History of Corsets 1780-1880

(Continued from the History of Stays & Corsets Introduction/Overview and the History of Stays 1740-1780 Sections)

A New Silhouette 1780’s Forward

 France Leading Fashion

The Regency Era


Women’s fashions at the turn of the 19th century display the results of the Napoleonic Wars, inc which fashion absorbed influences from the Middle East.  Exotic fabrics, turbans, transparent cotton muslins, feathers. exotic jewelry, and a taste for Classical Greece followed.

1803 French fashion (extant and period sketch)


This era was known as “neo-classical revival”, and it had an overwhelming effect on fashion.  Women wanted the light and diaphanous fashions like Greek statues.  This was the period written about by authors such as Jane Austen.


Jane Austen wrote about the Regency Era, although her books were published at the end of it


“Pride and Prejudice” the movie features the daughters wearing their ballgowns


In France, there were traveling weavers who introduced lovely striped fabrics that were actually an innovative way to use up leftover yarns from other weaves.  The French peasantry, wearing these, so charmed Queen Marie Antoinette that she introduced new fashions using them.

Marie Antoinette inspired peasants and French fashion of the next Regency era


By the end of the 18th century, France was at war, and an abrupt change came to all structured and elaborate garments.  It was at this time the scientific study of the human body had come to the garment making industry.

1790’s fashion of the peasantry is featured in this idealized portrait of the “Women of the French Revolution”


It was discovered the body was in proportion to head measurements.  W.H. Wampum, a German tailor was fascinated with this law of Anthropometrics, and began to work with the idea of drafting patterns to size rather than draping on the body.

Anthropometrics studies the relationships of proportion in the body. In the late 18th century, this was used to fit clothing


Today anthropometrics are used in industrial design and to create work and living spaces


As society was rapidly growing more urbanized, the demand for mass production demanded “proportionate” systems to speed up the trial and error of previous methods.  The fitted garment became the norm.

In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France’s little sister Caroline Murat made sure she had perfect fit in the latest fashion


In spite of restrictions placed on the import and usage of printed cottons coming from India in England and France at the time because those countries wanted to support their own textile industries, cotton became wildly popular.  Cotton quickly replaced silk, wool, and linen.  By 1759 France and 1774 England had given up and removed the laws.

Extant 1815 cotton gown


In France, the leader at the time of world fashion, social order had been completely overturned during the French Revolution.  With it came a loosening of morals and deportment.  In France, the new, clingy, near-naked fashion silhouette was more popular than other places such as England.

Fashion of the early Regency era meant nearly naked for women of all shapes and sizes


Writings of the English and French, however discuss that stays were worn or not worn in equal measure.  Young women and those with beautiful figures discarded undergarments, while those of “bountiful flesh” or older and gravity drawn shapes continued to wear some sort of understructure.

Not every Regency figure could get away without undergarments
Even young women sometimes needed a little support in the Regency fashion era


A New Figure


At the beginning of the 19th century (1800) the Grecian figure, or the natural body with high rounded breasts and long well-rounded legs and arms was the ideal every woman strived to obtain.  Neo-classical fashions demanded a more revealed and youthful bosom in its natural state.

The youthful bosom of Regency


The new soft, light cotton muslin dress clung to the body, showing every nuance and every contour of her shape.  This meant some form of support would have to lift the breasts.  It also meant small women or older or less endowed women might need some type of padding or augmentation.

Lydia Hartford Wallace Berrett could have used some augmentation to suit the Regency ideal in 1800


Heavy, thick, or extra undergarments were discarded though, as they distracted and ruined the “natural” body shape, and so the boned stay lost popularity with the woman trying to obtain the “fashionable” shape of the day.

Early Regency corsets looked like shorter and softer versions of the late 18th century stays


The light early Regency or Neo-Classical corset has gussets to enhance the bust and hips with light bones or cording to facilitate lacing.  These had a central, usually hard wood tapered busk, up the center front to assist in pushing the bust line up into a prominent position.

Beautiful modern reproduction of an early Regency corset


This was the first time in history the “corset” was a pieced and complex garment.  Gussets, which assisted making the breasts and hips “rounded” were the beginning of innovative cutting techniques.

Early Regency styles achieved with early Regency corsets


Stays or No Stays

At first dresses made of cotton were of the same fashion lines as stiff silks, but gradually with increasing use, the looser, simpler, and plainer style of dress began to evolve.  The simple cotton muslin dresses of the 1780’s had wide sashes.  By 1793, the sash narrowed and the waistline raised up.


1805 high and thin waistline, on the dress at least


With these soft fashions and the new silhouette, simpler and lighter types of stays were worn.  At first they were cut like previous ones but made of lighter and less stiff materials and bones, but as the body of the dress shortened, the stays began to shrink in size too.  The back became short, and the front long.   Tabs at the waistline were eventually discarded entirely.

1805 cotton corset


Some early Regency corsets were fully boned, others half-boned, and some not boned at all.

Early Regency corded corset modern reproduction


At the end of the 18th century, the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution and worship of antique fashion would simplify the dress still further.  All extra material was gotten rid of in both dress and stays, and by about 1808 for most women, stays were just a simple band or were not worn at all.

Reproduction early Regency short stays


The Imperfect Body

Many of the simple muslin dresses of around 1800 were mounted on a cotton lining with two side pieces that would cross over and fasten in front, providing a type of “binding” or support.  It acted as a type of early brassiere, and for many women, was the only thing worn.

Regency bib and pleating


For those who could or would not go without, and especially in England where social norms and mores persisted, whaleboned stays similar to the late 1780’s and 1790’s continued to be worn well into the first decades of the new century.

Late 1790’s short, slightly boned stays/corset extant example


The new early 1800 stays became longer to go over the hips in order to smooth the line to obtain a semblance of the vertical silhouette of fashion.  The tabs were traded for hip gussets so they could be form fitting but still allow leg movement.

Modern Reproduction early Regency corsets are gorgeous


Antique French Cartoon: “Regency Racquet” showing the impracticalities of the current fashion

For the stout or heavily boned, these longer stays with lighter boning were reinforced with padding.  This type of early “corset”, worn only to control the shape, were not considered fashionable, but a necessity of those without perfect figures.  They were much ridiculed in English and French media.


Stays become Corsets

As this was the first time in history fashion basically removed all understructure, there were experiments with materials and methods and techniques aimed to produce the perfect Grecian ideal  form.  There was a long, knitted corset of silk or cotton.

1795 corsets were many and varied. Some had a tab on the back to attach the petticoat or robe to make sure the higher waistline would not fall down.


The old term “corps” had disappeared entirely, and in France this new undergarment was called a “corset” (“corps” now being considered vulgar).  In England the old term “stays” was still used, although the English started to call them “corsets”.  Until about 1809, both terms were used interchangeably.

“Corsets” or what? A noble family with less than perfect bodies in about 1808


In 1809-10 however, as the narrow and lower waist with wider skirts started to return, the name and use of a “corset” became more widely used.

The 1827 to 1830 long corset


A new type of corset began to take shape that was completely different than the preceding “stays” and the transitional Regency “corset”.

New corset shape for an emerging fashion era, 1827 to 1830


As the 2nd decade of the 19th century progressed, the emphasis changed from the 18th century rigid shaped body and the Regency flowing natural body to a silhouette with a small waist that had big curvy lines flowing out from it above and below.  The use of bust and hip gussets assisted the flowing shape of the curvy body being emphasized.

1812 to 1827 the Regency shapes of fashion


Late Regency – A Shape that would Stay.. without Stays

Beginning in about 1810, the new corset began from a simple body bodice made of a strong cotton material called “jean” which would later be known as “coutil” or “couteil”.  While the waist was still high like in the early Regency era corsets, there were less pieces used.

1810 corded corset

Late Regency – A Shape that would Stay.. without Stays

 Beginning in about 1810, the new corset began from a simple body bodice made of a strong cotton material called “jean” which would later be known as “coutil” or “couteil”.  While the waist was still high like in the early Regency era corsets, there were less pieces used.

1795 and 1812 extant coutil corsets


As the Regency era progressed, Roundness was now given to the bust by inserting two or more gussets on each side of the hips, and two or more gussets/gores in the bust.  The idea was to create roundness and to lift the breasts.

Example 1815: old or young, the objective using hip gussets and bust gores was to lift the breasts and make them round


As the 1810’s progressed, the waist gradually lengthened in the dress design and dropped towards the normal waist position, the corset lengthened too and became more defined.  Extra side pieces were added for control and shaping.

1810’s reproduction corset and portrait about 1812-1815 showing the new longer shaping with more structure


At first, while the dress was still slender, this “bodice” was still far along on the hips, but it decreased in length as the skirt increased in fullness.  By the middle of the 19th century, the bodice or corset became very short.

1812 and 1815 corsets still long


The long vertical look of the period was in strong contrast to the 18th century.  The Regency silhouette became long and elegant with little reference to width.  As the early Regency turned to later Regency, the dress became stiffer and wider, and the silhouette required a change in understructure.

1780’s vs 1810’s. Very different shapes and objectives.


Mid Regency

In about 1820, ladies began to fashion quilted bodies with a slight re-enforcement from whale baleen to assist in developing the new shape of an extended skirt, lowering of the waistline, and a gradual widening of the upper sleeve.

Sketch: Ackermann’s Repository Fashion plate 1825; Extant 1825-1835 handmade corset


Military uniforms with their strong colors and rows of braid and epaulettes were copied into women’s fashion of the 1820’s, and began to influence the silhouette, which of course demanded a new shape to the undergarments.

Extant: woman’s 1820’s Spencer jacket and Napoleon Bonaparte of France in military uniform, 1809

Two more examples of women’s military inspired Spencers below:


The new 1820 “bodys” helped visually reduce the waist size so the newer silhouette gave the wearer the appearanc e of having a tiny waist.  It was this shift in proportion that would lead to tight lacing for the rest of the century.

1827-1830 corset shape starts to shape the waist though it was still above the natural waist position


The corset through the 1820’s became fuller in overall shape at the top, and took on a molded, shaped basque area below the waist.

1815 approx long molded corset and the silhouette it created as shown in a royal portrait


It was at the end of the 1820’s that riding corsets were developed especially for freedom of movement.

Extant 1820’s riding corset.  Note the high cut above the hip and flexible laces along he side of the body to allow for movement in all directions


Riding ensembles with which the riding corset was worn – 1815 and 1818. Note they were riding sidesaddle (see section on “1890 Riding Outlaw” regarding history of women riding sidesaddle vs astride)


A wooden stick called a “busk” in late colonials and Regency corsets, was much like today’s paint stirrer but much thicker and more durable.  Typically made of a hardwood such as oak and maple, it was about 1/8″ thick and 1 1/2-2″ wide early in the Regency era, widening to 2 1/2″ later.  Early it was tapered, while later it was straight.

The purpose of the busk was to distinctly separate the breasts to put them into the cups provided by the corset so they were clearly “two pert apples on a tray” to quote a cartoonist at the time.

Extant corset 1830’s with a modern sketch for replicating the cording of the historical example


By about 1835, the flat wooden busk that was worn in the earlier Regency corsets to lift and separate the breasts became broad and was supplemented along the sides and in the center back to support lacing with whalebones.

Extant corsets: 1827 and 1832 show the wide wood busk down the center with reinforcements alongside of it.  Earlier busks were tapered and narrow to accommodate the higher waist.  As the 30’s progressed and the silhouette lengthened, so did the overall shape and the busk


For heavy women of the mid to late Regency era, side bones and extra back bones were added to support and shape a bit more than for slimmer women.  Older women liked these too, as they were more like the Colonial stays they grew up with.

(Portrait: 1834 and extant early 1830’s corset for large busted woman including a bit more boning in back and sides


From the late 1820’s until the 1840’s, most corsets (general called “bodices” during that time frame) had shoulder straps.

Extant corsets: 1820-1839 examples with different types of shoulder straps


From the 1820’s until the late 1860’s, there were dressmakers who specialized in the making of corsets.  These were called “corsetiers”.  Most corsets, however, were made at home using patterns and instructions found in ladies’ magazines.

Cartoon from 1819 showing women making and maintaining their own undergarments during the Regency fashion era