1870s Corsets

The crinoline in the early 1870s was discarded in favour of the bustle (tournure) and the dress moulded the figure in front and round the hips.  Corsets became increasingly important – you couldn’t ‘make do’ with a home-made version any longer and the industry boomed, and adverts became increasingly frequent.  A great variety appeared, all designed to develop the hips, culminating in the ‘cuirasse’.

Myra’s Journal, 1875:  Mrs Adley Bourne of 37, Piccadilly kept every kind of good corset made. Thomson’s Glove-Fitting, Izod’s steam-shaped, French wove (for small neat figures), Gazah’s Paris-wove, Swanbill (long busk – suitable for stout figures).

Many inventions competed with each other; the main difficulty was preventing the corset riding up and wrinkling, and the bones breaking at the waist owing to the exaggerated curve of the bust and hips from a small waist. As a result bones were increasingly made of steel, as whalebone was in short supply. Other substitutes such as cane were also used.

2 Main Styles of Cutting:

  • Gussets and a basque
  • Separate shaped pieces

In 1873, the ‘spoon busk’ became popular which was narrow at the top, curving into the waist and widening to a pear-shaped base. This was fashionable until 1889. Steam moulding and the construction of the spoon busk added with increased boning and cording made corsets increasingly heavy and restricting.

A corset of the 80s usually fastened at the front busk and sometimes had lacing fastening either centre front or back to give a smooth, unbroken line under the corsage of the dress. The corset was worn over the petticoats, which were arranged on a shaped band to reduce bulk around the waist.

In 1878, stocking suspenders could be attached to a waist belt and clipped onto the stockings replacing elastic garters. By 1882 the suspenders were made of satin and elastic with gilt clips attached by a shaped belt to the corset’s waist.  As a result, petticoats had to be worn over the corset and suspenders; this often interfered with the line of the dress.

Corsets became a very elegant, important article in a woman’s wardrobe.  Many were made from exotic materials and embroidered, such as black sateen machined in colours, with fancy embroidery holding the bones in position.  Outdated models in grey or putty drill, with cording instead of whalebone, were made for the lower end of the market.

In the Late 1880s, the silhouette changed to a harder, less rounded and longer body. The ‘Louis XV’ line was where the bust contours were sharpened by rows, cording or criss-cross whalebone.  The centre front steel busk became narrow again and lost the concave bend into the waist, though still curving over the abdomen.  More use was made of elastic inserts, but the elastic quality was poor.  The corset trade had developed better materials and finishes, and the corsetière could produce an elegant, fitted accessory to mould and shape even the most ‘difficult’ figure.  Dressmakers produced an entirely new line, fitting skirts to the hips and behind which emerged from drapery after centuries to become a ‘new’ centre of clothes interest.

Throughout the 19th C, the emphasis on the silhouette had been a small waist and curves.  Corsets were so heavy by the end of the 19th C that they were distorting the body and affecting women’s health.  In 1900 Madam Gaches-Sarraute of Paris, a ‘medical’ corsetière, designed a model supporting the abdomen, whilst leaving the thorax free.  It had a straight-fronted busk which started lower on the bust line and continued straight down over the abdomen without curving into the waist.  At the point of the busk, suspenders were attached to the corset, keeping the line straight and unbroken to the knee.

This was the start of the famous “S” curve, an exaggeration of the Gaches-Sarraute design that still gave a small waist.  The bust filled out over the low front and the extra abdominal flesh, flattened by the heavy, straight front busk, swelled out at the sides to the hips and behind.  1904-5 was the peak years of the “S”-curve, then the line began slowly to straighten up, until 1907 when dresses began to lose their fullness and a long, svelte line developed.  A very long, straight corset was devised, even lower in the bust and fitting well down over the hips.  It had fewer bones and other elastic gussets at the base for ease of movement.  Some were so long that it was impossible to sit!