A short history of corsetry, from whalebone to Lycra.

Collected images.
Nov. 16 2010 10:25 AM

Well-Rounded

A history of corsetry, from whalebone to Lycra.

Slide Show: Well-Rounded. Click image to launch.

In the late Middle Ages, women wore tightly laced bodices stiffened with paste to control and smooth their figures. In the 16th century, however, as the great voyages of discovery across the Atlantic revealed teeming new whale fisheries and rich silks and velvets requiring firmer foundations were imported from Italy and Spain, whalebone became a popular and common material for shaping both body and clothing. Also known as baleen, whalebone is not a bone at all, but the keratinous material found around the upper jaws of baleen whales, used to filter plankton and krill. It is robust but flexible, and can be cut into very narrow strips along the grain. Whalebones were inserted into the lining of outer garments, creating whalebone bodices or "bodies" that molded the torso into a rigid and conical V-shape. In the 17th century, these whalebone linings became distinct, separate understructures, known as "stays." The word corset was not used in its modern sense until the early 1800s, when corsetry—and the pronounced hourglass figure it created—came to dominate both fashion and social discourse on women's health and morality.

Whalebone was replaced by cheaper flat spiral-steels at the beginning of the 20th century, and the corset gave way to lighter girdles in the 1920s and 1930s, but in all its forms, corsetry was worn by most women from youth to old age and across social classes until the 1960s. It was only then that foundation-wear was replaced by diet and exercise as a method of figure control—along with a little help from tensile new fabrics such as Lycra.

The images in this slideshow are photographs of pieces from the extensive collection of undergarments held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and have been published in my book about the museum's collection, Underwear: Fashion in Detail.

Advertisement

Click here to read a slide show on corsets.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Eleri Lynn is a fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was the assistant curator of the V & A's major exhibition The Golden Age of Couture.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.