The Ins and Outs of the Corset

The corset has had more revivals in fashion history than the Toronto Maples Leafs have had in the NHL.

Written by Jessica Knapp

January 13, 2015

The corset first became popular in sixteenth-century Europe. Originating in Italy, the fashionable undergarment made its way to France soon after. These corsets focused more on flattening the bust instead of narrowing the waistline. A farthingale (a stiff hoop skirt) made a woman’s waistline already seem smaller.

By the 1550s corset fashion had made its way to Britain. Advancements in corset construction followed. British corset makers used baleen whale bone and wood sewn into a casing on the corset to maintain a stiff shape.

The corset’s popularity had a bit of a lull in the seventeenth as fashion became simpler. The introduction of the high empire waistline in the eighteenth-century de-emphasized the natural waistline keeping corsets at the wayside.

After the corset hiatus it peaked in popularity the Victorian era (1837 to 1901). During the reign of Queen Victoria, steel began to replace whalebone and clasps were included on the front along with eyelets on the back. The corset design was changing. The convenience of dressing oneself and cost were factors introduced by the many classes of women who were wearing the corset.

Accentuating the bust and the waist were no longer satisfactory reasons to wear a corset. Supporting the back and improving posture were two new reasons for Victorian women to wear a corset. The health benefits of wearing a corset soon become a marketing tool.

The appeal of the corset had finally made its way to Canada. Canadian women wore corsets for a number of reasons, but the underlying truth was to slim the figure. It wasn’t too long before the corset was redesigned. The S-curve corset came into fashion in the Edwardian era (1901 to 1914) and it narrowed a women’s waistline by flattening the abdomen, which arched her back and threw her bust forward. This style, along with full-sleeves and a bell-shaped skirt allowed women to achieve the newer S-bend silhouette.

Upper class women imported their handmade corsets from France or England, but by 1880s all women could purchase a machine-made corset from companies that had started up in Canada.

The Crompton Corset Company was incorporated in 1880 in Toronto. It employed over 350 workers, who were mostly women, and produced approximately 8,400 corsets a week. In 1886, Dominion Corset was founded in Quebec City and by 1911 it produced almost 5,500 corsets a day.

The Crompton and Dominion battled for the title of largest corset manufacturer in Canada until 1901 when Eaton’s also began selling corsets.

Corsets remained a staple part of Canadian women’s fashion until the outbreak of the First World War. While upper class women could maintain the fashion, many women traded in the corset for a girdle. Using elastic fabrics, the girdle was less restricting and more comfortable while providing the appearance of a flat stomach for women.

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