The exact origins of the corset are lost in antiquity, but the ancient Greeks certainly wore a style of corset. Undergarments which pulled in and accentuated the waist were worn by the wealthy in France in the 1300s and 1400s, and their popularity spread to other countries.
The wearing of corsets became widespread in the 1500s and 1600s, as many Renaissance portraits will show. However these corsets, examples of which survive, were particularly rigid and uncomfortable, and made from materials such as iron or wood, as well as whalebone, which became the main agent for providing the constricting tightness in later centuries. The fashion started in Spain, and during a period in which Spain fell under the rule of another country, a Spanish queen was said to have promised her people that she would not loosen her corsets until Spain was free. It sounds risible now, but given the corsets of those days, it was a promise to inspire respect.
French fashion was more to the fore towards the end of the 17th century, and corsets became more elaborate, and an essential part of the 'look' of voluminous richly fabriced skirts, lots of petticoats, and a slender waist held in by a corset which also pushed up the breasts to give an enticing, strapless decolletage to any woman attending a social occasion. Corsets were worn by the boys and girls of wealthy families, and for outdoor activities such as horseback riding.
In the 1700s corsets were long and stiff, strengthened with cane and whalebone, and worn by children of both sexes from as young as 7 or 8 years. Extreme tight lacing became popular toward the end of the 18th century.
|In early 19th century corsets were more or less unpopular|
|Example of a dress at napoleon time|
This picture shows a line corset from around 1835 with a waist size of 45cm. More pictures and informations of the period of dressing here
Pelerines, or lace coverings draped over the shoulders, were popular (one of several devices, along with full upper-arm sleeves and wide necklines, to emphasize the shoulders and their width).
Skirts evolved from a conical shape to a bell shape, aided by a new method of attaching the skirts to the bodice using organ or cartridge pleats which cause the skirt to spring out from the waist. Full skirts were achieved mainly through layers of petticoats. The increasing weight and inconvenience of the layers of starched petticoats would lead to the development of the crinoline of the second half of the 1850s.
Sleeves were narrower and fullness dropped from just below the shoulder at the beginning of the decade to the lower arm, leading toward the flared pagoda sleeves of the 1850s and 1860s.
Evening gowns were worn off the shoulder and featured wide flounces that reached to the elbow, often of lace. They were worn with sheer shawls and opera-length gloves.
Another accessory was a small bag. At home bags were often white satin and embroidered or painted. Outdoor bags were often green or white and tasseled. There were also crocheted linen bags.
Shoes were made from the same materials as handbags. There were slippers of crocheted linen and bright colored brocade satin slippers that tied around the ankle with silk ribbon.
This picture shows an embroidered white satin bust.
This bust, even fashion similar to those of previous decades, but already 'stiff by some (fixed slats, well marks the transition between the two types of busts. More pictures here
By the early 1860s, skirts had reached their ultimate width. After about 1862 the silhouette of the crinoline changed and rather than being bell-shaped it was now flatter at the front and projected out more behind.
Day dresses featured wide pagoda sleeves worn over undersleeves or engageantes. High necklines with lace or tatted collars or chemisettes completed the demure daytime look.
Evening dresses had low necklines and short sleeves, and were worn with short gloves or lace or crocheted fingerless mitts. Large crinolines were probably reserved for balls, weddings and other special occasions.
Skirts were now assembled of shaped panels, since gathering a straight length of fabric could not provide the width required at the hem without unwanted bulk at the waist; this spelled the end of the brief fashion for border-printed dress fabrics.
Heavy silks in solid colors became fashionable for both day and evening wear, and a skirt might be made with two bodices, one long-sleeved and high necked for afternoon wear and one short-sleeved and low-necked for evening.
As the decade progressed, sleeves narrowed, and the circular hoops of the 1850s decreased in size at the front and sides and increased at the back. Looped up overskirts revealed matching or contrasting underskirts, a look that would reach its ultimate expression the next two decades with the rise of the bustle. Waistlines rose briefly at the end of the decade.
As skirts became narrower and flatter in front, more emphasis was placed on the waist and hips. A corset was therefore used to help mold the body to the desired shape. This was achieved by making the corsets longer than before, and by constructing them from separate shaped pieces of fabric. To increase rigidity, they were reinforced with many strips of whalebone, cording, or pieces of leather. As well as making corsets more constricting, this heavy structure helped prevent them from riding up, or from wrinkling at the waist. Steam-molding also helped create a curvaceous contour. Developed by Edwin Izod in the late 1860s, the procedure involved placing a corset, wet with starch, on a steam heated copper torso form until it dried into shape.
The crinoline or hooped petticoat had grown to its maximum dimensions by 1860. As huge skirts began to fall from favor, around 1864, the shape of the crinoline began to change. Rather than being dome-shaped, the front and sides began to contract, leaving volume only at the back. The "American" cage, a hooped petticoat partially covered in fabric, came in bright colors made possible by the new aniline dyes.This was followed by a hybrid of the bustle and crinoline sometimes called a "crinolette". The cage structure was still attached around the waist and extended down to the ground, but only extended down the back of the wearer’s legs. The crinolette itself was quickly superseded by the true bustle, which was sufficient for supporting the drapery and train at the back of the skirt.
The history of 19th century fashion will continue soon.