A corset is a garment worn to mould and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or orthopaedic purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect). They may be worn by men or women.
Historic and Fashion
The most common use of corsets is to slim the body and make it conform to a fashionable silhouette. For women this most frequently emphasises a curvy figure, by reducing the waist, and thereby exaggerating the bust and hips. However, in some periods, corsets have been worn to achieve a tubular straight-up-and-down shape, which involves minimising the bust and hips.
For men, corsets are more customarily used to slim the figure. However, there was a period from around 1820 to 1835 when an hourglass figure (a small, nipped-in look to the waist) was also desirable for men; this was sometimes achieved by wearing a corset.
An overbust corset encloses the torso, extending from just under the arms to the hips. An underbust corset begins just under the breasts and extends down to the hips. Some corsets extend over the hips and, in very rare instances, reach the knees. A shorter kind of corset, which covers the waist area (from low on the ribs to just above the hips), is called a waist cincher. A corset may also have attached suspenders to hold up stockings (alternatively a separate suspender belt may be worn for that). They may be firmly sewn on or removable.
Normally a corset supports the visible dress, and spreads the pressure from large dresses, such as the crinoline and bustle. Sometimes the corset has been supported by a corset cover.
Modern, BDSM and fetish
In the fetish and BDSM literature, there is often much emphasis on tightlacing. In this case, the corset may still be underwear rather than outerwear.
There was a brief revival of the corset in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the form of the waist cincher. This was used to give the hourglass figure dictated by Christian Dior's 'New Look'. However, use of the waist cincher was restricted to haute couture, and most women continued to use girdles. This revival was brief, as the New Look gave way to a less dramatically-shaped silhouette.
Since the late 1980s, the corset has experienced periodic revivals, which have usually originated in haute couture and which have occasionally trickled through to mainstream fashion. These revivals focus on the corset as an item of outerwear rather than underwear. The strongest of these revivals was seen in the Autumn 2001 fashion collections and coincided with the release of the film Moulin Rouge!, the costumes for which featured many corsets.
The majority of garments sold as corsets during these recent revivals cannot really be counted as corsets at all. While they often feature lacing and boning, and generally mimic a historical style of corset, they have very little effect on the shape of the wearer's body.
People with spinal problems or internal injuries may have to wear corsets in order to immobilize and protect the torso. Andy Warhol was shot in 1968 and never fully recovered; he had to wear a corset for the rest of his life.
Corsets are typically constructed of a flexible material (like cloth or leather) stiffened with boning (also called ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the cloth or leather. In the Victorian period, steel and whalebone were favored. Plastic is now the most commonly used material for lightweight corsets, whereas spring or spiral steel is preferred for stronger corsets. Other materials used for boning include ivory, wood, and cane. (By contrast, a girdle is usually made of elasticized fabric, without boning.)
The craft of corset construction is known as corsetry, as is the general wearing of them. Someone who makes corsets is a corsetier (for a man) or corsetiere (for a woman), or sometimes simply a corsetmaker. (The word corsetry is sometimes also used as a collective plural form of corset.)
Corsets are held together by lacing, usually at the back (rear-laced). Tightening or loosening the lacing produces corresponding changes in the firmness of the corset. It is difficult - although not impossible - for a back-laced corset-wearer to do his or her own lacing. In the Victorian heyday of corsets, a well-to-do woman would be laced by her maid, a gentleman by his valet. However, many corsets also had a buttoned or hooked front opening called a busk. Once the lacing was adjusted comfortably, it was possible to leave the lacing as adjusted and take the corset on and off using the front opening. (This removal method does not work if the corset is not sufficiently loose, and can potentially damage the busk.) Self-lacing is also almost impossible with tightlacing, which strives for the utmost possible reduction of the waist. Current tightlacers, lacking servants, are usually laced by spouses and partners.
Many corsets have decorative frills at the top and/or the bottom.
Corsets nay be over bust (covering the breasts, with cups like those on a bra) or under bust (not covering them). Even an under bust one may give some support to the breasts unless it is so short that it is a waist cincher.
By wearing a tightly-laced corset for extended periods, known as tightlacing, men and women can learn to tolerate extreme waist constriction and reduce their natural waist size. Tightlacers usually aim for 40 to 43 centimetre (16 to 17 inch) waists. Until 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Ethel Granger as having the smallest waist on record at 13". After 1998, the category changed to "smallest waist on a living person" and Cathie Jung took the title with a 15" waist. Other women, such as Polaire and Spook, also have achieved such reductions.
These are extreme cases. Corsets were and are usually designed for support, with freedom of body movement an important consideration in their design. Present day corset-wearers usually tighten the corset just enough to reduce their waists by 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches); it is very difficult for a slender woman to achieve as much as 15 centimeters (6 inches), although larger women can do so more easily.
In the past, a woman's corset was usually worn over a garment called a chemise or shift, a sleeveless low-necked gown made of washable material (usually cotton or linen). It absorbed perspiration and kept the corset and the gown clean. In modern times, an undershirt or corset liner may be worn.
Moderate lacing is not incompatible with vigorous activity. Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century, when corset wearing was common, there were sport corsets specifically designed to wear while bicycling, playing tennis, or horseback riding, as well as for maternity wear.
Many people now believe that all corsets are uncomfortable and that wearing them restricted women's lives, citing Victorian literature devoted to sensible or hygienic dress. However, these writings were most apt to protest against the misuse of corsets for tightlacing; they were less vehement against corsets per se. Many reformers recommended "Emancipation bodices", which were essentially tightly-fitted vests, like full-torso corsets without boning. See Victorian dress reform.
Some modern day corset-wearers will testify that corsets can be comfortable, once one is accustomed to wearing them. A properly fitted corset should be comfortable. Women active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and historical reenactment groups commonly wear corsets as part of period costume, without complaint.
If an enema is administered to someone wearing a corset, the corset prevents the belly distending. Thus the enema takes effect faster, and a smaller volume of liquid may be used. If a corset is placed on someone who has had an enema, the enema will be expelled when the corset is tightened.
Types and styles
The various types of corsets include:
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