Updated on July 30, 2019
Every few years or so we see a revival of styles inspired by eras past, from wild colored lipstick and eyeshadows, reminiscent of the 1980s, to the rockabilly/pin up styles of the '40s and '50s. One of the most iconic items to make it's way back into mainstream fashion is the steel-boned corset, aided in no small part by the rising popularity among celebrities like Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian, as well as cosplayers and pin-up girls looking for that classic hourglass shape.
The return of the steel boned corset has brought with it not just the aesthetically pleasing "coke bottle shape" from tight-lacing, but also the practice of "waist training" — the act of using a steel-boned corset to, over time, manipulate the structure of your floating ribs to create a more defined hourglass shape.
Few fashion items have as long and rich a history as corsets.
Looking back on the history of the corset, a few time-honored scenes from American cinema come to mind: the corset lacing scenes from Gone With The Wind, Titanic and Pirates of The Caribbean… just to name a few. The corset can be traced back to France, as early as the 1600's. And while we could go on to write an entire book on the history, similarities, and differences between corsets then and now, for the sake of time and sanity, we will touch on the basics.
Difference #1 - Boning
Corsets have always been used to slim the waist and exaggerate the hips and bust into an "hourglass" figure. The defining characteristic of the modern corset is steel boning. Traditionally, corsets were stiffened with baleen. Also known as whalebone, baleen is not a bone at all, but the keratinous "stiff but flexible" material found around the upper jaws of baleen whales that is used to filter plankton and krill. Baleen was replaced by cheaper flat spiral-steels at the beginning of the 20th century.
The corset myth that you could "break a bone" by waist training or tight-lacing actually stems from the old use of whalebone in corsets. While baleen is quite strong, it was prone to breaking when being laced tightly after years of use and drying out. So rest at ease, you’re in no danger of bodily harm from corsets (although it is always wise to follow corseting guidelines).
Difference #2 - Corsets vs Bras
The next difference between the old and new corsets is choice. Or, more specifically, the ability to choose if you want to wear a corset or not. There was a time when corsets were not just for creating a desired shape under a lady’s dress, but were actually used the way we use bras today. There was even a time when it was considered "improper" or "indecent" to go without a corset.
In fact, the term "loose" (as in promiscuous) came from "women of the night," who would leave their corsets loosely laced for their clientele.
Difference #3 - Back Support
The use of modern corsets as a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to a back brace is a small yet notable difference in the history of corsets. While corsets may have inadvertently provided back pain relief of sorts to women in the past, it's common now for women to use corsets for back pain relief as a main use, rather than a "happy side effect."
Whether you found your way to corsets through fashion, waist training, or otherwise, it doesn’t take a history buff to appreciate how far these garments have come- if you’re interested in more corset history check out Lucy’s Corsetry’s history page.