With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes

An Outdated, Incorrect Diagram of a Corset's Effect

We’ve all heard the horror stories and seen the illustrations of how our corsets supposedly squish our bodies, but what about the ways in which they affect our appearance?

A corset’s most obvious effect is the reduction of the waist. The amount of reduction today’s fetish corsets achieve (up to 10″) is actually far past the historical norm even if the proportions are not. For example, “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement,” a study preformed by Robert L. Dickinson for The New York Medical Journal in 1887, sought to calculate the force of the pressure exerted on the body by the average corset and that pressure’s effect on the health of the wearer. It is an excellent article with lots of numbers for those of you who, like me, like to know a bit more about the math and science side of history!

In his study, Dr. Robert Dickinson states that, “Six inches difference between the circumference of the waist over the corset and the waist with the corset removed is the greatest difference I have measured. Five and a half and five I have met with once each. The least difference is in those cases where the measurement with and without is the same. The average contraction of the 52 cases given in the table is 2½ inches. The maximum there is 4½ inches, the minimum 1 inch.”

Note that the doctor encountered cases in which the with and without corset measurements were the same. How can that be? If  you aren’t reducing your waist measurement, why bother wearing a corset at all?

Measurements without a corset (left): 36″ x 28″ x 35″
Measurements with a corset (right): 35″ x 28″ x 35″

The photo above shows me in the same dress without and with a corset. Notice how much more smoothly my dress fits with a corset and how the bust is higher and slightly reduced, yet my waist measurement remained constant. The corset not only adds its own thickness, but rounds out the waist, a subtle, yet important factor to consider.

The oval on the left is a cross section of a 36 inch waist without a corset and the one on the right is taken in 3 inches with a corset. The shapes are to scale (remember: slight math nerd).

For many people, the human body looks skinnier from a side angle than from the front. The corset draws in the sides of the body, thinning the front view while making the waist more circular and increasing the thickness of the body. So I look smaller from the front even though my actual size hasn’t changed.

So why did/do we wear corsets? The answer lies in that fact that corsets act as more than just a measurement reducer. In fact, there are other effects a corset has on the figure that are just as important as its waist reducing properties, especially when it comes to determining historical health and beauty ideals.

Before and After, Spencer Corset Ad from 1941
Pre-20th century ladies aren’t the only ones who benefit from steel and whalebone. Until the 1970s, girdles were still essential for girls to get the nip and lift they needed.

One of the major features of a corset aside from its reduction capabilities is its rigidity and support. Further into his report, Dr. Dickinson mentions that one of the participants in his study only wears a corset to go out and works without a corset at home. He notes that because of this, her abdominal muscles have remained strong while other ladies, whose muscles have the corset to do the work for them, have weak “paunchy” abs (which I have gained even without wearing a corset. *sigh*).

The nudes of the era that feature soft, doughy forms were appreciated because most of the women, once freed from their corsets, sprang back to their natural size, but with soft bellies and low, fleshy hips. Today we consider tight, toned bodies sensual and untoned bodies casual, quite the opposite of yesteryear. However, if we looked toned everyday in society and kept our natural jiggle hidden except in the most intimate of settings, our ideas of sensuality might also reverse.

“Nana” by Edouard Manet, 1887

In a world without underwires and Spanx, the female body would quickly succumb to gravity. One of the main functions of a corset is to support the breasts. If you are like me and have boobs much too large for your frame, you know the hazards of going braless: stretch marks, painful jiggle, and general sag. It’s not fun; it’s not pretty; and the darn things can get in your way! A corset holds them up and back, like a levee lest those girlies runneth over while you’re doing laundry, cooking, or being jolted around by a runaway quarterhorse. It also provides shape to the chest which is more telling of an era’s trends than the size of the waist reduction. Thus we get Regency’s high breasts; the Romantic period’s large, wide breasts; the soft, rounded Civil War breasts, the high mono-boob of the bustle era, and the pendulous pigeon-breasts of the Edwardian era. Most misconceptions about frumpy 19th century fashions come from trying to wear the styles without the right foundation garment. A late Victorian gown just isn’t the same without its corset companion.

Besides its effect on the natural state of the body, the corset had an equally vital role in fashion development. Without it, none of the fashionable trends we’ve come to love would be possible. Again in his report, Dr. Dickinson describes what happens when a woman tries to wear the popular fashions from 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction” – Dr. Robert Dickinson

A corset is essential…ESSENTIAL…to wearing any period gown not only to achieve the desired silhouette, but because some historical dresses are HEAVY. I have a simple 1870s wool gown with no extra buttons, beading, or trims besides a plaid capelet. There are the obligatory bones inside the bodice to further support the shape and all told, the thing weighs 6 pounds 5 ounces. That’s without the cage, petticoat, slip, and underskirt. If it had all the bells and whistles of high fashion like draping fringe, bows, and miles of ruffles, the weight increases dramatically– up to 15 or 16 pounds! Other styles, like the mounds of petticoats from the 1850s, would actually bruise your hips from the weight. A corset offers protection from the weight of a gown in addition to giving the fabric the smooth support it needs to keep from straining and sagging.

Court Dress, circa 1775
 An 18th century silhouette relies on stays to give the torso a cone shape and to flatten the front of the bust upward.

The corset is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing pieces of clothing ever devised. It is both functional and fascinating, crossing the realm between necessity and vanity. The daily fashions of the 2010s rely on exercise, good genes, and diet to achieve our ideal body shape, but the corset still lingers in spite of the changing times. Will it ever leave us?  Well, with the ability to give me a neatly defined waist where otherwise I have none, I don’t think my spiral steels will be leaving my closet anytime soon!

Happy Costuming! :)

For even more information about corsets and how they physically affect your body, I highly recommend visiting Lucy’s Corsetry. She is considered one of the leading authorities on modern corsetry and discusses everything from medical issues and myths to making your own!

The Ladies of Rococo: Beyond Bows and Ruffles

Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour

18th Century fashion usually gets pegged as being full of pink, light blue, ruffles, skirts wide enough to get caught in doorways, lots of escaping bosoms, and tall wigs coated with flowers, ships, bows, and lace. All of this is very true, but just like today, fashions changed immensely from 1700-1799, riding multiple trend waves like all those miniature boats on giant wigs. The world was in a great upheaval: kings gave way to parliaments, colonies gave way to nations, frivolity gave way to reason, and then it all reversed again. Every nation gained power, then seemed to lose it. Fashions fluctuated just as wildly as the times, but the haze of forgetfulness and generalization has condensed most of these fluctuations into the brief world of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) and Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). But even these ladies didn’t remain stuck in one fashion trend their whole lives. Over the course of their lifetimes, the world and fashion changed drastically.

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Madame de Pompadour

This is truly the lady who took fashions to the extreme. As mistress to the king, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, aka Madame de Pompadour, indulged in fashion from the start. Born to a relatively unknown family, Jeanne was considered a commoner by the French nobility.  1745, however, she received a Marquise estate as a gift from the king who made her his official mistress.  In order to prove her worth, the highly intelligent woman began to craft the most luxurious outfits she could. If a lady had fifteen bows on her gown, Jeanne had twenty. She adored fabric prints, exotic imports from the East, and watercolor-like “ikat” or “chine” weaves. Silk was the only material any proper lady would wear to court. There were even laws banning imported cotton just so French silk weavers would be assured a brisk business.

As a patron of the arts, Jeanne adored the Rococo style, commissioning artists and architects to lavishly decorate her palaces for her. Her gowns were just as much artistic and architectural endeavors as her chateaus. Her favored sleeves were made of tiers of lace and ruffles that cascaded from her elbows. They were called “Pagoda sleeves” after the tiered Japanese towers. Her gowns were also held out at the hip with large panniers and her tiny, pointed waist was the result of a heavily-boned corset, giving her the silhouette of an upside-down tulip on a stem.

She also popularized the turkey or sack back style dress, which had a cape built into the back of the bodice that melded with the skirt, like the back feathers of a bird. This back is often seen in Robe à la Français (The French Dress), which are what most people picture when they think of a Rococo dress. This style of gown is supported with panniers, unlike it’s sister, the Robe à l’Anglaise, and is considered much more sumptuous.

Madame de Pompadour was very aware of her age. She never fully left her luxury behind. She was a Grand Mistress to the end, making sure that even in her last portraits, she had a little wink in her eye. As she became older, her spirit stayed young, but her body began to lose pace. Jeanne adopted dresses with more coverage. Jeanne took to wearing a bonnet tied with a bow to hide her tiny double chin , but still teased the king with glimpses of skin from her low bodice. She was mourned greatly when she died at age forty-two from tuberculosis.

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Meanwhile, elsewhere in the court, there was another lovely lady trying to avoid knocking over vases with her panniers:

Marie Antoinette

Even during her lifetime, Marie Antoinette went through fashion changes. Her famously gigantic balloon dresses, even 300 years later, are still some of the most talked-about fashion creations ever sewn. Many of her richer gowns were born more out of courtly expectations and loneliness (since her husband paid little attention to her), than pure folly. Clothes and make-up became two of her few socially acceptable forms of self-expression. Marie Antoinette loved soft blue; it was the color of choice for many of her portrait gowns. Held out on either side with panniers (fashioned by cane arcs in fabric or by padded “dumplings” of fabric) that sat at the hips, her huge silk skirts were dripping with every form of ornamentation possible. The sleeves and bodice of her gowns fit tightly, exposing her bust and lily shoulders in a sensuous curve.

When she wasn’t at a ball, portrait studio, or public function, however, Marie’s dresses, though still rich confections of fine silk and lace, were much less impractical. Her skirts were slimmer and clung to her legs.  Though she indulged in wild court costumes much of the time, she took to reading books and hosting salons when she had a moment to herself. After the birth of her children, Marie began to wear deeper, richer colors like browns and reds, and the shoulders of her gown moved closer to her neck with a little lace and long, fitted sleeves. This style of fitted overdress was known as the Robe à l’Anglaise (The English Dress), which had no pannier underneath to support it, relying on petticoats instead.

The extravagance of her gowns cost her a lot of public respect. It seemed that she couldn’t please anyone, so Marie abandoned the excess in favor of simpler fashions. She grew tired of the heavy rococo style. She had lost almost all of her influence in court and almost all her relationship with her husband, so she devoted herself to her children. Towards the end of her life, Marie’s huge gowns vanished from all but her more formal portraits, and she created the chemise dress: a plain, filmy gown with layers and poufs of fabric that draped around her. A wide satin belt delineated her waist and added a pop of color to the otherwise light gown. The French people were slightly upset about this, believing it to be unfitting of a Queen, but as the tide turned even more against her, even her simpler dress was criticized as too scandalous, even condescending.

Her big hair never truly left her wardrobe. When she was young, her powdery hair fell in straight ringlets around her neck. Later came the infamous pompadour and towering wigs, but unlike her friendly rival for whom the hairstyle is named, Marie’s wigs were more relaxed, even “fuzzy.” She preferred volume with air, rather than solid hair. By the end of her life, she was styling her hair in large upsweeps, much like the ladies of the late 19th century. She adopted many large hats and bonnets, feathered and lacy, and draped transparent scarves around her neck and shoulders. Dark velvets with delicate, contrasting lace and a flowing plain underdress became her favored outfits– foreshadowing the slim, unadorned gowns of the Regency period. By the end of her reign, Marie Antoinette was much more a regal matron than the seductive vixen the angry revolutionaries claimed her to be. She was executed in a plain white slip and bonnet at noon on the 16th of October, 1793. With her died France’s monarchy and the unbelievable lavishness of Rococo.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

Further reading and research you might enjoy:

Undressing Romance: 18th Century Underwear
Overview of Rococo
The French Revolution via SparkNotes
Fashion after Rococo: Regency