All Tied Up: Corsets and Stays!

Source: written by Steph

Did you know that before corsets began to appear in the 16th century, clothes were stiffened to shape the body rather than using undergarments to make the clothing fit?1 According to Rosalie’s Medieval Woman:

During the fourteenth century, women whose means permitted them to do so began wearing stiff linen under their bodice called a cotte [sic], a French word meaning rib, which was designed to flattened the breast.

…woman used paste as stiffener between the two layers of linen to create a stiffer, harder bodice, creating the earliest form of the corset.

Please note a commenter tells me cotte is not French for rib but comes from Latin for coat.  I checked a french to english translation online and  while cotte does not mean rib, the similar côte can mean rib, edge, side, wale among other things.  Other similar words seem to mean side or flank. According to the same site cotte can also mean chemise or undershirt.I don’t know if the above, therefore, is a typo or whether. in this case, is meant to refer to the chemise or undershirt meaning.  (site checked:


I imagine this made the clothing even harder to keep clean than did the lack of washing machines or dry cleaners.  Eventually this became a kirtle, sometimes stiffened with buckram a fabric stiffened with glue. Now that must have been just delightful when one began to sweat.

the kirtle was the main type of dress or gown worn in the middle ages.

 It does appear that the kirtle falls into three distinct categories- the first two include those which button and those which lace.
It is probably no great coincidence that there were two primary purposes- those intended to be worn over a smock with no other outer garment or a sideless surcote and those intended to be worn underneath a form-fitting outer gown. The third type falls into the laced gown category but has the distinguishing feature of short sleeves.,…Most of these were cut with a wide, low neckline.,…

It makes sense that the laced kirtle would be most likely to be worn as an undergown although clearly this was not always the case. The lacing would provide a flat, smooth silhouette.

In the 15th century, a tightly-fitted kirtle worn under the outer gown was used to shape the body into the fashionable form. It’s likely that it was the bodice of this kirtle which was first stiffened with buckram, and then with stiffer materials such as reed or bents, as the fashionable silhouette became flatter and flatter during the 1520s and 1530s.

During the 1530s, the decorative skirt of the kirtles worn under gowns underwent a change: instead of an entire decorated underkirtle, a separate, decorated “kirtle” skirt could be worn under the outer gown. instead. When this happened, we can theorize that the by-now-essential stiffened kirtle bodice was retained as a separate garment: the “payre of bodies”, or corset as it is now known.

front lacing kirtle Francesco Cossa The Triumph of Venus_1470OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are three aspects to corsetry: Breast support, waist cinching and posture, Rosalie’s Medieval Woman talks about breast support:

During the Middle Ages, noble women wore linen under their expensive outer clothes to both protect their expensive clothes from the sweat and odor of their bodies and to provide an extra layer of warmth. Underdresses were exceedingly fitted in cut and were tightly laced to provide support even for a large breast. Garments such as these would render further bust support in the form of another item of clothing completely unnecessary for small-breasted women or women of average size, but the larger lady may still have felt the need for more support. Many contemporary images show women with busts unnaturally high, hinting at bust support and/or enhancement.

Elizabethan Dress -flat torso


Regency Underclothes Strangely, while we think of corsets as made to pull the waist into a very narrow shape the original intent was to provide a flattened torso rather than a wasp waist.2 This idea springs from the Victorian corset rather than the earlier forms. Indeed, as anyone who has seen Pride and Prejudice knows, Regency gowns were quite forgiving.

This is a change from what we see in OUTLANDER and other video with somewhat accurate dress of the period before the British Regency, where Claire is tightly laced.

Originally a corset was called a pair of bodies.  Obviously having just one body, or one side of a set of stays, would do nothing. Confusingly, this could refer to a gown’s bodice or a corset.  It depends on the context. If there is also a reference to sleeves it is probably a gown, but if it refers to stays or stiffeners then it is probably a corset.

Very few 16th century corsets remain in the world. You can read about them and where to find patterns for them here:

The corset as an undergarment had its origin in Italy, and was introduced by Catherine de Medici into France in the 1500s, where the women of the French court embraced it. This type of corset was a tight, elongated bodice that was worn underneath the clothing. The women of the French court saw this corset as “indispensable to the beauty of the female figure.” Corsets of this time were often worn with a farthingale that held out the skirts in a stiff cone. The corsets turned the upper torso into a matching but inverted cone shape. These corsets had shoulder straps and ended in flaps at the waist. They flattened the bust, and in so doing, pushed the breasts up. The emphasis of the stays was less on the smallness of the waist than on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and the curving tops of the breasts peeking over the top of the corset. These corsets were typically made out of layered fabric, stiffened with glue, and were tightly laced.

In the Elizabethan era, whalebone (baleen) was frequently used in corsets so bodices could maintain their stiff appearance. A busk, typically made of wood, horn, ivory, metal, or whalebone, was added to stiffen the front of the bodice.

Goodness getting dressed was SO complicated.

The most common type of corset in the 1700s was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a contrast between a rigid quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and heavy full skirts below. The primary purpose of 18th-century stays was to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture to help a woman stand straight, with the shoulders down and back, and only slightly narrow the waist, creating a ‘V’ shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn. However, ‘jumps’ of quilted linen were also worn instead of stays for informal situations. Jumps were only partially boned, did little for one’s posture, but did add some support.

I am reading that the corset stays, the things that created the stiffness in a corset, were made with a variety of materials: baleen, bone, and even leather. Steel was a novelty in corsetry and was usually used in a more orthopedic way than as a fashionable accessory until the victorian period

As with many things, the Victorian period brought exaggeration of prior fashions.  The conical shape we saw before the Empire and Regency periods was returned to and large sleeves and shoulders helped to create an illusion of a small waist.  But then they went beyond that to a corset designed to support the breasts and cinch in the waist.

What is very apparent is that often fashion, rather than good sense, determined what the corset looked like and thus how women perceived their bodies should be shaped.  Dysmorphia is nothing new!

Health Corset

When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to achieve the same effect. The focus of the fashionable silhouette of the mid- and late 19th century was an hourglass figure with a tiny waist. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tightlacing first became popular. The corset differed from the earlier stays in numerous ways. The corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist. The corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped. Spiral steel stays curved with the figure. While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer’s measurements, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.


In the later 1800s the “health” corset developed and allowed greater ease of movement as women became more interested in outdoor activities. It was also designed to put less stress on the digestive system.  The Edwardian corset was further designed to put less stress in the abdomen, but the shape it forced the back into was certainly less than healthy!

Between the Edwardian period and WWI  women’s corsets became longer to match the new narrow skirt. These were uncomfortable and new elastic materials technologies allowed the girdle to come to the fore.

Shortly after the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This step liberated some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships.  The corset, which had been made using steel stays since the 1860s, further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles which also used less steel in their construction. However, body shaping undergarments were often called corsets and continued to be worn well into the 1920s.


Women then wore girdles and bras. I recall my mom wearing them into the 1970s and she found them very uncomfortable. Other women I worked with had worn them since youths. They claimed it was necessary because the girdle supported the back.  Women my age expected our muscles to do that for us.

I have often thought how funny it is to have spanx lauded as something so new when we’ve been changing our bodies’ shapes for a good long time!  And I thik we probably have more choices in corsets and “shapewear” than we ever did before.  I wore a “sexy” wedding corset under my wedding gown and have at least two corsets now; one for costumes and one because it was on sale.

Question Mark

How many corsets do you have and do you wear them for sexy fun, or as real figure shaping devices?

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