Corsets in Context: A History

The corset looms large in special exhibitions at both the de Young and the Legion of Honor. Jean Paul Gaultier, the subject of the de Young's  The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk , integrated this iconic garment into his prêt-à-porter collections as early as 1983. Meanwhile, over at the Legion of Honor in The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860 –1900 (on view through June 17) the artists of the Aesthetic Movement rejected the corset in defiance of Victorian era fashions and social mores. Tonight, Friday Nights at the de Young explores the surprisingly dynamic world of Haute Corsets , with local corset makers Dark Garden and a screening of Truth or Dare , in which Madonna gets into the groove wearing Gaultier's unforgettable cone bra corset. Before you lace up, bone up on the fascinating history of this beguiling bodice!


Left: Emil Larsson, Body corset worn by Madonna, Blond Ambition World Tour, 1990. Dazed & Confused, April 2008 © Emil Larsson; Right: Edward Burne-Jones (English, 1833–1898). Pomona, 1886–1920. Wool, silk, cotton; tapestry weave. Museum purchase, Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund. 2001.120.2

1490–1510 | In Europe, the skirt and bodice are separated into two garments, and stiffened undergarments are introduced to keep the upper body erect. Tight bodices raise the bust line and push the breasts into a unified bosom.

1500–1550 | The first true corset is invented. Corsets are made out of rigid materials such as whalebone, horn, and buckram and are referred to as "whalebone bodies". A stay or busk is placed vertically in the center of the torso to keep it straight. Commonly worn with shoulder straps, the corset extends the length of the torso, stopping just above the pelvic bone. Catherine de Medici (1519–1589) is credited with introducing the fashion to France.

Two Views

Hans Holbein the Younger, Two Views of an Unknown English Lady, ca.1535. The British Museum, London

1500–1599 | Aristocratic women wear whalebone bodies with attached hoopskirts or farthingales. The bodice and underlying corset reach extremes in length, and the sleeves are enlarged to make the waist look small in comparison. The upper body is an elongated conical shape that tapers to a small waist.

Elizabeth I

Artist unknown, Elizabeth I, mid-1590s. Hardwick Hall, The Devonshire Collection, The National Trust, Derbyshire

1595–1620 | The ideal female figure continues to be a conical form. The stays remain long in the front and short at the sides, exposing the hips. The neckline lowers, revealing the tops of the breasts.

Elizabeth Vernon

Artist unknown, Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, ca.1595–1600. His Grace Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, K.T., Boughton House

1620–1640 | Short corsets are worn under shortwaisted bodices. The waist remains ideally small.

1660–1680 | The bodice with off-the-shoulder sleeves returns to an elongated form, and the corset reflects this neckline and silhouette. Highly boned bodices are sometimes worn in lieu of a corset.

1680–1700 | The new, angular silhouette continues to lengthen, emphasizing a straight, vertical line. Corset straps return to the shoulders.

Nicholas Arounet

Nicolas Arnouet, The Staymaker, ca. 1690s

1700–1770 | Stays, as corsets are termed, continue to be conical in shape and generally lace up the back. Decorative stomachers are worn on the outside of the stays as part of the gown ensemble. The stays separate at the base into tabs that splay over the hips and accentuate a tiny waist.


Stays, bodice, and stomachers, ca. 1720, published in M. Leloire, Histoire du costume, 1938

1770–1789 | A tight-laced, wasp waist prevails both in practice and as a cultural concept. While more prevalent in England than in France, tight lacing is seen as a sign of morality. In France, the wearing of stays begins to fall out of fashion.

1780–1789 | The corset adopts a rounded form that accommodates the natural contours of the breasts. Over the remaining years of the century, the waist gradually shortens.

1789–1810 | During the French Revolution aristocratic styles are frowned upon, including the wearing of stays. High-waisted, neoclassical gowns bring the focus from the waist to the bosom.

Young Woman in White

Circle of Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of a Young Woman in White, ca. 1800. Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

1810 | After a short respite, the corset reappears in fashion. A new corset that separates the breasts is patented in France.

1815 | The waistline is at its highest point in the history of Western dress; between 1815 and 1830 it progressively lowers.

1820–1830 | Corsets are worn long over the hip and conform to the contours of the body using gussets.


Charles Philipon, Marchande de Corsets, 1830

1828 | Metal eyelets are invented, allowing the corset to endure greater stress during lacing.

1830–1840 | The hourglass figure—emphasizing a full bust, a small waist, and full hips—becomes the idealized silhouette. The corset remains long, extending over the hips. The waistline is at its lowest point in two decades, resting at the natural waist.

1840–1850 | The severe silhouette of the 1830s softens. The small waist and hourglass figure remain desirable. The waist drops below its natural position.

1848 | Joseph Cooper invents the front-fastening busk, which allows the corset to be taken off without being unlaced, only loosened. The front-fastening busk increases the ease of wearing a corset and is widely adopted from the 1850s onward.

1850–1860 | Women wear full skirts supported with crinoline frames, which accentuate a small waist. The corset begins to shorten at the sides and lengthen at the center front.

1860–1870 | Hoop skirts are worn high on the waist, and the corset shortens in response. Corset construction changes, as the patterns are created out of shaped pieces rather than being shaped with gussets.

1870–1880 | The corset remains short in the first part of the decade but begins to lengthen after 1875. The skirt tightens at the hip, creating a long, slim silhouette.

1880–1890 | A curvaceous female figure with rounded shoulders, a full bosom, and a small, low waist becomes the ideal form. The corset pushes the breasts forward while accentuating the natural waist and hugging the hips.

Trade Card

Trade card for the Bortree Corset Co., ca.1880

1890 | An angular shape is popularized, with a tiny waist and an emphasis on the bust and hips—the idealized hourglass shape.


Trade card for Kabo Corsets, ca. 1890

1900 | A new corset is introduced in Paris that noticeably changes the silhouette. An S-bend shape is created, with the torso held straight in the front and the hips pushed back. The undergarment is marketed as the “health corset” for alleviating the pressure on the ribs and supporting the abdomen.

1902 | The top of the corset falls to meet the nipples. The S-bend shape is further exaggerated, and the wasp waist becomes extreme.


Advertisement for Weingarten Bros., 1902

1902–1908 | Corsets begin to slip below the level of the bust and extend downward on the hip. Decorative suspenders for stockings are attached to the corset at the center front and side back.

1908–1914 | With the bust unsupported, brassieres are worn along with the corset. By 1914 the corset extends from under the bust down to the middle of the thigh, its longest point in history. The silhouette dramatically changes to a straight and narrow line, with little distinction between the waist and hips.

1914–1917 | During World War I women enter the workforce, and corsets go out of favor.

1917–1939 | Few women continue to wear corsets. A shorter, lightly boned corset with a front-opening busk is worn to help slim the hips. These corsets, or corselettes, begin to be refashioned as girdles with elastic panels.


Advertisement for the Jurna corset, 1918

1939–1947 | All-in-one foundation garments are popularized. These corsets combine a brassiere and girdle for all-over shaping.

1947–1954 | Christian Dior reintroduces the wasp-waist corset to women’s underwear with his New Look line. His fashions emphasize a fitted bodice and a tiny waist reminiscent of the late 19th century.

Christian Diore

Christian Dior, Tulipe, spring/summer 1953. Photograph by Henry Clarke

1983 | In his famed Dada collection (spring/summer 1983), Jean Paul Gaultier presents his first corseted dress and successfully transforms the corset from underwear to fashionable outerwear. This would become one of Gaultier's iconic looks throughout his career.

Dita von Teese

Perou, Dita Von Teese Flaunt, 2003. Dada collection. Women’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1983 © Perou

1987 | Using 18th-century patterns, Vivienne Westwood presents her own version of the corset and joins Gaultier in freeing the corset from its connotations of female oppression, transforming it instead into a form of female empowerment.


Vivienne Westwood, Harris Tweed collection, autumn/winter 1987–1988. Photograph by Declan Ryan

Timeline courtesy of Jill D'Alessandro, curator of costume and textile arts.

Tonight, test your mettle and try on a corset in the Piazzoni Murals Room at Friday Nights at the de Young! Check out Gauliter's iconoclastic integration of the corset into the innovative designs of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier and keep your ticket stub for a $4 discount on The Cult of Beauty (on view at the Legion of Honor through June 17) , in which you can see the corset's influence (or lack thereof) on art from the Victorian avant-garde!