Women have always found ways to shape their bodies in all the right ways, from when they pasted tightly laced bodices in the Middle Ages to the Spanx we squeeze into for special occasions today.
We're lucky; we endure a few nights of mild discomfort a year while, until 50 years ago, women survived varying levels of agony daily. We know bras have a fascinating history, so let's look at the evolution of corsets.
- Discovered by accident: Metal bodices date back to the early 16th century, but most likely they 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.
- Animals suffered for fashion: 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.
- French designer coined "corset": 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.
- Bloody dangerous: 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!
- Pregnancy was no excuse: 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.
The invention of nylon elastic got rid of boning once and for all in the 1950s, though the word "corset" was replaced with a sexier term: girdle.