By Adam Welsch
For women interested in wearing undergarments to smooth or transform their bodies, modern shapewear offers a relatively inexpensive, comfortable means to do so. Made with flexible fabrics that conform to the wearer’s body, it’s lightweight and easy to put on and take off. But modern shapewear and traditional girdles owe their existence to the foundation of foundations – the corset. Though long supplanted as the everyday undergarment of choice, corsets continue to be worn by women all over the world for a variety of reasons. But because their numbers are relatively small, they remain somewhat mysterious.
What exactly is a corset? It’s a type of shapewear consisting of two large pieces of fabric that encircle the torso, fastened together by lacing (usually in the back, but sometimes on the sides or front) and a vertical front closure, or busk. The busk may employ a button, hook-and-eye, or post-and eyelet system. The fabric is usually a flexible, non-elastic material, such as cloth, satin, or leather, and incorporates a series of vertical, rigid inserts known as stays or bones. These stays can create significant shaping of the torso when the garment is tightly laced. For corsets meant to be merely fashionable, such stays are usually made of plastic; however, in corsets of the highest quality that are designed to alter the physique, the bones are usually made of metal. Most corsets also have decorative trim attached to their tops and bottoms. And corsets may have garters attached to their bottoms that are often removable. Though it does provide some support for the bust, a corset’s primary job is to cinch the midriff and waist, thereby accentuating the bust and hips. If you’re looking for an hourglass shape, a corset will deliver results.
Many different kinds of corsets are available. Most are sold “off the rack,” but some are custom made. As the names suggest, underbust corsets are designed to cover the torso from just beneath the breasts to the top of the hips; overbust corsets extend further up and cover the breasts. Corsets may also be strapless or strapped. Straps may be included in a conventional, over-the-shoulder design, or set in a halter position. Most modern corsets are meant-to-be seen, either in the bedroom as playful and sexy lingerie (they’re often thought of as bridal wear), or around town as somewhat unconventional, outerwear tops. Their use may also be recommended by doctors to improve posture or ease back pain. But corsets are also still used as originally intended – as pieces of highly functional shapewear.
Corsets should not be confused with other items of lingerie. Bustiers may have silhouettes that look similar to those of corsets, but they’re usually fashion items and not shapewear. Waist cinchers, also worn to achieve body-slimming goals, cover a narrower region of the torso (usually from the lower ribs to the upper hips), have hook-and-eye closures or are made to be stepped into, and are constructed using elastic, spandex-infused fabrics. Though waist cinchers may include stays, they work by conforming to the wearer’s body while corsets force the wearer’s body to conform to them. Torsettes may at first look like strapped, underbust corsets but, as with waist cinchers, their fabrics are made with elastic fibers, they conform to the wearer’s body, and are either stepped into or fastened with hook-and-eye closures. They also rise much higher on the back, making them very effective garments in the fight against back fat and bra lines. Of course, none of these garments create as much compression and shaping as corsets do.
Corsets have been around for hundreds of years. First introduced in Europe in the 1500s, they were originally known as “stays.” Stays were relatively simple bodices and were constructed using limited amounts of whalebone. They were worn principally by aristocrats. By the 1700s, stays began incorporating more whalebone. Their shapes changed, becoming lower and wider in the front and higher in the back. They were worn by women of all social and economic levels, and were still not commonly worn tightly-laced. By the end of the 1700s, they fell out of fashion. Then, for a brief period in the early 1800s, boneless corsets replaced them. These were somewhat longer, rose higher in the front to cover the breasts, and didn’t rise as highly on the back. By the middle of the 1800s, corsets began incorporating more and more boning, and the invention of steel eyelets and metal busks made very tight lacing possible. By the early 1900s, the S-Curve corset became popular. These were corsets designed with curved backs that pushed the bust forward and the backside backwards. The corset finally fell out of favor in the 1920s when it was replaced by the more comfortable bra and girdle combination. Until the introduction of the modern bra, stays and corsets had provided the principal means of breast support for women.
Wearing a corset is much more complicated than wearing any other piece of intimate apparel. The complexity begins with sizing. Size is determined by one’s waist size; however, the size selected shouldn’t equal one’s measurement. Instead, a corset sized 2 to 6 inches smaller than the waist is often worn. Why? Because the smaller size allows the corset to perform its cinching job. Those with smaller waists have less to cinch, and often look for sizes only 2 to 4 inches smaller than their waists. Those with larger waists have greater cinching potential, and sometimes look for sizes 4 to 6 inches smaller than their waists. If you’ve never worn a corset before, you might want to start by using an average 4-inch differential as a guide.
The complexity continues when putting one on. The first step is to loosely lace the back (or side) of the corset. Next, place it around your body, with the laces in their appropriate position. The loops or eyelets of the busk should be on the right side of the front of your torso. If they’re on your left, you’re wearing it upside down. Fasten the busk from top to bottom. Lastly, tighten the laces in the back (or side) from top to bottom. If you’re an inexperienced corset wearer, or you want a very tight fit, you’ll need an assistant to perform this task. With some practice, you’ll be able to loosely tighten your own laces. In order for the garment and the body to adapt to each other, a corset should be worn loosely at first, and broken in over time, using increasingly tighter lacing techniques.
The way in which a corset is removed is dependent upon how tightly it’s laced. If only loosely laced, the wearer can remove it by simply unfastening the busk. If laced tightly, an assistant will have to first untie and loosen the laces, or the pressure exerted by the corset could damage the busk as it’s unfastened.
If you do decide to wear very tightly-laced styles, keep in mind that pressure will be exerted on your internal organs and may cause them to shift. Before taking such a fashion step, you might want to consult with your doctor. Keep in mind that prior to being sidelined by the bra and girdle combination, corsets were the subject of great debate in part due to concern about their effects on women’s bodies.
There are a couple of final tips you might want to keep in mind when wearing a corset. First, corset liners are available and provide a protective layer between the corset and your skin. Not only will these reduce the likelihood of chaffing, they will reduce the number of times your corset will have to be washed. Second, make sure to put on your hosiery and shoes before your corset. Once laced up, you’ll find it very difficult to bend down to accomplish these tasks.
Corsets can be playful and sexy, but can also deliver serious shaping results. Next time you put one on, make sure to pause and think about what women were required to wear in earlier eras, and be thankful for the undergarment choices available to you today.CC Image courtesy accent on eclectic on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/nakrnsm// CC BY 2.0 CC Image courtesy mbtrama on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbtrama// CC BY 2.0