Magazine Extras: Corsetry 101 With Isobel Carr

Recreation of a typical 1780s corset — FRONT

Who doesn't love a sexy new pair of underwear? For centuries undergarments have been an essential part of a woman's wardrobe, and in the February 2013 issue of RT, we explore the history of women's underwear with the experts — historical romance authors! Today we bring you author Isobel Carr's piece on the history behind corsets and corsetry, along with photos:

I grew up as a historical re-enactor, immersed in the minutia of history. As someone who loves the costume aspect of the hobby, I’ve spent most of my life studying extant clothing (extant meaning it is from the actual period) and attempting to recreate it. I hope this gives my books a certain verisimilitude that helps make them special. Essentially, I believe that when writing a historical novel, regardless of the period you set your novel in, it’s helpful to really understand the clothing, because clothing really does impact how a person moves and behaves (think of the difference between wearing yoga pants and your Sunday best). I think this is especially important when writing romance, as we are really trying to get into the heads of our characters, and there are usually scenes in which the characters disrobe. And there is nothing more basic to understanding the clothing or an era than understanding the foundation garments that make the clothing appear as it does. Yes, I’m talking about corsets!

There is a common misconception that corsets are uncomfortable (they’re not, I assure you) and that independent women of “insert your time period here” wouldn’t have worn them, or would have bemoaned being forced into them. I disagree. Corsets were normal, as normal as a bra and heels today (or a pair of Spanx® on the red carpet). Perhaps even more normal, as women would have been wearing some version of a corset since they were a few months old and wouldn’t have known any different (yes, babies — of both sexes — were put into corsets somewhere between 3 and 6 months, and the girls stayed in them for the rest of their lives, often even sleeping in a light version of them).

A corset that is made for you can be pretty comfortable (great back support!). They don’t pinch (it’s impossible), they don’t poke (unless the boning is working its way out), and they don’t make it impossible to breathe. With the exception of the mid- to late Victorian period, corsets were not even designed to give you a small waist, but to lift the breasts, and to give you a smooth base for your clothes to sit on top of (and in many cases, attach to). In fact, until the introduction of the metal grommet in 1828, tightening a corset enough to dramatically change the figure was virtually impossible — the fabric would have given out first.

Recreation of a typical 1780s corset — BACK

While corsets are not uncomfortable, they do restrict the wearer in ways you may, and may not, expect. If it has shoulder straps — and most do, pre-1850 — you are going to have a limited range of arm motion. Your elbows will most likely not be able to move past parallel with one another, and your upward reach would be likewise limited. The busk (imagine a ruler tightly strapped down the front of your torso) also prevents you from bending freely at the waist, forcing you to do so from the hip. The busk also encourages excellent posture. The rule about a lady’s back never touching the back of her chair is essentially superfluous. Lounging back is not really an option in a corset with a busk.

Furthermore, corsets were necessary not just because breasts still bounced no matter which century you lived in, but because other aspects of the clothing required them. For example, when wearing hoops of any kind (whether we’re talking about Queen Elizabeth’s farthingale or Marie Antoinette’s wide “pannier” or Queen Victoria’s crinoline) that undergarment carries the weight of the petticoats and skirts. This can be quite heavy, especially as you’re usually looking at two to four layers of skirts and petticoats, each of which is likely to contain five or more yards of fabric. Now, imagine all that weight at your waist, pulling down onto your hips, digging into your flesh: not a pretty or comfortable picture, is it? One of the things a corset does is prevent this by supporting the weight of the skirts and preventing them from digging into you.

The other thing a corset does, of course, is to mold the torso, shape the breasts and sometimes reduce the waist (yes, only sometimes, we’ll get to that). All of those things serve to give you the proper silhouette and to make your clothing fit properly. Before the 19th century, the corset was often an integral part of the gown, and it would have been impossible to dress without putting one on first. Ladies from the Elizabethan era through the Georgian era often wore gowns with elaborately decorated stomachers. Stomachers are triangular fronts to the bodice of the gown, and they attached directly to the corset with tabs and pins. The gown itself was then either pinned or sewn (whipstitched) to the stomacher. It was this process that gave you the smooth, tubular torso that we see in paintings from the 15th through 18th centuries. Without a corset, the gown would wrinkle and scrunch up, and the position of the breasts would be obviously incorrect and unfashionable. It was also not uncommon for the corset itself to have a “fashion fabric” on the front panel and to actually form the front of the gown.

Recreation of a typical 1880s corset — FRONT

All ladies would of course have worn a corset, but I often get asked if servants and lower-class women wore them. The answer is yes, they did. Many parish records from the 18th and 19th century show that they supplied corsets or materials for them to the women they took in, and these places did not supply ANYTHING that wasn’t essential. You can also see them being worn openly in George Walker's 1814 series of prints, "The Costume of Yorkshire.” Rare extant examples are made of heavy leather, and we know that among the poor and working class, they were worn openly as a garment, not hidden like underwear. If you were very poor, they might have been the mainstay of your wardrobe.

There are two methods of lacing a corset:

1. Spiral lacing is when the corset is basically sewn shut. The cord is anchored at the top or bottom and then laced down or up accordingly. It’s easy to spot a spiral-laced corset, because at the top and bottom, on opposite sides, the eyelets are half-spaced. In almost all the images I can find online of extant corsets, spiral-laced ones have been laced incorrectly (which is why they are often tilted or uneven). Historically, almost all extant examples are spiral laced until you start to see the two-part metal busk employed in the Victorian era.

2. Cross lacing is how most people tie their tennis shoes. A cross-laced corset will have the eyelets evenly distributed. This method became the go-to option when the two-part busk began to be used, because it meant that you didn’t have to unlace the corset to get it on and off — you just had to loosen it and pop the busk — and it allowed women to cinch the waist down more than spiral lacing. Speed lacing is a type of cross lacing. With speed lacing, you take all the extra cord and move it to the waist. This further helps reduce the waist, as all the tension is concentrated at that point, and makes it possible for most women to get themselves in and out of their own corset fairly easily (though they wouldn’t be able to tighten it as much as they could with assistance).

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To finish up, let’s talk a bit about corsets by era, because there are some key differences.

Henrican/Tudor/Elizabethan

Known as a “pair of bodies”, there are only two extant examples. The oldest pair (1598) is from Germany and laces up the back. The other example is known as the Effigy corset (1603) and laces up the front. To get out of either of them though, your dress and other underpinnings had be removed and they had to be completely unlaced. They do not pull on over the head or down over the hips. As with all examples up through the 18th century, both are spiral laced (one continuous lace, like you’re sewing something shut) not cross laced (like a tennis shoe). They are “boned” with whalebone (which is really not bone at all, but baleen from the mouth of a whale), or less commonly, reeds or tightly twisted cord. They were not designed to substantially nip in the waist, but to flatten and lift the breasts, giving a smooth, tube-like appearance to the torso. And a quick note: Medieval women did not wear corsets, they wore tightly laced undergowns usually known as “kirtles.”

Recreation of a typical 1880s corset — BACK

Georgian

Known as stays in England during this period (up until the 1790s, when “corset” begins to come into use). Like the pair of bodies, these were designed to lift and flatten the breasts and give support for the hoops, which hold out the skirts. They are very heavily boned and usually have a busk of wood or bone up the center front. They almost universally laced up the back, and it was essentially impossible to get in or out of them without assistance (some examples also have partial laces up the front, but these are for adjusting the fit). The shoulder straps pull the shoulders back, giving a very upright carriage. That said, I have seen historical re-enactors who can get in and out of their Georgian stays by themselves, but you have to have really flexible shoulder joints.

Regency

Both stays and corsets were in use by the Regency period, with corset quickly supplanting stays as the modish term. The main form was lightly boned and long (reaching down to about the hipbones). These stays were frequently constructed with minimal boning (only at the seams and center back). Just like their predecessors, they had shoulder straps, a busk and were spiral laced up the back. There are shorter examples in many museum collections and in illustrations from the period. These are the Regency equivalent of loungewear or were worn while sleeping (as per period magazines).

Victorian

This period gave life to the corset most people think of when they hear the word. The introduction of metal grommets allowed for them to be tightened far more than earlier examples. The desire to reduce the waist also led to the use of cross lacing, and the invention of the two-part busk, which opens, meant that for the first time corsets do not have to be completely unlaced to be removed, only loosened enough for the busk to be popped apart. It’s good to note however, that the full skirts of the era make the waists look deceptively small, as they were meant to do. Most of the extant examples out there really aren’t outrageously wasp-waisted.

Special note about Victorian corsets

When figures were being radically reformed, women “trained” their bodies into these shapes, and were used to wearing the corsets from girlhood. It’s not at all like one of us attempting to suddenly cinch our waist down to a fashionable 19 inches. This training can really make a difference. Most women I know can take four to six inches off their waists without any training. With only a few weeks of nightly training, you can easily add an inch or two to this. If you have an exceptionally flexible rib cage, you can train down even more. A lifetime of this sort of thing could easily trim 10 to 14 inches off your waist, though this sort of extreme reshaping takes a toll on internal organs. Also, just as the breasts go up with displacement, so does the belly go down. It’s horrifying the first time you lace up!

- Isobel Carr

Photo credits: Corsets by Merja Palkivaara. Photos by Mika Seidler. 

You can read the full article on historical undergarments in the February 2013 issue of RT, available digitally now. For more insight to the romance genre visit our Everything Romance Page!

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