Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status

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Introduction to Corsets | Period Costumes - Corset History | Corsets, The Fashionable Foundation - Style, Wealth and Status
Types of Corsets, How to Make Them and Where to Get Them | Corsets, Gracious Instruments of Torture - Health, Punishment and Oppression
The Subversive Stays - Corsets and Sex, Erotica and Fetishism | The Corset - Conclusion

Fashionable women wore corsets, as did non-fashionable women. It was not the garment itself which marked you out as one or the other, but the way in which it was worn.

Its visual effects were enjoyed by both men and women, illustrated by the 16th Century example of Henry III of France and his mother, Catherine de Medici. He was widely admired for his waist, while she imposed a 13" limit on her ladies (anything larger just would not do).

The obvious differences were in appearance and cost. The most exquisite and expensive models were created by professional stay-makers, others at home. The latter would have been purely functional and made of affordable materials. Linen (less expensive then) was popular, being strong and breathable. The rich utilised all manner of costly decoration: jewels, embroidery, lace over silk, brocade, velvet, taffeta and satin. Whatever took their fancy, in short, since these were garments designed to be shown off.

The 18th Century stays required greater skill than earlier, so the better-shaped ones were the work of professionals. True craftsmanship was required to cut the whalebones to size. In the form of boned bodices, they were specifically for grand occasions at Court and were not in general use. The size of one's corresponding hoops also indicated status; Ladies of the Manor were described as filling all available space in church, something which they were visibly proud of. This hinted that the greater the difference between encased waist and augmented hips, the better the woman. It's been speculated that this shape had an influence upon architecture (similar to the high-spire-like fashions of the 1400s, only then the relationship was reversed); staircases of this period, with wide balusters, resemble stays worn with panniers.

Ladies of Leisure - Uselessness and Pain

The appearance and grandeur of one's stays also signified wealth. Children of the rich dressed like their parents, and were confined- as in the case of Lady Margaret Sackville - from the age of three. The discomfort was seen as worthwhile, however; the Duchess of Devonshire claimed that although she was pinched and sore, the soothing quality of admiration made it bearable. Such were the problems of maintaining a widely-imitated figure.

Another effect of tight lacing was that the wearer was less able to do anything. She was so encumbered (but not just by stays) that any exertion would disarrange her clothing and probably damage her. Discomfort became the mark of a woman of status. She was unable to carry out any activity, so she obviously didn't have to. The lesser woman, having to perform household duties, was not afforded the luxury of being swamped, and her more comfortable garments were scorned. This trend could be exploited by men in that their wealth and status was broadcast by the proportional extravagance, and uselessness, of their women.

This trend continued into the 19th Century. In 1828, tight lacing was so extensive that women were said to be unable to stand, sit or stroll - if they tried, their stays would give way and they themselves would suffer. By now, however, the practice became widespread due to the growth of the industry's influence. The 'dandies' of 1819 were similarly fond of it. In 1834, the Prince Regent was advised that his stays would be the death of him if he continued to wear them.

Despite signs that women were growing liberated from their dress (outfits that allowed mild outdoor exercise), the corset was now generally perceived as indispensable. It controlled flighty behaviour, causing its wearer to exercise self-restraint; it was seen as the outward sign of mental and emotional stability.

Only one of Ms Bloomer's Dress Reformists could bear to go unconfined. As an advert for the Madame Warren's corset in 1886 promised, everyone would admire you if you were properly fitted, and - even better - it would secure you a respectable marriage within days! (While lacking their 'subtlety', this is no more daft than today's bra adverts.) Exaggerations apart, corset dependence was immense.

Traditional distinctions were still belied by corsets. Luxurious fabrics were used, and bright colours (yellow being a particular favourite). Cheaper models were made of batiste or coutille (denim), strong and inflexible. These could be bought for 7s 11d, while hand-embroidered brocade cost around £40.

Abandoning Correctness

The next major change in design was the straight-fronted corset of 1900; originally a health innovation, it soon went to extremes. By now, though, there was a definite shift in women's status, epitomised by the Suffragette movement. Once the Victorian era was over (the Queen herself was against votes for women only because she thought it would make them act like men) there was a stirring of resentment against 'correct' behaviour. Design and fabric innovations allowed women to be correspondingly freer. Oddly, throughout the long periods of tight lacing, women seemed to be irritated by this 'oppression'; however, it was rarely related to their status or equality, and accepted for the sake of fashion. Once fashion turned against it, they were somewhat more able to express themselves - if only because men now had less cause to mock their 'feeble-minded' vanity.

In the post-war years, luxury came with guilt. Dior's 1947 collection was scandalous in its extravagant use of fabric - wide skirts almost to the floor - and its unashamed femininity hinted, to some, at oppression again. Women were suspicious of any clothing that hindered their new employment freedom, so the general use of 'stays' did not last. It was then that these became first old-fashioned, then fetishistic.

The Stays Today

Subcultures utilise 'shocking' items to enhance their alternative nature. Hence, from the 1980s, corsets used by such groups were being taken out of the sexual underworld. Countless alternative clothing companies offer new corset designs, as well as the shoddier items termed 'corsets' by lingerie companies. Gothic counter-culture in particular exaggerates this use of heavy, fussy clothing and sombrous shades; the obvious shape lent by the corset hints at its sexual aspects. Subversiveness, modern independence and period romanticism combine.

High fashion likes to have friends in low places. As a result, this underground influence has been elevated within haute couture, notably by Jean Paul Gaultier. His infamous designs for Madonna in 1989 brought the corset to prominence (no pun intended) in pop culture, through his fascination/revulsion with the exaggerated or distorted female shape. Others helped, such as Alexander McQueen, who perennially resurrects corsets, and recently had waistline liposuction. Currently, Stella McCartney's fairly restrained designs have defined corsets as suitable wear for smart business-minded girls, and she's being credited with this season's corset flirtation. Prepare for a huge wave of wasp-waistedness with the release of Moulin Rouge.

Post-modernism, as stated in a Gaultier advert, is the stance of corsetry today. It is worn by strong women to blatantly exaggerate their femininity (that they're forcing men to come to terms with this is somewhat over-simplistic), fashion regularly toys with laces, yet it still retains its 'dodgy' connotations (and uses). It can be fragile, as luxury underwear. Its appeal is universal, and there are few boundaries; when Posh Spice married Becks, it was Mr Pearl (18inch waist) who helped lace her up.

However, whether this is a serious reintroduction or mere dressing-up is not clear; still, the corset was popular for its own merits before fashion picked it up, and its many uses suggest that there are strong reasons for staying laced.

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