Corsets in the 18th century were an essential part of any aristocratic woman’s wardrobe. A corset, or corps, as it was called, was made of six pieces of thick linen or canvas, stiffened with paste. Inserted at the seams were “stays”, the long, thin rods that gave the corset its shape. Stays were most commonly made out of whalebone, though they were occasionally made from steel as well. An extra strip of whalebone would be inserted at the top front of the corset to help support the breasts. At the front of the corset was the “busk”, an inverted triangle of bone or wood that would add stiffness. Due to the physical labor and strength required to cut these heavy materials, men made the corsets.
The function of the corset was threefold: to shape the body and enforce posture, to control movement, and to assert the wearers status. The first, and most obvious use of the corset was to shape the body, slimming the waist and pushing the breasts up. The shoulder straps, hanging just off the shoulder, would push the shoulders back and the bust out. The stiff materials and hard stays would also enforce good posture. A corseted woman could not slouch or bend, and doing so would result in a small jab from the corset, a reminder to stand up straight.
The second function of the corset was to control a lady’s movement. Just as the corset forced good or straight posture, it also dictated how a lady could move. She would have to stand perfectly straight, as we see in figure 4. A woman could only bend slightly at the waist, tilting forwards or to the side. When sitting down, a lady had a choice of sitting straight up or reclining to the side, supporting herself on one arm, as we see Mme de Pompadour doing in figure 5. Corsets even went so far as to control how a woman could breathe, forcing her to use upper-diaphragmatic breathing and take short, shallow breaths.
Finally, the corset was a symbol of wealth and aristocracy. A corset like the one in figure 1, heavily embroidered and lavishly decorated, would have cost an enormous amount of money. Only the nobles could afford such a luxury. Furthermore, a corset made a woman far more reliant on others. As corsets laced up the back, a servant would be needed to dress and undress each day, as seen in figure 6. Lastly, a corset was a sign that a woman did not work. A corseted woman could hardly bend over to pick something up off the floor, let alone perform manual labor. Wearing a corset broadcasted to those around you that you were wealthy and that you did not need to work.
Maeder, Edward. An Elegant Art: Fashion & Fantasy in the 18th Century. Los Angeles, CA: n.p., 1983. Print.
Steele, Valerie. “Steel and Whalebone Fashioning the Aristocratic Body.” The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. [New York]: Theatre Arts, 1970. Print.
Fig. 1 Corset. Photograph. Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80003629?img=0>.
Fig. 2 The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, Tailor of Bodices, Plate XXII (1765). 4 Nov. 2012. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0000.178/–tailor-of-suits-and-tailor-of-bodices?rgn=main;view=fulltext;q1=corset>.
Fig. 3 Corset. Photograph. Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80013065?img=0>.
Fig. 4 Moreau, Jean-Michel. Monument du costume physique et morale de la fin du dix-huitième siècle. 1789. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.
Fig. 5 Boucher, François. Portrait of Marquise De Pompadour. 1756. Oil on canvas. N.p.
Fig. 6 De Troy, Jean-Francois. A Lady showing a Miniature Bracelet to Her Suitor. 1734. N.p.