Corsets originated in the 16th to 17th century, but their original form was more of a cone shape that flattened the bodice and pushed the breasts to the top. The emphasis wasn't on the waist, it was on the cleavage.
Corsets went out of fashion during the popularity of the high-waisted empire style in the late 1700s, but they came back in a new hourglass form during the Victorian era.
While high-society women were wearing corsets to be fashionable, corsets have long been a big part of fetishism fashion for bondage and S&M. This BDSM look from the '30s isn't much different than what we'd see today.
Early metal bodices most likely were used as orthopedic devices and not fashion. However, women already wore tight-fitting, shirt-like garments underneath dresses, which occasionally caused lasting physical damage when worn too tight. They were prescribed the metal, corset-like piece, which worked better, and it was only a matter of time before word spread.
While some may assume it was the domineering men who wanted their women strapped in with corsets, it was the women who claimed corsets were beneficial and enjoyable. Many men disagreed about the use of corsets, and male doctors of the 19th century warned of the health dangers of wearing such constricting underpinnings.
Corsets were called "stays" until 1829, when French designer Jean-Julien Josselin patented the word for his new undergarment: a one-piece that could be fastened and unfastened without assistance.
Corseted women were often diagnosed with all sorts of ailments — some real, some not — due to being lightheaded and short of breath in their tight undergarments. One of their "sicknesses" was hysteria, which led to the invention of the vibrator, administered on their fainting sofas.
Popular thought, magazine articles, and advertisements into the early 20th century warned that abandoning the corset while pregnant could lead to a permanently stretched-out uterus and abdomen. The only concession was a few laces were added, so a woman could let the bodice out as her stomach grew.
In the late 19th century, it became acceptable for women to play sports like tennis, croquet, and golf, but not acceptable to dress down for such activities. Bloodied corsets became a common sight in tennis club dressing rooms, so the Dermathistic — a corset made of leather — was invented. Comfortable!
In the 17th century, whalebone became the piping (or boning) of choice for women's petticoats. It was not made of actual bone, though, but a protein found in the upper jaws of baleen whales.
This 1900 illustration shows the old Victorian corseted silhouette compared to the new Edwardian "S-bend" corseted silhouette that you may recognize on Lady Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey.
Men who were against corsets were still far from being feminists. In fact, they often used the fact that women wore the waist-cinching undergarments as reasoning that females were irrational. And they were more concerned with corseted women not being able to have children than the women hurting their bodies.
Even little girls wore corsets, with boning gradually added to their undergarments beginning at age 7. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about young women wearing corsets to bed in Little Town on the Prairie, which is set in 1880.
This is the look of an Edwardian corset, which is the period of Downton Abbey before WWI.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the US War Industries Board asked women to hold out on corset purchases to preserve metal for war. This ended up being the beginning of the end of the corset era, with the nail on the coffin being WWII.
An ad for corsets from 1903 shows the Edwardian shape.
This corset ad is from the early 1900s.
A woman wears a corseted look in 1896.
It takes two men to corset this woman in this 1905 ad.
These before and after corset photos are from Robert Wilson Shufeldt's 1908 book Studies of the Human Form For Artists, Sculptors, and Scientists.
This ad is from 1906.
A woman is cinched up in this ad.
Bianca Lyons shows off her corseted curves in 1902.
An ad from 1895 brags its corset will never break down on the sides.
Corsets were all the rage in 1906.
Here's a 1908 advertisement for corsets.
In 1896, W.B. claims to have the best corsets in America.
Fashionable women wore front-lace corsets in 1912.
This is a magazine ad for corsets from the 1890s.
This is an example of a corset for girls.
A corset in 1895 was anything but graceful and easy!
This is a back-laced corset, which was more difficult to get into without help.
Here's an example of the corset style in 1878.
Here's the look of a woman in her corseted dress in 1878.
In 1904, this was the look of a corseted dress.
This is a ballgown with corset look from 1838.
It took some help in 1904 to get in a corset.
Even little girls wore the constricting undergarments.
Here are several examples of corsets in 1907.
This woman's waist was extremely tiny thanks to her corset.