History of Corsets 1780-1912

(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


 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

1810’s & 1820’s

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


Homemade corsets always followed the fashionable silhouette of the day: long bodied from the 1820’s into the 1840’s, and getting shorter and shorter and more and more boned into the 1850’s and 1860’s.

Extant: as with 1815 vs 1825, corsets created the fashionable silhouette of the day


 Regency Becomes Victorian – France to England

1820’s & 1830’s


Although Queen Victoria is credited with what would become known as “Victorian Fashion”, it was really designer Charles Worth, and Englishman with a fashion house in Paris, that initiated the next revolution in women’s fashion.

1868 Gown and sketch by the House of Worth in Paris


Princess Eugenie of France was Worth’s customer, and Eugenie and Victoria were good friends.  Charles Worth, Parisian designer, first introduced Eugenie to the concept of the crinoline.

Young Queen Victoria (left) early 1840’s and young Empress Eugenie (right) about mid 1850’s


In a sudden and drastic departure from the early 19th century Regency silhouette, Charles Worth’s (Parisian designer setting style trends in the Victorian era) concept of the crinoline took away the multiple layers of heavy petticoats worn by prior decades of women that were used to create the shape of the skirts.  Because the skirt was becoming wider and wider from the 1830’s to the 1850’s, when Worth introduced the cage hoop, it was widely embraced.

Sketch of the early symmetrical Worth cage hoop of tape and slats


The crinoline put the entire fashion focus on a tiny waist, which led to the need for tight lacing and corsets that could get not only the look to trick the eye like in the 18th century, but a small waist in reality.  Skirt and sleeve dimensions did help with the visual focus, but it was the corset that did the job.

1860’s cartoon showing not all people loved the Victorian crinoline


The whole new concept of “Haute Couture” by Parisian Designers from the House of Worth, whom demanded a different “costume” for each activity, demanded a whole new variety of undergarments and corsets too.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding featured the white wedding gown for the first time, thus establishing the wedding “costume” for all future generations.  Orange blossoms and veils were added later from Jewish and other religious ceremonies along with many of the other traditions still followed for weddings


Corset makers  by the 1830’s had become masterful artisans, and beautifully decorated corsets came to be built.

Extant late 1830’s corset and portrait of woman in gown


Technology changes Victorian Fashion 

Corsets and Stays were made by hand and hand sewn or hand woven until about the middle of the 19th century.  As inventions appeared around the world, corsetry took on more hardware.

Photos: technical advances like invention of the metal busk changed the purpose and function of corsetry quite drastically


The Victorian silhouette began with the reign of Queen Victoria of England when she was crowned in 1837.  Of course fashion had been changing and evolving every year, but having a new fashion leader in hand with the French Empress Eugenie, meant American women had an example to follow, and follow they did.

The basic Victorian silhouette at the very beginning featured the waist


There were 3 technological innovations that caused Regency to become Victorian corsetry:

Invention 1) 1828 metal eyelets perfected for use in garments

Handmade metal eyelets 1815 vs the new metal eyelet grommets of 1830


Invention 2) steel front busk of 1829

1835 wooden busk vs 1850’s metal straight busk


Invention 3) 1832 Jean Werly from France took a patent on a type of woven corset made on a loom with gussets integrated into the weaving process.  These were very comfortable, lightly boned, and very popular until 1889. In 1890, machine made corsets would gain more popularity than the Werly type.

1830 approximate gown and underpinnings


The fashionable silhouette of the 1830’s had huge sleeves, a high waist, and increasingly larger skirt.  As the decade progressed, the waistline dropped, and the objective became to have a tiny waist.  This concept lasted well until the end of the century.

1836 wide sleeved fashion

1840’s & 1850’s

When the exaggerated 1830’s shoulders suddenly disappeared in about 1837 with the rise of Queen Victoria as the fashion icon, the waist itself had to be cinched tighter in order to achieve the same visual effect as having large shoulders. The focus of the fashionable silhouette for corsets of the Victorian era then became the hourglass.

Extant: 1840 American dinner dress with underpinnings


It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tightlacing first became almost universally popular. The corset differed from earlier corsets and stays prior to 1840 in numerous ways.

Late 1830’s sketch by Philipon, “Les Marchande des corsets”


The 1850’s corset no longer ended at the hips, but flared out and ended several inches below the waist.

1850 patent for cinching corset


The new style of the 1850’s corset was exaggeratedly curvaceous rather than funnel-shaped like the late 18th century and Regency styles had been.

Extant: 18th Century “cone” vs mid-1850’s “curves”


By the mid-1850’s, spiral steel boning stays curved with the figure rather than tricked the eye as the earlier stays, or followed the natural shape of a woman’s body.

Extant: 1864 corset shows the figure conforming new shape


The 1850’s began the actual re-shaping the body using the corset.

Extant: 1865 form fitting corset with bonings both following and actually shaping the body


While many corsets were still sewn by hand to the wearer’s measurements in the 1840’s and 1850’s, there was also a thriving market in cheaper mass-produced corsets.

Catalog sketch for 1840 and 1845 mass produced corsets


In the late 1840’s in France, where lighter-weight corsets were preferred, a new cut was introduced: the corset without gussets as had been the style through most of the Regency and pre-Victorian eras.

1830 Extant bust gores dominant vs 1850’s bust gores disappearing


Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, and played a part in popularizing and making available a new silhouette using the new design of the mid-century now Victorian Corset.

Queen Victoria, 1870’s perhaps


The new 1840’s Victorian corset was made from 7-13 pieces, each one being shaped to the waist.

1844 corset construction


By the 1860’s, the waist was the focus, so this “waisted corset” was ideal to force the waist into a small shape.  It was an extremely short corset.

1860 corset construction


The new 1860’s short corset with tiny waist and strong cinching, was popular in the US and France, while England wore the older, longer and gored shapes still.

1864 Eugenie, Empress of France’s Worth gown and 1860’s antique French waist cinching corset


The mid-century  1850 and 1860 corsets were actually fairly lightly boned, but had added techniques of cording and quilting, have somewhat the appearance of the previous Regency corsets.

Reproduction corded corsets: left 1820’s, right 1850’s


The 1850-1860 corset had position of the bones worked with the front metal busk along with back bones to bring in the waist.

Early 1860’s corset


Because the crinoline was huge below, the bottom of the 1850-1860 corset was of little concern, so there was a wide variety in fit, shaping, boning, and seaming into the 1860’s as the crinoline grew in popularity.

1860’s corset varied quite a bit and accommodated the crinoline which hid the hips


In the 1860’s, white corsets were considered ladylike, although gray, putty, red, and black were worn more often as they were economical.

1865 extant white and red reproduction corsets show a wide variety of period correct colors


Most corsets were made of 100% cotton coutil and ALWAYS lined in white cotton.  Coutil was a special, very densely woven fabric that had little to no stretch in any direction.  It is still the preferred fabric for today’s corset construction and is very expensive in the US has there are few sources for it.  Companies in Canada and the UK still produce cotton coutil, while many of the synthetic blends come from China or other Asian countries.

(Left: quality imported to the US cotton coutil; Right: cheap synthetic polyester brocade couteil or coutil used in modern non-historical corsets.  The difference is that the cotton is very strong, and the fabric “breathes” for maximum comfort.  Be sure to ask your corsetier the fiber content of the fabric if you are going to wear your corset regularly.  Silhouettes uses only the very finest, high quality 100% natural fibers in building our corsets with NO plastic boning like this cheap and poorly boned interpretation of an 1860’s corset by our competitor.  A custom made corset with 100% cotton coutil fabric, fully lined will cost more, but you will get what you pay for).


Shaping the Body


From about 1875-1900, Europe would again be at war (in South Africa), so military uniforms would again affect women’s fashion.  The long, well fitted and superbly tailored woolen tunic with gold trim guided fashion houses to build women’s costumes based on these types of garments.

1870 Men’s Russian military uniform and 1870’s gowns


In the 1870’s, the demand for military uniforms led to development of mass production techniques which focused on uniformity.  Women, previously hating to look like anyone else, embraced the new armoured “cuirasse” look like they were a part of a military regiment more and more as the century progressed.

Early 1870’s (estimated 1872) tightly fitted bodices


The “Prussian” collar became a staple in the 1870’s.  This was the characteristic stiff necked style that continued until and marked the end of the 19th century and the Victorian era.

Left: man’s Prussian collar reproduction; right 1876 fashion plate incorporating similar collar


The “mannish” Prussian collar in the 1870’s lent a “Hauteur” to women’s dress, which led to special blouses and shirts which required special training to get them on and off, and to prevent the neck from being crushed.

Photo: 1870 women with “haut couteur” and “haut” (high) collars


In the mid to late 1870’s, girls wore corks around their necks with needles sticking out to train them to hold their heads high and straight while wearing collars so the collars would not bend or roll.

High collars and fitted bodices of the late 1870’s demanded postural changes started at a young age


When in the mid 1870’s the crinoline with its silhouette of the teeny waist and huge skirts was replaced by the first bustles or “tournures” (“turning bustles” – softer versions of full padding over the rear end) and the ideal silhouette became a long, molded sensually curvaceous figure down the legs and hips.

Cartoon showing 1870’s full back draping becoming the 1880’s large bustle fashion


Much fuss was made about the bustle by cartoonists and serious fashion experts as it was a very notable feature of fashion.  The real fashion statement defining the mid 1870’s though was the amount of trim, ornament, and “things” piled on top of “monuments known as bonnets” according to a fashion magazine of the time.


1878 bonnets & trims and Bonnets of 1884 with copious trims



The skirt of the early 1870’s was straight in front although not fitted, and flared towards the back.  A bodice had a peplum or little skirt in back to emphasize the shape.

1871 afternoon dress and 1871 fashion plate shows the still somewhat loosely fitted front of the skirt with fullness behind typical of this transitional period out of the ovoid crinoline of the prior fashion decade


By 1871 the draped skirt that was being worn in the back, moved to the front of the skirt like an apron.  The “polonaisse” drape was invented and worn over increasingly tighter and more fitted skirts.

1871 maternity polonnaise and fashion plate from 1871


In 1874, the front was more fitted and the back became elongated into a large curve.

1874 afternoon dress with fashion plate from 1874


By 1879 though, the skirts had slimmed down into a vertical shape, and were fitted all along the body and over the hips.  Dresses were two parts; skirt and bodice, and the bodices elongated with the skirt.

1879 afternoon dress with 1879 fashion plate


Through the middle of the 1870’s, the bustle continued to grow larger and had more pads that had strings and ruffles.

1870 crinolette was the first step out of the crinoline and into the bustle.  By the mid-1870’s, there were many elaborate and decorative pads and structures considered to be early bustles like this “horsehair pad”.  They were named for their stuffings.


As 1876 progressed, metal and wire contraptions replaced the pads.

Extant: 1876 approx wired bustle


Suddenly, in about 1878, the bustles were discarded for a time.

The fashion of 1878 had the fullness in back made from draping and fabric rather than a structure for a short, approximate 3 year period


Through all the changes in back padding, bustles, and draping over the rear end in the 1870’s however, the focus of fashion, and the visual silhouette remained pinpointed on the waist.

1878 extant corset and the shape it made shown in a real photo from 1878 showing emphasis of fashion on the waist


The 1860’s shorter cinching corset remained in style until about 1875 when it elongated and focused on pulling in the tummy since the front of the skirts were become flatter and more conforming to the stomach and hips.

Extant: 1869 and 1875 corsets


Some women still wore the shorter 1860’s style until well into the early 1880’s for sport, work, or rural situations where function exceeded the desire to be fashionable.  One could bend and sit in the 1860’s corset, but not so with the new end of 1870’s long conforming style.

Corset patent and sketches 1866 and 1878 – by outward appearances very similar, but construction, gores, and resultant control of the shape were very different as the corset became more conforming


By the end of the 1870’s, the corset was at its greatest function it had ever been and would ever be, as it now took on the role of shaping the body from top to bottom.  Previous versions focused only on the waist, or bust, or in shaping and slimming.  This new one was intent on forming the body.

Photos: 1879 to 1880 ensemble and corset.  Bright colors were somewhat rare


Every woman had to wear a corset in the 1870s and 1880s, and it was nearly impossible to get the shape out of a homemade corset.  This meant they had to buy them ready or hand made from someone who specialized in these new, specific, and conforming corsets.

Many variations were mass produced and commercially available by the 1880’s, making home sewn corsets a thing of the past


In the 1880’s, the corset industry was at its peak  production and profitability in history, and corset companies in America and Europe flourished.

The corset industry flourished worldwide, thanks to intensive marketing, mass production, and catalog sales


At the same time demand grew, ladies’ magazines started to give more details and illustrations of the specific details of dress and undergarments.  Advertisements for mass produced corsets, previously very rare, became abundant.

1880 page from a catalog selling mass produced corsets.  Note the spoon busks and long silhouette of the 1880’s, and the more lush, full figured shape presented as the ideal after a time of long lean fashion ideals


From the attention to detail in the shaping of the dress and body of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s came great variety and demands for more inventions and contrivances in corsetry.

1884 corset patent, just one of many developed at this time


The new “cuirasse” body of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s enveloped the hips, waist, and upper torso.

Extant and photo: early 1880 cuirasse bodice and long corset


In the 1880’s, since women were so very different in shape and size (and we might add “squishiness”,  the great difficulty became  how to keep the long armorlike look on every woman without the corset riding up and wrinkling, and the bones from breaking at the hips (which happened often going from extremely full hip and bust to a very tiny waist region).

1880: many sizes and shapes of women


Various methods of boning were tested, and steel became used more and more.

1876 and 1887 extant corsets showing metal, reed, and corded boning


By the early 1880’s, whalebone was in such high demand that it became scarce and very expensive, so substitutes such as cane were used for boning (stiffening) corsets.

Extant 1880’s corset lightly boned with whale baleen and cording


Prior to the 1880’s, whalebone was used almost exclusively for boning in corsets.  Whalebone is actually whale baleen, the cartiledge from a whale’s mouth.  It was basically stiff, but had enough flexibility or elasticity to work well with curves.  Unlike modern plastics which have been used to replace it today, whalebone would not re-shape with body heat or vary with air temperature.

Whalebone is actually whale baleen, cartilege from a whale’s mouth as shown in this diagram and in real life


In the 1880’s, two main styles of corset construction continued the same as in the mid-19th century:  either with gussets and a basque, or in separate shaped pieces (like in the 1860’s).

1880’s Norwegian gusseted extant corset and photo of the type of silhouette it made



In 1873, the invention of a spoon shaped busk that looked somewhat like a soup ladel (“busk en poire”) had been invented, and was a key innovation to keeping the tummy tucked in, and handling the torque between top and bottom until about 1889 when the next style of corset would take over.

Extant corset and pattern of the basic basque model 1880’s corset.  This was worn throughout the decade and into the 1890’s as well


Today’s spoon busks are very strong and very expensive, but they still do the same job of tucking in the tummy to make a lovely flat front of the skirt.

1873 patent sketches with photo of modern spoon busks which now come in many finishes, colors, and weights


The spoon busk allowed extremely restrictive and tightly cinching corsets to be made.  One model of the early 1880’s had 20 shaped pieces and 16 whalebones on each, as well as the spoon busk.

Catalog page from 1886 showing multi-pieced corsets with spoon busks