Fashion history shows the first recorded corset came from Crete. The Cretan woman stood proudly
bare breasted and the waist and hip corset shown in the header above is
obviously a decorative part of her underwear.
For many centuries, both East and West, women and men have worn loose flowing
robes. Elaborate layers of cloth indicated the rank or wealth of an individual.
Sometimes to give shape to robes, the clothes were tied with a girdle or a sash.
Later extra shaping was introduced by the use of a brooch or a pin. This type of
clothing was popular among Greeks and Romans 3000 years ago.
Greek women were corseted. Under the Greek Chiton a leather band style corset
was worn and this gave definition to the hips and bust. From birth, girls were
swaddled. For six months their arms and legs were bound in swaddling cloths
restricting their movement and keeping limbs straight. Adolescent Greek girls
were forced to keep trim. Their Greek mothers used woollen bands to keep the
developing body slim.
Fashion history of the Middle Ages shows women covered up from head to foot.
In the Middle Ages the idea prevailed that the body was sinful and underwear
something rather shameful. But towards the end of the Middle Ages clothes were
carefully cut and shaped to the body. Part of this shaping was achieved by
cutting cloth on the true cross or the bias of the fabric grain.
In the 13th
century a corset was worn, but as in later centuries it was sometimes worn as an
outer garment over robes like a waistcoat is worn. From the 14th
century onwards costume began to introduce new elements simply for the sake of
variety and change rather than function.
By the start of the16th century Spanish fashions influenced
Italian and English ladies. An iron hinged armour like corset was worn to
flatten the body giving a smooth outline beneath gowns.
The iron corset must
have been exceptionally uncomfortable and heavy to wear and could only have been
worn by Elizabethan ladies not doing any form of heavy work. Their only benefit
seems to be that they produced the incredibly small waisted, elongated flat chested smooth line torso.
This was illustrated in paintings of great
Elizabethan ladies wearing fabulous structured bejewelled gowns. Left - Elongated boyish flattened torso of
Queen Elizabeth 1
in the long Elizabethan era - 1592/3. Held at National Portrait Gallery London.
Corsets of the late 16th century would be more recognizable to us
today than the iron version. These later corsets incorporated materials such as
whalebone, bone, wood and flexible steel. The patterns on the corsets showed the
placement of the chosen support and were elongated after a fashion trend set by the
boyish figure of Queen Elizabeth I.
A petticoat construction called a Spanish farthingale (after a popular
Spanish fashion that influenced Western Europe) was worn with the corset in
The farthingale which graduated in width from hip to floor supported
voluminous skirts and had hoops which gave it shape. The hoops were made of
wood, rushes, wire or whalebone. Consequently it was very uncomfortable and
heavy in wear, but had major effects on deportment ensuring that the wearer
could only move by gliding in an elegant way.
The farthingale was later worn with a roll of stiffened material called a Bum
Below - Sixteenth century lady adjusting a bum roll used to support the folds of skirt
fabric surrounding the waist.
- Bum roll - isn't that a wonderful descriptive name for an article of
The bum roll could be used to add more width to the body, whilst spreading
skirt fullness evenly. A famous Dutch engraving of 1595 satirises bum rolls. The
Bum Roll had tapes which enabled it to be tied to the waist, settling over the
farthingale. Sometimes it was worn without a farthingale. When the bum roll
became too cumbersome, a rounder wheel style farthingale became popular,
especially as Spanish influence lessened.
At the end of the 16th century the farthingale and larger bum
roll as a fashion faded. It was replaced by the French farthingale and the
female silhouette came to look like a tray was being worn on the hips. The
construction was wide at the hips, but flat at the front. Only the Spanish
continued to wear the Spanish farthingale until about 1630. Whilst some wore a
more delicate bum roll for skirt support until 1640.
In the 17th century clothes were softer and more flowing.
The heavy iron corset which flattened rather than shaped, gave way to
corsetry that emphasised the waist and full skirts.
Right - Early C17th metal and whalebone
Well cut corsets, more often called stays until the 18th century,
were made with boning. A corset or a boned lining supported the shaping of the
bodice which after 1620 had a higher waistline and a longer stomacher.
After 1630-40 the corset became part of the top fabric bodice as it was
mounted on a boned lining. This was actually thought of as tailoring as the
stays became one with the bodice gown. This fashion virtually dispensed with
stays as an item.
Stays only returned in the 1670s when the patterned bodice was
worn under the over gown. Then the boned section was once more thought of as
stays and considered an undergarment.
It's interesting to note that wearing a bustier as a top garment in the 21st
century is nothing new.
Buy my latest ebook and learn how to recognise changes
between Paniers, crinolines, bustles, bras and corsets and the affect this
has on the outer silhouette of female costume
My How to Recognise Undergarments in Fashion History e-book has 12 chapters about the changes in under foundations in costume history found in
various articles on this website.
It also has a new chapter on the history of drawers and knickers and
one covering the chemise and petticoats. This
you to read, print and copy from various web pages of fashion-era.com all in one go.
The Undergarments ebook includes information from my
articles on early corsetry, C18th Paniers and the sack dress, stays to corsets,
crinoline styles from 1830s to 1860s, bustle styles of 1870s & 1883/5,
Edwardian corsetry, bras and girdles
before and after 1950, and a new chapter on drawers, pantaloons, knickers to
panties. A look at Rational Dress Reform, the contribution of Mrs. Bloomer and Dr. Jaeger
to the resultant
cycling and swimming dress. For
more information on the contents of Undergarments click here.
A Printer Friendly Version
allows the ebook to be printed
as single chapters or as a whole book without clipped text at the sides and can also be copied into Word
for ease of use when writing handouts. Don't know what an
ebook is? Click here
Fashion-Era.com looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era. Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also
contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear. These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.
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