shortened, and used as bust support only, and some women stopped
wearing any supportive garment. Early Regency women were almost the hippies of their day.
Slender ladies were like, “I want to be natural and real! Stays are sooo last century.
Viva la revolution! Free the peasantry! Free the boobs!”
And the curvaceous women are like, “heh, sure, you do you, I’mana go invent something
that actually works.” And so the larger women took the new, simplified stays design,
and just made it longer. Instead of the distinctive stiff conical shape, these new stays were
designed to lift the bust, but flatten and smooth the curves of the torso and hips, to
appear more slender beneath their narrow dresses. These stays would have a long wooden
busk up the front, maintaining the desirable straight shape, but the rest of the stays
were only lightly boned, and whalebone was largely substituted with cording. The Regency
era is actually a great period to research if you are looking for more minimalist corset
ideas. There are many interesting stays that were used during this time period. Wrapped
stays, bust bodices, cupped stays, very short, bra-like stays.
But the fall of stays was brief. Soon they were back with a vengeance, evolving quicker
than ever in the 19th century. It started with the long corded stays worn primarily
by larger women during the height of the Regency. Long corded stays became fashionable and soon all
women wore them. The early 19th century saw the beginnings of the industrial revolution,
and new technology and materials allowed for innovative new designs. It is also during
this time period that stays began to be called corsets for the first time. However this is
nebulous, and I’m not sure when the vernacular fully transitioned from stays to corsets.
But a new corset came into style in the 1840’s. This one was cut with a series of sloping
panels, all fitting together to create a shape with more extreme curves. This is also the
time period in which steel began to overtake baleen for corset boning. Which is a good
thing, because the whales were about gone. With steel boning, corsets could be made lighter
and stronger, but by sacrificing a bit of flexibility. Whalebone had amazing properties,
being made from keratin. When worn against the body, the heat and moisture produced would
soften the whalebone and mold it to your shape, meaning that whalebone stays would become
more comfortable and personalized as they were broken in. Steel does not have this ability,
so although steel-boned corsets could maintain their shape with fewer bones, they were more
rigid and restrictive. Steel also brought other innovations. Steel eyelets allowed the
corsets to be laced tighter, and separating steel busks made corsets much quicker and
simpler for women to put on themselves. Corsets also began to be produced in factories, which
made them cheaper and more accessible for the masses. But factory-made corsets often
used steam molding and other techniques that were unavailable to the home seamstress, so
at this point corsetry started to become a part of modernized, consumer-based culture,
which allowed the styles to change quicker, as you could simply go out and buy a new corset,
rather than spending the weeks or months it might take to hand sew one yourself. Victorian
styles evolved quicker than ever, the waist lengthening, shortening, lengthening again.
The Bustle era brought the S-curve, the Natural Form, the Pidgeon Breast. Late Victorian era corsets
were particularly beautiful, made from brightly colored silks with complimentary boning channels,
laces, embroidery, and flossing. As the century wore on, however, with women living more active
lives, new corsets were experimented with, many of them using elastic to replace the
functions of lacing and bones. In the earliest parts of the 20th century,
a full bust was desirable, and corsets began slipping lower and lower down the chest. Women
wore supportive bust bodices, designed with fluff or padding for the smaller women, and
soon corsets were being designed only for waist and hip shaping, and to hold up garters.
With the need for corsetry already in decline, the first bra, patented by Mary Phelps Jacobs,
helped to seal its fate. It had a few last hurrahs, but soon became optional
attire for the first time since the Regency. During the 1920’s, flat, boxy bodies were
in vogue, and sometimes tight, but lightweight garments were worn to flatten the chest and
hips. When this trend died, updated versions of the brassiere came back, paired with the
sad descendants of the corset, garter belts. This pairing continue to be used to this day,
with elements and functions slowly stripped away and replaced by elastic. The old body-shaping
corsets did not 100% disappear, though they were relegated to special occasion wear. Nowadays
the only trace we have of their existence are highly elasticated shape wear, and if
you can find a modern corset, it will be poorly fitting and uncomfortable, and all bets are
that it will be white or black, wedding attire or kink attire. And thus died that noble construction. Ok, that took longer than I was planning.
So, as I hope you understand by now, the primary purpose of corsetry was not “to make you
look skinny”. Rather, it was “to give you the currently idealized proportions.”
Corsets were the great equalizers. Large women could minimize their waist. Pear-shaped women
could enhance their bust. Apple-shaped women could pad their hips. Slender women could
artificially fill out their bust and hips. Corsets gave women the ability to conceal
their true form and to exaggerate their figure however they wanted. And most men didn’t
care for that because they never knew what they were getting. Kind of the same way men
complain today about women who wear too much makeup, then look like a totally different
person once it’s off. Which brings me to another point. The Patriarchy.
There’s this idea nowadays that men were cramming women into tiny corsets in order
to keep them tame. That’s just… absurd. After 300 years, men got used to corsets,
and it might be shocking to see a woman publicly without one. But on a whole, they hated all
of this nonsense. The ridiculous, unnatural, exaggerated shapes women turned their bodies
into. Just look at the caricatures. They drew the corseted women disproportionate and hideous.
It wasn’t supposed to be flattering. It was an exasperated plea for women to stop
this madness. But here’s the thing (and this is my opinion, but I will stand by it
to my dying breath): corsets are fun. Ok, on average men have more muscle density, women
have more fat. Scientific fact. But all of that fat is squishy, and can be rearranged.
I love corsets because it is just so much fun to look in the mirror and see your body
in a completely different shape. I believe that women throughout history squeezed their body
into all these different shapes, because they enjoyed doing it. Sometimes women wear uncomfortable
things because it makes them feel good. Who says they’re doing it for the men? And speaking of comfortability, there’re also myths perpetuated by actresses and dumb
Buzzfeed articles about how terribly painful corsets are to wear. If your corset is painful, you’re
doing it wrong. For one, corsets were never worn against the skin, much to the chagrin
of fantasy costumers everywhere. Corsets were always lined with a soft, washable cotton or
linen shirt, and that makes a huge difference. Also corsets were made individually to fit
one person, and a well fitted corset can be quite a comfortable experience. Just think
about history. Lower class women had to work, had to keep moving, and couldn’t wear corsets
or stays that were tight enough to prohibit their activity. But the type of work they
did was different. Historically, men did the more highly strenuous work, women did more consistent,
paced work. In primitive societies, men hunted, women gathered. On the frontier, men chopped
wood while the women cooked. It’s just the way it was, and women’s physical needs were
different. Corsets aren’t the best for strenuous exercise, but they do provide good back support
if you’re stooping over a pot boiling laundry all day. Corsets do affect your breathing,
but not by a lot. I actually find them more comfortable than modern elastic garments.
It’s hard to describe, but with elastic, you can stretch it, so it’s like your body
is constantly fighting to push the elastic out with every breath you take. With corsets,
it’s like your body tries to push, realizes it’s not going to win, and redirects your
breathing to other parts of your lungs. Your breathing shifts to the top portion
of your lungs, and you breathe a bit shallower, but that doesn’t cause a problem unless you decide to run distance.
But what about the 16” waist? Ok, other people have done much better videos on this
myth. But, long story short, tight lacing was a thing, practiced by a small minority
of women. But it always was a tiny number, as with any other extreme body modification
you can think of. The average waist was 24-26”, not that far off from average measurements
today. Also, Edwardian photoshopping was totally a thing. So don’t even believe the photographic
evidence. Men and children did wear some kinds of corsetry,
but that partly depends on your definition of a corset. As I already mentioned, all children
wore flat stays for their posture. The boys would eventually age out of wearing them,
the girls would just transition to more adult stays as they hit puberty. Men did at different
points in history wear stiffened doublets and such, which did fulfill the purpose of
giving their body a more desirable shape. Starting with certain Regency Dandy’s, there
was a trend for men to wear full-on waist cinching corsets. This trend did persist throughout
the Victorian era, but it soon became a subject of ridicule, so men hid it.
Now I’ve mostly been covering European history, because that’s my primary area of costume
interest, and thus what I know the most about. But there were other bust support solutions
in other cultures historically. Indian women did and sometimes still do, wear short, fitted bodices,
which they wrapped their saris over. We don’t normally think of those bodices in the same
terms as a bra or corset, but that’s kind of of the point. You don’t have to have
something that looks like a traditional corset in order to fulfill the same function of support
and silhouette. In Japan, long straight torsos were preferred, and the wrapping methods and
layers of kimono and obi do not minimize the waist, but build up a strong, straight silhouette,
hiding any natural curves. There are other examples from other cultures, but I’m not
as familiar with them. If you are building a fantasy race and basing elements off of
a specific historical culture, that might be a good place for you to start your research.
One final topic, but an important one to the fantasy genre: corsets as armor. On the face of it,
I approve of this concept wholeheartedly. Some people don’t do it particularly well,
but I actually already see corsets as a type of armor. Women had different needs historically.
They might not have been dressing for battle, but corsets served them nonetheless. You know,
history was a harsh, cruel place for men and women. It’s another reason I don’t see
the patriarchy as responsible for corsets. If anything, I see corsets as women’s protection
from it. Imagine a woman lives in a society where her value primarily comes from her inheritance
and her ability to birth children. She is judged by her body. Are you healthy? Are you
wealthy? What better defense does she have than to hide her body behind
outlandish fashion? And that’s not even mentioning the actual physical protection
women’s clothing provided. At a time when assault was commonplace, and there was little
the law could or would do about it, women were literally armoring themselves every day
when they got dressed. Thick layers of corsetry, steel boning, layers and layers of petticoats,
caged hoop skirts. Women were making themselves physically harder to get at.
Though that’s probably not what you were imagining when I said “Corsets as Armor”.
Ok, leather forest adventurer bodice armor. I say feasible. In that context it would not be
about fashion, but support and would only be laced tight enough to do that job. No tight lacing on a battlefield.
The garments need to be stiff and maintain their shape, which a thick leather would achieve
nicely. The seam placement would give the leather convenient places to flex, so keep
the body shape and movement in mind when designing such a bodice. The more area of skin you cover,
the more protective it will be, but also the more restrictive. So a lot would depend on
what kind on weapon or fighting style you are working with. How can you offer the most
protection, but leave flexible areas needed for the arm, shoulder, hip, and waist movements?
It should also not be worn directly on the skin, there should be at least one layer beneath,
but that’s exactly how men’s armor works. So, finally, back to the topic: Should your
fantasy race wear corsets? First question: Do they need bust support? Is your fantasy
race inhumanly tall and slender with nothing to support? Or are they curvy?
Are they fairly primitive? It is likely that wrapped bandages were used for most of human
history, even if we don’t have record of it. It is the simplest and most obvious solution.
If your society is just building their first villages, maybe this is the furthest advancement
they’ve made. If the society is more advanced, reasonably
they might have developed something more complex. What materials are available to them? Leather,
silk, a linen substitute? What simple shapes could they start from?
Remember, a supportive garment does not have to be elaborate. A stiffened bodice can suffice,
or anything that is slightly tight in strategic areas. Pay attention to those strategic areas,
because the resulting shape will depend on it. Is it simply wrapped tight? This will
cause most of the support to be suspended from above the bust, which will flatten and
pull down. If it is tight beneath the bust, this will open many shaping possibilities,
but it will need to be supported somehow. Logically, the best places for this
to rest are the shoulders, as straps, or for it to rest on the hips and be supported from
the base, making shoulder straps extra supportive, but not necessary.
Will the corsets be worn beneath the clothing, as a purely functional garment? Or will they
be worn above the clothing and be decorative? Or will they merge with the clothing, creating
complex, stiffened, decorative clothing that is incredibly valuable and time consuming
to make? What is their level of technological advancement?
Do they have bone needles or steel? Homespun fabric or textile mills? Are corsets made
by hand, or wholesale? Are they made by home seamstresses, or is it a specialized trade. What stiffening materials can they use? Glue
to stiffen fabric? Quilting? Do they have trees for wooden boning? Do they have whales
for whalebone? Or some other monstrous Cthulhu monster that produces slabs of keratin? Do
they have metallurgy for steel boning? What about elastic?
What is the clothing like? What is the idealized body shape? Would a corset be useful to support
a silhouette? What type of silhouette, and what type of corset? Pay attention to the
shapes of history, but also the shapes you’ve already come up with that might be unique,
and not perfectly represented in history. Different eras in corsetry were defined by
the silhouette, and the silhouettes were all about proportion and balance, creating optical
illusions through strategic exaggeration. So pay attention to the overall effect the
corset will give the finished result. Do you have a class system? Does it indicate
a certain status to wear a certain corset? Are corsets only worn by the upper class,
or is there a variation the working class could use for more freedom of movement? What
kind of work or activity do the corset wearers engage in, and how might they adapt their corsets
to that? Is there an individual group that might wear
some kind of corset traditionally? Royalty, religious leaders, performers?
And what are the goals the corset wearer’s are all trying to achieve? Is it about looks?
Support? Protection? Can you work in all three? Well, I hope this helps you get started. Have