19th century corset

View of an advertising card for the Schilling Corset Company. Card is a humorous depiction of owls and frogs. Printed on front: “Dissipation. Compliments of Schilling Corset Co., Detroit, Mich. Copyright 1886. Richmond & Co., Buffalo, N.Y.” Price list and drawing of corset on back.

  • Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Corset - Maison Léoty, 1891
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the eighteenth century, the corset imposed a more-or-less conical configuration to the upper torso. By the late nineteenth century, a more softly rounded female form was preferred. This extended even to the body in profile. The straight and rigid busks of the eighteenth century gave way to busks that not only curved into the waist but also rounded out over the belly. [x]

Feminist historians have argued that the corset was deeply implicated in the nineteenth-century construction of a “submissive”, “masochistic” feminine ideal. Indeed, the corset has been described as a “quintessentially Victorian” garment, because of its role in creating and policing middle-class femininity. Although plausible, this thesis is ultimately unconvincing. Men were not responsible for forcing women to wear corsets. On the contrary, a number of powerful male authority figures, including many doctors, opposed corsetry. So did a vocal minority of dress reformers of both sexes, who wondered why the majority of women persisted in wearing corsets. …

The triumph of corsetry occurred not because Victorian women were more oppressed or masochistic than their predecessors, but because the Industrial Revolution and the democratization of fashion gave more women access to corsets. … The history of the corset from the end of the French Revolution to the First World War is not only about “fashioning the bourgeoisie”, since corsetry, like fashion in general, was rapidly becoming a mass phenomenon.

—  Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, p.35

Elaine Cassidy as Katherine Glendenning in The Paradise (TV Series, 2012).