By Sawyer Armstrong
November 8, 2001
All throughout history, a person’s economical and social rank could be shown through what clothes they wore. In ancient Egypt, a person of upper class was permitted by law to wear sandals on the harsh, desert floor. Because of these laws, female-confining ideals arose. For example, the Greeks and Romans controlled the type, color, and number of undergarments worn by women and the kind of fabric décor used on them. The torso became the sculpting block of feminine beauty. This was the beginning of the corset, a restraining, essential item in the women’s attire through the 19th century.
During the Renaissance period, the corset resembled a cone, as it was small at the waist and uplifting at the bosom. It extended from the underarm to just below the waist. The typical female’s corset was made stiff with metal or wood. Again, a woman of higher economical or social standing would have one made special with whalebone. During this time and through the Romantic period, a woman was put to shame if she was found absent of a corset or her waist size was not small enough. At that period in time, a 15 to 18 inch waist was acceptable. Anything exceeding those measurements was thought to be absurd. Thusly, restricting corsets were the norm and often resulted in physical deformities. For example, rib cages were often cracked or grew warped due to constricting corsets.
The corset was found rigid and compressing in the 1700s. Early 1800s brought some enlightening change: Mantua dresses were made. A Mantua dress was looser and a more casual type of dress that did not call for the strict cut and shaping, although women felt it necessary to maintain a 20 inch waist. A small waist was still considered “proper” and feminine, and women were still judged by their waist size.
... . On their heads, men had turbans. The women wore hats. There feet were us ally free of covering ... branch of the mediterranean race. The men and women wore there hair partly in coils on the head ... . Men wore no clothing above the waist. At the waist the men wore a short skirt or a waist cloth. ... alike have torsos narrowing pathologically to an ultramodern waist. Almost all of the Cretans were short in ...
The Romantic period introduced a corset that was more severe than the others. Women were expected to compress their waist to equivalent measurements of 1/3 their natural body size. This kind of daily restraint ruined internal functions in the extreme. Stomach and internal problems were common.
Barbie, the modern day popular children’s doll, is an example of what is considered to be perfect. If Barbie were life size, she would have to walk on all four limbs just to balance. She would be seven feet and two inches tall with a neck two times the size of an average female’s neck. She would have
a 39-inch chest and 21-inch waist. The chest and waist measurements resemble what was expected of women in the Romantic period. Today, a “Barbie” would be sent to the doctor for treatment of anorexia and plastic surgery on the chest.
In the 1860s, churches began to reject the idea of a corset. The reason for this was stated in the bible: “Instead of a girdle there should be a girding sackcloth, and burning instead of beauty.” Health critics also began to notice the demented female bodies. The expected waist size was 17 inches to 21 inches. Although opposed, men and women still felt it necessary for women to maintain a small waist. Therefore, no change was made to the disorderly custom.
In the Victorian period, corsets became shorter and garters were attached to the corset and stockings. Although the luxury of a short corset was pleasant, women had no desire to exceed the number of her age in her waist circumference.
The next significant fashion change arrived with the help of Pierre Poiret. In 1908, the brassiere was introduced in replacement of the corset. Although it covered most of the stomach it did not constrain the waist to what was considered proper in the previous century.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, women like film stars Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell embodied a fuller figure body type that became more popular, therefore, eliminating the need for the slimming corset. In the 60’s, trousers were in style as well as mini skirts. These fashions let the public see more of the female leg than ever before. Dresses without straps also became popular and revealed more skin. Thusly, confining undergarments such as the corset and even the bra were unnecessary.
... African tribes believed men to be spiritually superior to women, fashioning powerful gods in the form of man, in opposition ... witnessed European governments imposing different oppressive ideals on African women by means of exploitation. The Europeans took advantage ... imported ideals and restrictions that colonial governments placed on women in indigenous societies of Africa, lead to the deconstruction ...
Today, fashion designers have turned the corset into a unique mode of outerwear and lingerie with sexual connotation. Jean Paul Gaultier designed the famous corset for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990. Moulin Rouge, a recent movie, also used the corset as a costume idea. It took half an hour — and assistance from people on the set — to put each corset on. The constrictive corset used on Nicole Kidman, one of the leading actresses, was so tight, that she actually cracked a rib!
With the rise of cotour fashion, women have turned the corset from a restrictive undergarment to a statement of female empowerment and feeling of satisfaction with their bodies. With popular personalities, such as Madonna and Nicole Kidman, the corset has also become a statement of high fashion and sexual freedom. The feminist movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s has freed a women’s body from social and physical restraints.
Ironically, this new social, political, fashion and sexual freedom has allowed the corset to become a symbol of women’s independence rather than one of restriction as it was in its infancy. Only time and fashion trends will determine the future fate of the corset. One can only hope that the western culture will not allow mainstream garment trends to promote physical deformities or poor self-image among young girls and women.
Bibliography for The Corset
Lurie,Alison. The Language of Clothes. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry& Whiteside Ltd., 1981
Ewing, Elizabeth. Everyday Dress: 1650-1900s. U.S.A: Chelsea House Publishers, 1984
A Tight History of the Corset. 11/3/01.http://speakeasy.org/~traceyb/corset/form1.html
Corset & Historic Silhouette. 11/3/01. http://www.vintage-elegance.com/FP/Articles/corsetHistory.htm
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