Things tighten up - Baroque period (17th Century)

The period of early Baroque shows a wide range of national differences in ladies court-fashion. In countries under the influence of the house of Habsburg, the corset remained very stiff up to the middle of the century, but lighter material was used (preferably whalebone) and the manufacturing technologies improved significantly. In addition, a little bit more space for the breasts was given. The hoop-skirts now were barrel-shaped (this style came from France) and had a circumference up to 5 metres.

Self-portrait with his first wife (Isabella Brant), Rubens, Netherlands
The Netherlands (under Spanish influence) had a special fashion, too. Up to the end of that century fashion asked for very strict, high-neck gowns. High Society regulation on behaviour expected that a lady's feet never should be seen. Remember an expression of Isabella of Castile: 'a Queen of Spain has no feet!' (rejecting a gift [stockings] from the king of France).

In other European countries more easy-going dresses with a lot of lace were fashionable. Hoop skirts had fallen out of favour, instead, bolsters on the hips were used. France became, based on its absolutist monarchy and the splendid royal court, the leading nation in any respect on questions of fashion. Corsets were used for tight-lacing now, especially in France. To get the expected straight front, a rod, made of wood or metal (or sometimes a dagger), was inserted into a vertical pocket of the corset, just in front of the breastbone.

If the matter became too uncomfortable (for instance at an opulent dinner - very polular in baroque) this rod could be taken out. Such a part was named in German 'Blankscheit' (= 'shiny rod'), which became "Planchette" in French. This French word is still in use today and describes a strong rod of stiff spring steel underneath the front busk hooks and eyes of a corset (not needed for every corset, but only if enhanced stiffness of the front is needed).

Marie Louis de Tassis, van Dyck, Netherlands, 1629
Marie Louis de Tassis, van Dyck, Netherlands, 1629
By the early 17th century, an important change took place: women were allowed to carry out the craft of tayloring. They were certainly more familiar with the needs and wishes of their female clients - especially if it concerned undergarments. Another innovation during this epoch was that specialists in the taylors guild appeared, who solely produced laced bodices and corsets.








Balls and Mistresses - The Period of Rococo (18th Century)

The word ‘Rococo’ is the modified French word ‘Rocaille’ and describes a playful, shell-shaped decoration on buildings. Nearly everything was more ‘easy’ and playful now.

Rococo-corset from silk-brocade, Austria approx. 1755
     The corsets, too, ceased to have a straight front and were used to show all parts of the female torso in the best light. The absolutist monarchy and its display of splendour reached its summit (which preceded its end). Corsets manufactured in this period were mostly sophisticated, expensive masterpieces. To get the expected stiffness, a large number of relatively thin whalebones (sometimes up to 100 pieces) had been sewn in.

Valuable fabrics were used as outer material and corsets became sometimes part of the outer garment. The design called for shoulder-straps and the hip-part was made in such a way that a smooth transition to the again fashionable hoop-skirts was achieved. The new types of hoop-skirts (different styles during the rococo, the 'panier'-style being the best-known) had sometimes really ‘royal’ dimensions, up to 7 metres circumference. The tightly-laced waist appeared unbelievably small in them.

Mdm. Pompadour, Francois Boucher, France, 1759

   The corset of a distinguished lady was laced at the rear in general, because she had her maid constantly available. Front busk-hooks (in the design of today) were not available, so for each dressing of her ladyship the whole lace had to be threaded and laced. Common people made do with more simple and less expensive stays without supporting whalebones, and lacking a maid, with front-lacing. Many national or regional costumes have their origin in these times.


Revolution and Napoleon - the Period of Empire (1789 - 1815)

The absolutist monarchy in France had overstepped the mark. The French revolution broke out and ended in the declaration of the republic. The guillotine decapitated the Royal Family, including the famous tight-lacer Queen Marie-Antoinette. Everything which had something to do with aristocracy was tabooed. That included corsets, too.

In the following time and also under the reign of Napoleon I, the Empire-style got accepted in ladies fashion. It is distiguished by a waistline just underneath the bust and a straight long skirt. Corsets of the old style were not worn with that. Predecessors of this style had already come in vogue in England around 1770. The english upper class appreciated a easy-going 'countryside' style. But nevertheless, corset manufacturers did not become unemployed. The fashion of empire asked for very separated breasts. The corset-tailors followed this ideal with the so called divorce corset, which may be described as an early but very uncomfortable bra. Based on the leadership of France in questions of fashion, the Empire-style was taken over to other European countries, too. But in England, which was independent from Napoleon, the style was a bit more playful as in the rest of Europe, and the fashion without corsets had only a short lifetime. Additionally the 'Dandy-Look' of gentleman's fashion was created there. This fashion was 'in' up to the 4th decade of that century (the 'dandy' meanwhile became a 'beau'). The dandy-look asked for a slim waist (to make shoulders appear much wider), which meant that gentlemen were now wearing corsets, too. Mostly short waist-cinchers were used.