The first corsets were not of the type of fabrics we see today. They were made of different types of fabric and leather that had sewn-in pieces of wood or metal to give the garment its stiffness. The rigidness of the corset was to support the body and not in anyway meant to enhance the bust. In fact, most corsets of that time flattened the bust and gave women a hard, standoffish appearance that was associated with being a lady during that era. It was the female representation of armor that the men would wear. In no way was it designed to become a slimming device or bust enhancement. Women of that time period were not to show themselves in such a way to draw sexual attention. It would flatten the breasts out and the only female curves allowed to be accentuated was the maternal curves of the hips to show a woman is a vessel for creating new life. It also set apart the upper and lower class women of the society. Only the wealthy could import the desired fabrics from Asia and other countries to have a corset made.
During the time of the late Renaissance era, Queen Elizabeth I transformed the common Tudor style corset into the Elizabethan style corset with the lacing many people have come to associate with the corset today. The lacing of this style was not for cinching the waist. This was done using bandages. The lacing simply made the corset easier to get into and out of. As the era moved along, some European countries began to style the corset with tight lacing now to thin out the waist. The typical hoopskirts of the time were quickly falling out of fashion and the corset was still popular. The addition, the use of more easy-going lacey dresses with bolsters on the hips for that childbearing look fell into fashion. This was France's lead in fashion during the times. If the corset was boned and got too uncomfortable, such as during meals, the boning could be removed for some expansion flexibility. Once the early 17th century came a major change took place. Women were now allowed to pursue the art of tailoring.
Women were now able to cater to other women for the first time. Being more familiar with the needs and desires of their female clients, corsets took on a whole new dimension. This was the first appearance of specialty tailors who only made corsets and bodices. In tune with the playful times, the corset became more playful, as well. Instead of the flattening of the past, a woman's curves and bust were enhanced. The corsets of this time were immensely expensive and mostly used by the higher monarchy. Sometimes over a hundred thin whale bones had to be used to get the desired stiffness had to be sewed into the corset. The fabrics used were so valuable they became part of the outer garment instead of just merely the under garment. This is when shoulder straps began to appear on the corset and the hip area was made to blend into the skirt portion of the outer garment in a smooth transition.
The corsets of this era were designed for the lady who had her maid constantly with her and so were laced and tightened from behind. The hooks on the front were not available during this time. For those ladies who did not have a maid, there were designs that laced up the front for self-tightening. This was a time when many national and/or regional corsets were originated. One the French monarchy fell; everything representing them fell too, including the corset. During the time of Napoleon I, the corset came back into popularity with the Empire style. It had a distinguished waistline that started just under the bust. It was worn with a long, straight skirt. The breasts were separated and enhanced individually. The divorce corset followed and was more like a very early uncomfortable bra. The Empire styles became so popular they swept through many of the European countries, as well. The Dandy-Look for men came into fashion during this time and male corsets to slim the waist were made. Mostly men only wore waist cinchers. This slimming of the waist created the appearance of wider shoulders for men and made them appear more masculine. As one can see the corsets that lead up to the 18th century had many functions and designs as well as many users
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