Does any other piece of lingerie capture the imagination like the corset? Worn as figure-shaping, bust-lifting, dress-supporting undergarments for hundreds of years, corsets were replaced by bras a century ago, but their sinuous lines still capture our attention. Here’s where this time-tested apparel item comes from, and how to find and flaunt your own.
Where does the corset come from?
Corsets have their origins in the stiffened dress bodices latter part of Middle Ages Europe. As the invention of tailoring made women’s dresses more body-conscious, people began to look for ways to show off their figures. After dresses split into two distinct parts, bodices and skirts, bodices were reinforced with paste, wood, reed, or horn. Gradually, these reinforced areas migrated underneath the dress, leading to the development of the first European corsets in the 1500s. These were called [stays] (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O10446/stays-and-busk-unknown/), and they had a roughly triangular shape.
Stays fell out of fashion after the French Revolution, when aristocratic styles of clothing grew unpopular. The brief popularity of the Empire waist, a silhouette in which a dress is cinched well above the natural waist, popularized [short stays] (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O138889/stays/), a type of corset that supported only the bust.
However, between the 1830s and 1860s, these short stays lengthened into the hourglass corset silhouette we all recognize today, featuring both a cinched waist and a number of “bones” to shape the torso. While the rise of leisure sports and the end of World War I led to a decline in everyday corset-wearing, the corset never completely disappeared. Corsets were still very popular in movies and pinup imagery, and they developed a special cachet as more than ordinary undergarments but rather an item of clothing with transgressive, seductive powers. Perhaps this reputation is why corsets are experiencing a miniature resurgence.
In an era in which stretchy, casual athleisure is everywhere, something as tightly structured and formal as a corset can seem taboo just for breaking with the norm. With their suggestive framework that retains a traditionally feminine silhouette — even when the garment isn’t being worn — corsets are also powerfully sensual in their own right. Unlike with most modern-day undergarments, your body takes on the shape of the corset, not the reverse. And corsets can lend a little (or a lot) of drama to any ensemble.
What are the different types of corsets?
There are two major categories of corsets: underbust and overbust. As the name implies, the top of an underbust corset ends beneath the bust, on the ribs. An overbust corset covers and supports the bust, meaning you likely won’t need to wear a bra with this style. If you’re new to corsetry, an underbust corset tends to be more affordable and more accessible, not to mention more versatile: You can easily wear it as both underwear and outerwear, which is a bit more difficult with an overbust style.
Within these two broad categories of underbust and overbust are a number of more specific silhouettes. The silhouette refers to the shape of a corset (or the shape it will give you). Many of these silhouettes are inspired by historical eras. For example, a Victorian-style silhouette tends to use a classic hourglass shape, while an Edwardian-style corset has a trademark “S-bend” that tips the body forward. One popular overbust shape, especially for first-time corset wearers, is the sweetheart neckline. As the name implies, the bust area of the corset dips in the center, just over the breastbone, and then rounds over the top of each breast, giving a heart-shaped outline to the bust (this is often paired with a Victorian silhouette for the waist and torso).
For underbust corsets, popular styles include the classic, which ends just below the bust; the Waspie, or waist cincher, which ends lower on the ribs and higher on the hips to focus on shaping on the waist; and the pointed cincher, which ends in points at the top and bottom.
What should I know when looking for a corset of my own?
When shopping for a corset, keep in mind that the numbers used in corset sizing refer to your waist size in inches. Reputable corset sellers won’t use sizes like “small,” “medium,” and “large.” Instead, you’ll see numbers: 24 inches, 26 inches, 28 inches, and so on. Because of this, it’s important to know your waist measurement. To take an accurate waist measure, bend to the side. Where your torso forms a natural crease is where you want to wrap the measuring tape around your body. Your waist will be under your ribs and just above the top of your navel. If you’re measuring at or below the belly button, you’re probably not at your natural waist. For most first-time corset wearers, the corset you buy will be four inches smaller than your natural waist measurement. For example, if you have a 30-inch waist, that means you should start with a 26-inch corset.
Because corsets shape the figure through non-stretch fabrics and steel boning, it’s critical to both choose the appropriate size and purchase from a quality brand. Many items that are called corsets aren’t true corsets but are instead bustiers or girdles. Attempting to “lace down” in a poorly-made corset can not only damage the corset, it can cause discomfort or trouble breathing. Fortunately, you can find good-quality but still budget-friendly underbust corsets suitable for beginners starting at about $75.
Any tips for first-time corset wearers?
When you first put on your corset, don’t try to lace it as tightly as possible. Give your body time to get used to the garment while also allowing it to adjust to your body. A good rule of thumb is to lace down no more than two inches over a two-hour period (or less if your corset is brand-new or it’s your first time corseting). And, of course, if you have pain or discomfort or experience shortness of breath, unlace immediately.
What corset retailers do you recommend?
Corsets aren’t often sold in brick-and-mortar stores anymore, which means shopping online is usually the most convenient choice. Mystic City Corsets is a popular shop for corset beginners, especially if you’re on a budget. If you can afford to spend a bit more, the vintage-inspired off-the-rack corsets from What Katie Did are world-renowned. And if you’re ready for a real splurge, consider purchasing from Dark Garden. Based in San Francisco, the company helped bring corsetry back into the mainstream with its exquisite handmade pieces. (The label is also a favorite of celebrated corsetmaker Mr. Pearl, who has made runway pieces for some of the most famous fashion brands in the world, including Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler.) For reviews and shopping advice, Lucy’s Corsetry is widely regarded by insiders as one of the best corset sites around.
Whatever your reason for wearing a corset and however you wear it — as outerwear or underwear, as back support or fashion — it is an iconic piece of lingerie. Like any other item of clothing, what a corset means depends on the wearer. For some, it’s a type of powerful armor. For others, it’s a bit of secret support. Either way, corsets are here to stay.
More on lingerie:
Check out seven of the cutest cuticle tattoos: