The most common use of corsets is to slim the body and make it conform to the fashionable silhouette of the time. For women this most frequently emphasises a curvy figure, by reducing the waist, and thereby exaggerating the bust and hips. However, in some periods, corsets have been worn to achieve a tubular straight-up-and-down shape, which involves minimising the bust and hips.
For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when an hourglass figure (a small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.
A corset encloses the torso, usually extending from the under the arms to the hips. Some corsets extend over the hips and, in very rare instances, reach the knees. A shorter kind of corset, which covers the waist area (from below the ribs to just above the hips), is called a 'waist cincher'. A corset may also include garters to hold up stockings (alternatively a separate garter belt may be worn for that).
Corsets are typically constructed of a flexible material (like cloth or leather) stiffened with boning (also called ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the cloth or leather. In the Victorian period, steel and whalebone were favored. Plastic is now the most commonly used material; steel is preferred for high-quality corsets. Other materials used for boning include ivory, wood, and cane.
Corsets are held together by lacing, usually at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing produces corresponding changes in the firmness of the corset. It is difficult — although not impossible — for a back-laced corset-wearer to do his or her own lacing. In the Victorian heyday of corsets, a well-to-do woman would be laced by her maid, a gentleman by his valet. Women who could not afford servants might have been been helped by a sister or husband, or might just have worn a front-lacing corset. Current corset wearers are usually laced by spouses and partners.
In the past, a woman's corset was usually worn over a garment called a chemise or shift, a sleeveless low-necked gown made of washable material (usually cotton or linen). It absorbed perspiration and kept the corset and the gown clean. In modern times, an undershirt or corset liner may be worn.
Corsets and waist reduction
By wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods - a practice known as tightlacing - men and women can learn to tolerate extreme waist constriction and reduce their natural waist size. Tightlacers usually aim for 40 to 43cm (16 to 17 inch) waists. The Guinness Book of World Records records two instances of women reducing to 13" waists: Ethel Granger and Cathie Jung. Other women, such as Polaire, also claim to have achieved such reductions.
These are extreme cases. Corsets were and are usually designed for support, with freedom of body movement an important consideration in their design. Present day corset-wearers usually tighten the corset just enough to reduce waists to dimensions that range from 18" to 24".
Moderate lacing is not incompatible with vigorous activity. Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century, when corset wearing was common, there were sport corsets specifically designed to wear while bicycling, playing tennis, or horseback riding, as well as for maternity wear.
Many people now believe that all corsets are uncomfortable and that wearing them restricted womens' lives, citing Victorian literature devoted to sensible or hygienic dress. However, these writings very rarely condemned corsets en toto; rather, they protested against the misuse of corsets for tightlacing and recommended adoption of sensible corset styles.
Some modern day corset-wearers will also testify that corsets can be comfortable, once one is accustomed to wearing them. A properly fitted corset should be comfortable. Women active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and historical reenactment groups commonly wear corsets as part of period costume, without complaint.
The corset fell from fashion in the 1920s in Europe and America, replaced by girdles and elastic brassieres, but survived as an article of costume. Originally an item of lingerie, the corset has become a popular item of outerwear in the fetish, BDSM and goth subcultures. There was a brief revival of the corset in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of the waist cincher. This was used to give the hourglass figure dictated by Christian Dior's 'New Look'. However, use of the the waist cincher was restricted to haute couture, and most women continued to use girdles. This revival was brief, as the New Look gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.
Since the late 1980s, the corset has experienced periodic revivals, which have usually originated in haute couture and which have occasionally trickled through to mainstream fashion. These revivals focus on the corset as an item of outerwear rather than underwear. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the Autumn 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!, the costumes for which featured many corsets.
The majority of garments sold as corsets during these recent revivals cannot really be counted as corsets at all. While they often feature lacing and boning, and generally mimic a historical style of corset, they have very little effect on the shape of the wearer's body.
Advantages and disadvantages of corsets
Corsets can reduce pain and improve function for people with back problems or other muscular/skeletal disorders. Some large-breasted women find corsets more comfortable than brassieres, because the weight of the breasts is carried by the whole corset rather than the brassiere's shoulder straps. (Straps can chafe or cut the skin.) Corsets can instantly improve the figure without dieting, slimming drugs, or cosmetic surgery. Corsets can make the wearer feel hotter. They have been most often worn in cool climates. The best corsets are custom-made. The more closely clothing or lingerie clings to the body, the more carefully it must be fitted to look and feel right. In modern times, when labour costs much more than materials, custom clothing can be extremely expensive. Even finding a competent corsetiere can be difficult. A badly fitting corset can chafe, impede digestion, even pinch nerves.