European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Fashion & History

Corsets: laced up by fashion

dress historyfashion history

Historical dress in context

A corset is a garment that has its roots in the history of fashion, but still tickles the imaginations of contemporary designers. It was originally developed and worn to shape the torso and create a silhouette that was smaller at the waist and larger bottom. It was used both for aesthetic or medical purposes – and this is true for women and men alike, even if it is mostly associated with womenswear.

Corsets were usually made by a corsetmaker and fitted to the individual wearer. They are typically constructed of cloth, particularly coutil, or leather and stiffened with what is called ‘boning’ (also ribs or stays). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century these ‘bones’ – the most famous are the strips of baleen – were inserted into channels in the cloth or leather, shaping the corset and giving it structure.