If you were to ask someone when they thought the production and wearing of corsets first became fashionable, what do you think their response would be?
You’re right. Their answer would probably in or around the time of Queen Victoria (ie) from around the middle of the nineteenth century onwards.
An understandable reply. They were, after all, one of the first items of fashion to benefit from widespread advertising campaigns both in Great Britain and the USA. They were, essentially, manufactured and marketed as practical items for everyday use but, of course, as with many fashionable trends, then and now, there was always an ulterior motive involved. This included their being adapted to reduce women’s waist sizes, often to measurements that bordered on the dangerous as far as their physical health was concerned.
A fad which, in time, helped create the image around the corset that it was a tight, uncomfortable and restrictive item of clothing, one that was most likely to be championed by stern Victorian matriarchs whose views on life and how women should approach it was as strict, suffocating and rigid as the corset itself was perceived to be.
In reality however, what the Victorians really did for the Corset was adapt it for their own world and needs just as any culture and society has done so for items of fashion.
Think of denim jeans for example. Hard wearing denim trousers were worn as a tough and protective form of work wear by both miners in the UK and ranchers in the United States; items of apparel that were a million miles away from being seen, let alone worn as a must have and fashionable item of clothing.
Denim jeans evolved over time into the public consciousness. Which is exactly where the Corset finally found itself during the Victorian period.
It had already been around for quite a while. Yet it was only then that it was being noticed in such a far reaching manner.
Take the traditional clothing of young women in some areas of Europe throughout the 15th century for example. They are depicted as wearing extremely tight and bound dresses that are extremely evocative of a corset whilst, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries iron corsets were designed and made as an option for women, their purpose believed to have been as an orthopaedic tool designed to correct, or more likely, ‘encourage’ the desired posture at the time.
But they weren’t just worn by the unfortunate and, no doubt, extremely uncomfortable women of the day.
Powerful and wealthy men found themselves under increasing threat of attack and attempted assassination as they went about their day to day business, especially those involved in the ruling or royal families. So iron corsets were made for men as well with their prime function being to protect the wearer from the sword, knife and, as time and technology progressed, the bullet.
Worn underneath several other layers of clothing as well as substantial padding in and around the corset itself, the end result would have been very heavy and, again, extremely uncomfortable for the wearer. However, given the high probability of being set about by a gang of brigands at the time, those levels of discomfort were thought as being much preferred to the possible alternatives.
Amusingly, even though the design and functionality of the item was essentially the same, it was made very clear at the time that those that were made for and worn by men were not Corsets and were never to be referred to as such with ‘waistcoat’ or ‘vest’ being the preferred title for Corsets that were worn by men.
Which means, all too deliciously, that those fancy waistcoats that are worn by so many men today have their origins in the corsets that their ancestors might just have been championing as long as four centuries ago.
Think about it. The closely fitted buttons at the front designed to ensure that each side of the item overlap one another in a snug and tight fitting fashion?
Plus what remains of the lace at the back, designed to be pulled taut to help the item fit even closer to the body?
Something which is designed to fit underneath the main items of clothing-in this case, a suit?
Gents, like it or not, every time you go to a Wedding, you are more likely to be wearing something related to a Corset than the Bride is.
A fact that might just have led the normally straight laced ladies of Victoria’s day have to stifle a polite giggle or two.