Thursday, May 19, 2011

Corsets 1790-1810

Throughout the eighteenth century, the female body was compressed by whalebone corsets into conical shapes, but within the next few decades, as the silhouette became more high-waisted, corsetry changed drastically. The extant corsets of the early nineteenth century are slim columns of linen, embellished with quilting, cording, and embroidery. This change is intriguing: obviously, it did not happen overnight, but it was still unprecedented in the history of fashion in terms of its extreme degree of difference in such a short time. For the purpose of simplicity, I have elected to refer to all of the transitional undergarments discussed here as "corsets." (NB: this version is heavily abbreviated from my original paper.)


- Corset at the Kyoto Costume Institute (AC4197 82-5-5; page 129): circa 1790. Back is only lightly boned, with flared tab at center back. About waist-length.
- Corset from Corsets and Crinolines (page 43): circa 1793. Fully boned and rather long in the front; bottom is untabbed. Very short in the back, with boned and laced tabs at center back.

These two appear similar in shape and style to the conical stays of the earlier 18th century, and probably had the same effect on the bust. However, the lack of tabs at the bottom edge implies that they would not compress the waist at all.

- Busk from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery: 1783. 14.3 inches long.
- Busk from Canadian Museum of Civilization: 1796. 10.4 inches long
- Report from The Times, 1795, in C&C: that women wore "corsettes about six inches long."

This implies that the front of the corset had become noticeably shorter. The male writers may have been exaggerating the shortness for effect, but women's habits of movement may have changed in response to having a smaller length of whalebone in the front, alerting male viewers to the difference in foundation garments.

- Fashion plate, from Heideloff, The Gallery of Fashion (May 1794, figure 7): Woman in profile holding a small bouquet shows a smooth, straight line from the bust to the waist.
- Fashion plate, from Heideloff, The Gallery of Fashion (February 1796, figure 87): 1796. Woman in profile with a red shawl shows a kind of hyperbolic curve at the bust, which is closer to the waist than the previous.
- Fashion plate, from Heideloff, The Gallery of Fashion (Dresses 1799, figures 215-16): Women show clearly defined, rounded breasts.

- Corset from Kent State Museum (KSUM CHS 1963.42.4): 1795-1810 (given date). Fully boned with cups for the breasts. I believe this is from earlier in that period, the missing link between the conical stays and corsets with separated breasts.

At this point, it becomes very difficult to find corsets with specific dates. The long linen corsets from 1800 through the 1820s, when the hourglass figure became popular, tend to be labeled "early nineteenth century" in museum collections.

- The Book of Costume by a Lady of Rank (Mary Margaret Stanley Egerton Wilton; page 248): The author cites "a French lady of [the Revolutionary period]” to describe 'a simple piece of linen, slightly laced before, while it leaves the waist uncompressed [...]'"
- Ackermann's Repository of Arts (January 1811, in C&C): complains that at one point “ladies not only abandoned [corsets], but, without dresses, without fichus, they went about practically in their chemises.”

It seems likely to me that corsets were at their lightest and flimsiest from about 1795-1810, although the second quote is probably an exaggeration and even then most likely refers to the most fashionable of women.

- Corset from the Costume Institute (2006.545): 1790-1810. Two layers of linen, laces up the front with metal rings. Support and definition achieved by gathering below the bust.
- Museum of Fine Arts (49.904): early 19th century. Bust gores and some cording under the breasts.
- Museum of Fine Arts (49.904): early 19th century. Shaped panels for bust support, no cording. I believe these three are all from close to but after the turn of the century.
- The Domestic Encyclopedia (Anthony Florian Madinger Willich, 1804, page 39) describes stays as "supported by whalebone and laced behind […] such absurd casements are still retained by the most numerous class of women, who lace themselves in whale-bone, to the great detriment of their constitution."
- Monthly Review (Ralph Griffiths, Vol. XXIV, 1797, page 15): states that “a wise fashion of wearing no stiff stays, which adds so much to the beauty of young ladies, has commenced since the above was written; and long may it continue!”
- The Literary Magazine and American Register (Charles Borckden Brown, Vol III, 1805, page 228): celebrated “the discontinuance of stays” as a modern improvement.

I assume from this that though the new, light style was available, many women wore the old, boned style. It must have taken some time for the new style to disseminate among women, as the unboned corsets do not seem to have been made before the turn of the century and it would have been impossible for all women to begin wearing them at once. Women of the middle or working classes would have taken longer not just because of the trickle-down effect of fashion, but because of the expense of purchasing a new corset.

- Corset from the Kyoto Costume Institute (AC21877 77-11-58AB, page 131): early 19th century. Wooden busk, full cups, cording and embroidery.
- Corset from the University of Albert Museum (1974.9.9): 1810-1815. Deep gussets ad gores to produce a curved silhouette, heavily quilted, straight lacing edges.

The corsets from circa 1810 are sturdier and would prevent a lot of movement, especially bending forward. While they control the body more than the earlier short corsets, they aren't as curved as corsets of the 1820s, which feature shaped edges along the lacing eyelets. By this point in my research, I had convinced myself about earlier and later corsets, but there was a gap from about 1800-1810 in my chronology.

La Belle Assemblée, April 1807, "Letter on Dress" (page 227):
Do not be displeased that I fulfil not your commission for the long stay. Believe, Julia, your slender form, gently and simply rounded by nature, needs not this unnatural compression; they can only be requisite for such females as exceed the embonpoint, to others they give a most ungraceful stiffness; and, I should think, must be as uneasy as they are inelegant and unnatural. Besides, dear Julia, if we consult the painter and the sculpturist, we shall find that the natural beauty of a form consists in a moderate roundness, not in contracted flatness. [...] Continue, therefore, your simple corset; and do not, with your plump cheek, and round arms, exhibit the body of a caged skeleton.

I believe this indicates that the long corsets existed contemporaneously with a type of short one, with ideological as well as physical reasons behind the choice – a woman wearing the "simple corset" would need to have confidence that her body did not need compression, but it might also have been attractive to someone who believed that a rounded and "natural" form was preferable to a constricted one.

- Fashion plate, C&C (page 146): 1803. Young women frolic in a meadow. They have rounded bellies and do not seem to be wearing long, busked corsets.
- Fashion late, C&C (page 131): 1804. A young woman wearing a "corset elastique," which ends above the natural waistline.

I believe the women in the first fashion plate are wearing some kind of soft corset which only supported the breasts, but did not extend below the waist of the dress. Unfortunately, few short corsets exist today.

- "Brassiere" from the Kyoto Costume Institute (AC21077 77-11-50AB; page 130) (as well as a similar pair sold at Christie's called "shape makers"): Two pieces which wrap around the chest.

While I think this sort of undergarment would have been worn during the same time as the short corset, I would not give it that label.

- Corset from Corsets (Jill Salen, page 102): 1790. Very minimally boned, with vestigial tabs and small gussets at the bust.
- Fashion plate from The Book of English Trades (Souter, page 222): 1818. The corset looks very much like Salen's, with light tabs and a high waist.
- Short corset, : 1803.
- Short corset, : 1822.

Salen's corset is essentially what I believe many women wore 1800-1810. (It seems to be misdated – 1790 is too early for a corset to be this short and flimsy.) A corset of this type with gussets adjusted for bust size, as I know from personal experience, can produce the supported and separated bust shape seen in the clothed fashion plates. The 1818 plate may be out of my date range, but as it was used into the 1820s, I believe it indicates a continuity through the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Based on the statistics of surviving corsets, it would appear that long corsets were extremely popular and short ones hardly ever worn, but I believe that there is a reason for the lack of short corsets, early long corsets, and shape makers. These were all lightly boned at most, based on extant corsets and descriptions, and the latter two do not seem to have been made with expensive materials or extensive embellishment. Therefore when these corsets wore out or became unfashionable, the wearers would have been more likely to reuse the fabric or simply throw them away; corsets with heavy whaleboning or beautiful silk outer layers could represent much more money to the owners, prompting them to store older corsets once they were unfashionable. Another possibility (not mutually exclusive with the first) is that the earlier and later corsets were considered more aesthetically appealing in the long run, being made from more attractive materials and having more applied decoration (embroidery, quilting, cording). The more intensely structured silhouettes of these corsets may have also made them more appealing to later generations, which clearly valued an artificial shape to the torso and might have considered the lighter corsets lumpy and unattractive.

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