Corset: An Unbinding of History

Corset. At first reading many words would spring to my mind, such as: sexual, Victorian, harmful, oppressive. These were the ideas that I took into a meeting with a costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum. Even though I was tackling the history of the corset in a period before that of Victorian England, I asked myself, “What could possibly be significantly different?” A lot could be different, as I would learn. The four key words I would attribute to the corset would each be challenged and be completely reversed. Through the course of the interview, my perception of the pre-Victorian, if it can even be called a corset, would fundamentally shift. What I learned in that interview influenced myself deeply and, correspondingly, is ingrained deeply in the following paragraphs.

When examining the corset of the early modern period in European history, one must first address that there is a wide range of terms used to encompass the object. To compound the problem, as Sarah Bendall discusses in her article “To Write a Distick Upon It,” it is very difficult to find reliable research in this area of study [1].The chief problem with determining what is technically a corset is that it is extremely similar to an article of clothing called a stay. The costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum discussed the issue of determining which is what; essentially her description boils down to this analysis: corsets and stays are often used interchangeably, but do have distinct, albeit slight, differences; ultimately serve the same function [2]. Continuing, the costumer described the key differences between a corset and a stay. She noted that a stay can lace up in either the front or back of the object or on both sides [3], as shown in a replica of a seventeenth century Irish stay at the Frontier Culture Museum [4]. Additionally, the term stays originated in England during the 1600s [5]. Corsets, as noted by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington in their book The History of Underclothes, “Back lacing with a single thread was usual; the eyelet holes over-sewn with silk since metal eyelets had not yet been invented” [6]. Finally, another term that was used interchangeably with stays and corsets, was “pair of bodies”. This term pre-dates the use of stays [7]. Throughout the remainder of this piece, both the terms of corset and stays will be used, but it should be noted that they are going to be used as separate things that perform the same service.

The way in which corsets and stays are made and what they are made of, offer an intriguing insight into the daily lives of women in Europe’s early modern period. Typically, corsets and stays were made by a professional tailor, due to the time consuming and somewhat difficult nature in making them, but, as the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum continued, a corset or stay could be made by any woman inside the household if they dedicated enough time and effort to it [8]. Furthermore, the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum said that corsets and stays were not just made for any woman to purchase, as they were often made with a specific woman’s body in mind, as there is a great range in size and shape of women [9]. The reliance on a professional to make a corset or stay could be challenge for lower class women who would struggle more to be able to buy one. Also, lower class women would find it much harder to make a stay or corset, as more of their time would be dedicated to labor or domestic duties, such as cleaning, cooking, or child rearing. Of course, the ways in which corsets and stays were made evolved over time. Dr. Yvette Mahe states that corsets and stays originated by simply using stiffened fabric to give the article of clothing its trademark support. From there, as Dr. Mahe notes, people began to add artificial stiffeners, such as whalebone and wood [10]. These were not the only types of stiffeners used, as listed in the “Waist” section of The Cultural History of the Body, Volume Two, ivory, horn, and metal were also used [11]. These artificial stiffeners would become to be referred to as “busks” [12]. One part of corsets and stays that would fall victim to time, are the shoulder straps attached to the article of clothing, according to the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum [13]. An example of a stay with shoulder straps can be seen in the painting Kitchen Scene with the Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus by Pieter Cornelisz. van Rijck, (1610 – 1620) [14].


Image is in the Public Domain. Original work can be viewed at the Museum of the Netherlands website.


Personal Photo taken at the Frontier Culture Museum

To contrast that, there is the strapless stay replica from Ireland that would have been from roughly the same time period [15].These differing examples allow for comparable comparisons, as they are representative of the same time period. For lower class women, they would not always be able to afford the costlier of the artificial stiffeners, and would have rely on lower quality substitutes, per the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum [16]. A divide among class lines is an important facet of the history of corsets and stays and something that deserves a critical examination.

The breakdown of the history of corsets and stays along the lines of class is an important part in understanding the way in which different women lived, as their circumstances were quite different. Differences emerge early on between the social classes in terms of when each group starts to wear corsets. Per the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum, girls of the lower classes would start to use a corset or stay at the beginning of puberty or roughly at the age of twelve. Upper class women, she contrasts, start at a much younger age in childhood [17]. This age difference hints at an increased importance for corset use in the higher classes and that higher class families had the ability to buy corsets for children, who would have to get more as their bodies developed and grew. The ability to buy stays and corsets is another area that the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum addressed, as she described it lower class women would typically own only one corset or stay, which they would rely on heavily because they would wear it almost every day [18].

Different uses for corsets and stays are another important delineating factor between the social classes. Lower class women would use corsets and stays for one simple purpose, as a support for their breasts or backs; the costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum continued by comparing them to bras today [19]. Additionally, she stressed that lower class women of early modern Europe would not have their corsets and stays as tight as Victorian women of the 1800s as they had to actually do physical labor [20]. The need to perform physical labor would be important for lower class women in early modern Europe. Historian Olwen Hufton notes in A History of Woman, volume III that young working class girls would typically leave home to seek out labor opportunities at about age twelve [21] which as described above is about the same time a girl would receive her first corset or stay. Working class women and girls would work in many different fields during this time. One area in which girls would work is in agriculture, usually involving jobs related to cows such as milking them and making butter and cheese [22]. This particular job style would make the use of a stay or corset attractive, because of all the bending over a woman would do, a corset would provide excellent support. Another area of labor that was a hot spot for female workers during this time was domestic service. A female domestic servant would likely have to do many menial tasks throughout the house, which included, but not limited to per Olwen Hufton; laundry, mending clothes, carrying coal and water, and kitchen work [23]. A depiction of a servant girl performing kitchen work can be seen in the painting Kitchen Scene with the Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus [24]. Again, the use of a corset or stay would be of tremendous help to girls as it offered them a great deal of support to the back. Middle class women, however, had slightly different uses for the corset that extended to being used as a way to emulate the upper class and show that they were attractive and could entice suitors [25]. Finally, upper class women would use the corset to achieve the desired figure of the time in which they lived, and as Drea Leed states, the desired figure during the reign of Elizabeth I was a flattened torso and an elevated bust line [26]. By the late 1600s, corsets were used to create a “an elongated form, and the corset reflects this neckline and silhouette” [27]. As the early modern period in  Europe drew to a close the wasp shape, an extremely tight waist achieved via a corset, came into vogue in England, while in France during the revolution corsets and stays were falling out of fashion [28]. It is important to look at the different ways in which the same article of clothing was used, because it offers a way in to view the lives of women during this time. For the laboring woman, it in ways was a symbol of maturity based on when she received it, while also serving a deeply practical purpose of offering support for her back and breasts. This draws attention to the fact working class women were laborers first and needed a corset or stay to accommodate that life. For middle class, and definitely upper class women, it was a fashion statement first, as exhibited below [29], and its purpose was tied tightly to conforming to beauty standards and as a means of attraction. This use reiterates that the lives of these women are not as much or at all dedicated to labor, but rather affability.


Image Courtesy of Art Resource

In conclusion, the history of the corset and stay in early modern Europe offered a layered access point to the lives of women. As shown, it is important to make the distinction between, corsets, stays, and “pair of bodies”, because while they are similar they are still different. By understanding what makes up a corset or stay and who makes them gives context for the environment of the time and sheds the first light on the class differences surrounding these items. Finally, the numerous class differences that can be seen through the use of the corset, allows for a strong examination of the different lives women led in Europe; because while the upper class used corsets to conform to social standards, lower class women used it to support themselves while they worked to help their family survive.


[1] Bendall, Sarah Anne. “To Write a Distick upon It: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire  in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England.” Gender & History 26, no. 2 (2014): 200. Academic Search Complete. Accessed September 29, 2016.

[2-4] Costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum in discussion with the author, October 11, 2016.

[5] Tortora, Phyllis and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, Second Edition. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1994. Page161.

[6] Cunnington, C. Willet & Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes, New York: Dover, 1992. Page 87

[7] Tortora and Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume, Second Edition, 161.

[8-9] Costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum.

[10] Mahe, Yvette. “History of Women’s Corsets Part 1.” Fashionintime.org. Published July 2, 2013. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.fashionintime.org/history-of-womens-corsets-part-1/.

[11] “Waist” in Cultural Encyclopedia of the Body; Volume Two, Edited by Victoria Pitts-Taylor. Westford, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008. Page 540.

[12] Bendall, “To Write a Distick upon It: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England,” 199.

[13] Costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum.

[14] Cornelisz. van Rijck, Pieter. Kitchen Scene with the Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus. Oil on canvas, 1610-1620. Accessed October 3, 2016. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-868.

[15] Walton, Dakota. Irish Stay Replica at the Frontier Culture Museum.October 11, 2016.

[16-20] Costumer at the Frontier Culture Museum.

[21-22] Hufton, Olwen. “Women, Work, and Family” in A History of Women in the West, Volume III, Edited by Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993. Page 17.

[23] Hulfton “Women, Work, and Family” in A History of Women in the West, Volume III, 21.

[24] Cornelisz. van Rijck. Kitchen Scene with the Parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus.

[25] “Waist” in Cultural Encyclopedia of the Body; Volume Two, Pitts-Taylor, 541.

[26] Leed, Drea. “History of the Elizabethan Corset.” Elizabethancostume.net. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.elizabethancostume.net/corsets/history.html.

[27-28] D’Alessandro, Jill. “Corsets in Context: A History.” Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Published June 7, 2012. Accessed October 3, 2016.       https://www.famsf.org/blog/corsets-context-history.

[29] “Corset.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed on December 11, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/82450.