Welcome back to FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today
we’re talking about one of the most common pieces of historical dress:
busks! Never heard of a busk? You’re not alone. Despite the fact that
busks were worn for centuries, very few people today have ever heard of
them. This is likely due to the fact that a busk is almost never seen.
begin with, what exactly is a busk? Essentially, it is a narrow, stiff
piece that is placed down the center front of a corset. They can be
traced back to be beginning of corsets (which you can read here.) The
busk added additional support to the weakest part of the corset, since
the majority of pressure put on a corset occurs when a woman bends
forward. Of course, with a busk, this movement becomes seriously
hindered. The perceived benefit of the busk was that it aided in
perfecting posture, which was key when presenting oneself as high class
and proper. Additionally, busks shaped the front bodice to be perfectly
flat, as was the style from the start of corsets through the end of the
The preferred material for busks was whalebone, which was stiff enough to shape and support, yet supple enough to allow for slight movement. Wood was commonly used as well, as it was far more affordable, but it also tended to be more brittle. Bone was occasionally used, too. The busk was slipped into a pocket in the front of stays or stiffened bodices, which would then be laced closed with a piece called a “busk point.” Busks were often ornately decorated with etchings, just as most pieces of historical clothing were often decorated, whether seen by the public or not. As the piece was so hidden, close to the body, and personal, it became a common gift for a man to give his lover. Men would often take great care in carving personal decorations, typically with hearts, initials, and other romantic themes. The practice was particularly common among sailors on whaling ships, who would create busks while at sea for the women they left behind.
The shape of busks varied slightly throughout the centuries, becoming more straight or tapered, or longer or shorter, depending on what was the popular bodice shape at the time. It wasn’t until the mid 19th Century, though, that busks made a dramatic transformation. During the Industrial Revolution, it became common to use steel in shapewear- namely corsets and cage crinolines. It was soon discovered that this durable material could be used to split the busk into two pieces, with studs and loops that hooked together in the front of corsets, revolutionizing the way that they were taken on and off. This system is still used in corsets to this day, though often with hook and eyes instead of studs. With the front closure, it was suddenly far easier to put a corset on by oneself, without needing to significantly loosen the laces. However, since the studs and loops stuck out of the fabric, yet were attached to the busk itself, busks no longer were removable, and instead were permanently enclosed in the front of the corset.
In the 1870s, the spoon busk was created, which was wider and rounded at the bottom of the corset. This shape dispersed the pressure on the wearer, preventing the bulge that commonly occurred where the corset ended. Despite it’s visual appeal, the curved bottom of the spoon was not ideal as it would dig into the wearer. They therefore faded out of style by the end of the 19th Century. Shortly after, though, the busk faded away altogether, as corsets fell out of fashion in the late 1910s. Thankfully, a few of those early busks survive as reminders of otherwise long forgotten romances.