A History of Women Torturing Themselves With Corsets & Waist Trainers
Although butts may be the current cultural commodity, it’s never not been “in fashion” to have a small waist.
Consequently, the history of woman’s fashion could be subtitled, “Corsets: Yup, They’re Still Here.”
Here’s a brief history of corsets from ancient times to today, tracing their journey from the sexual pagans who first dared to constrain to the Kardashians and the re-emergence of a waist training-obsessed society.
The Humble, But Very Sexy Beginning of Corsets
While the exact origin of corsets remain unknown, there’s proof going back as far as 3,000 BCE that Cretan, Sumerian and Minoan women were wearing open-fronted bodices which framed their bare breasts (scandalous) paired with flounced skirts that emphasized the shapely hips stemming from their tiny waists.
There’s no real evidence to suggest that this was a wide-spread fashion trend, however, and it’s generally agreed upon that these daring pioneers were priestesses related to the fertility cult, hence the insistence on freeing the nip and emphasizing their birthing-ready hips.
Corsets in the Middle Ages: Welcome to Slut-Shaming, Ladies
Now it was common in Europe for women to wear clothing, and by clothing we mean dresses, that exposed the top of the neck, chest and cleavage. Just because it was common doesn’t mean that everybody was on board the “let’s show off the goods our mamma gave us so we can get a good husband and have a chance to have sex before we die at a very young age because antibiotics isn’t a thing yet,” train. There are references in Dante of the writer slut-shaming the fine women of Florence for wearing clothing that “showed their bosom and breasts” in public.
Men, am I right?
Then in the 1400s, over in France, Agnes Sorel, the mistress to Charles VIII, started the trend of wearing décolleté gowns in French Court, which is just a fancy word for dresses that show your décolletage.
And just like when Kim started wearing waist trainers, once Agnes started wearing hers, every fashionable woman wanted to do it, and thus the first wide-spread corset-involved fashion trend was born.
The Renaissance Happens, And Corsets Become A Major Status Symbol
Huzzah, between 1500 and 1550 the first rurl corset is invented, only it was called a bodice.
Just in case you didn’t grow up being dragged to the Renaissance fair by your parents, Huzzah is dorky Renaissance slang for “fuck yeah!”
Made out of rigid materials like whalebone and animal horn and fancy fabrics with detailed stitching, corsets, and the ample bosoms they emphasized, became a symbol of status and beauty among the aristocratic and upper class women of the Western world.
Catherine de Medici is commonly credited with introducing the fashion to France, at which point corsets were everywhere from Italy to the English court, as is evidenced of portraits from Queen Mary II, Henrietta Maria, and Queen Elizabeth I.
Good News For Women Who Like To Breathe, The Georgian Era Is Here
Just like shoulder pads in the 80s, a regrettable fashion trend cropped up in the late Georgian period, and if you’re at all familiar with the novels of Jane Austin, then you already know what it is.
The empire waist.
By 1796, bust lines and waistlines had moved way way way up, and seeing as how women’s torsos were now hidden under a pile of shapeless fabric, corsets didn’t need to be so constricting anymore, and began following the natural form of the body.
But you know what did need to happen?
Breasts needed to be lifted and separated.
So, for the first time, cups get added to corsets, which officially become considered underwear, a.k.a. that thing that nobody besides your husband, your sisters, God, and your servants are EVER supposed to see.
Since there was less form shaping going on, people started calling the undergarments by the French term for lightly boned bodices — you guessed it, “corsets.”
The Victorian Era Prudes Ruin Corsets For Everybody
Just when women thought they’d be able to breathe while being fashionable forever, bam, the Victorian era comes to town.
Waist lines for dresses return to their normal position on the body and corsets become more popular than ever.
And more intense than ever before.
Around this time, corsets started being made out of not just whalebone, but other horrible materials to have around your body like steel and wood.
And to make matters worse, literally everybody with any social standing whatsoever was wearing them because everybody wanted that Barbie hourglass figure, even though the Victorians were legendary prudes.
Not that emphasizing your figure constitutes a willingness to engage in sexual behavior of course, it’s just interesting that an era so concerned with holding everything in was equally concerned with making their waistlines look as hot as possible.
This also marks the first time that physicians and heads of state like Napoleon Bonaparte started warning women about the dangers of corsets, with Napoleon going so far as to call them “the murderer of the human race.”
Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Worse For Women, Some Asshole Invented The S-Line Corset
Towards the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian era, fashion pundits decided they needed to devise a way to torture women even more than they already were, so some asshole devised a more extreme version of the corset that was already tyrannizing a generation: the S-line corset.
S-Line corsets forced your bells and your hips backward, which made standing up straight literally impossible.
Yeah, we don’t even want to think about how uncomfortable wearing one of these bad boys was.
Byeeeeeeeee, Corsets. Hello, 1920s Rebellion!
In a rebellion against the thousands of years of women’s fashion that came before them, cool, liberalized women decide to stop wearing the S-line corsets of their parents’ generation and start wearing corsets made with elastic inserts, or better yet, start saying “hell nah” to the idea of wearing corsets on the daily… or ever.
During WWI, women began to stop wearing corsets all together in accordance with the brand-new fashion rules which deemed that corsets and elegant dresses were no longer synonymous with each other.
Meanwhile, the flapper fashion trend began to take hold of the more adventurous women in society.
Around this time, pliable girdles were introduced to help obtain the new fashionable boyish body image: flattening the bust and emphasizing the long, slender body shape.
Dior Changes the Game, Makes Waist Shaping Necessary Again
In 1947, two years after the end of WWII, Dior introduces their “New Look,” which of course wasn’t actually new at all, but very old.
And just like that, having a small waist became just as fashionable as it had been for pretty much all of history.
Only, instead of returning to wearing corsets, people just figured out how to make different girdles and bras. You know, so women could be slightly more comfortable while barely being able to breathe or move without hating themselves.
Burn Your Bra, Burn Your Girdle, And Pass Me The Acid, Man
We don’t even have to tell you what happened in the 60s and 70s to restrictive underwear, do we?
High Fashion Makes the Corset Cool Again
Jean Paul Gaultier successfully mounts a campaign to bring back the corset starting in 1983, the year he walked his first corseted dress down the runway.
Suddenly, people wanted to wear corsets again, and they stopped being seen as mandatory underwear and instead as fashionable outerwear.
Then in 1987, Vivienne Westwood follows suit, using old 18th century patterns to present her own version of the corset, transforming what used to be a symbol of female oppression into one of female empowerment.
Obviously, Mandonna wore both of their creations, thus ensuring that the new corset revolution trickled down to the masses from the high fashion world.
Welcome to the Present: Spanx, Waist Trainers and Kardashians, Oh My!
Although it would take nearly a decade to become an ubiquitous product, in 2000 the clothing company Spanx was launched by Sara Blakely out of her apartment in Georgia.
For years, Spanx were something you didn’t talk about and went to great lengths to hide, and then the Kardashians happened.
Just like nearly everything else in their lives, the Kardashians weren’t ashamed to admit that they wore Spanx on a regular basis, and that those shaping underwear were part of the secret behind their enviable shapes, which is as true today as it was in the early 2000s when they found fame.
Then in 2014, Kim changed the game again when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing a corset and told the world that she was officially in the waist training game.
Obviously, it didn’t take long for the trend to catch on. And even though waist training is something that mostly just celebrities and other Instagram famous people do, just like corsets and the small waists they created were seen as a status symbol when they first emerged in the English and French courts of the 1500s, so are waist trainers and the Kardashian-size waists we’ve all been trained to envy today.
For better or for worse, so long as we live in a society that puts so much emphasis on the way women look, corsets, or some form of them, will always be there, waiting to help us and harm us on our quest to the perfect, or at least fashionable, body.