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 Edwardian Corsetry

Edwardian Corsetry

Fashion History

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

Edwardian Corsetry Fashion History


The Mature Edwardian Figure

Fashions favoured the mature woman in the Edwardian era. It exploited the curves of an elaborately corseted figure. The Edwardian era was the last period in fashion history when the mature female figure was every man's ideal. Buxom ladies tortured their flesh to achieve an hour-glass figure. Young or old, all laced themselves so tightly that they distorted their figures into the exaggerated 'S' shape associated with the era.

The Health Corset

The corsets favoured in the 1890s and 1900s were the 'health' corsets initially designed to aid women to breathe freely.

Mme. Gaches-Sarraute of Paris, a corsetiere who studied medicine, designed a corset intended to aid health instead of endangering it.

She introduced the straight fronted busk which was aimed at leaving the thorax free, but at the same time designed to support and raise the abdomen instead of compressing it and forcing it downwards.

She rightly, aimed at removing pressure from the vital female organs and dispensed with the constricting curve at the waist which was customary in all previous corsets.

Medical books of the era gave images like these which suggested changes to the internal organs and skeletal frame due to wearing over tightened corsetry.  The Edwardians and Victorians were quite capable of a little artistic licence too.

The S-Bend Corset Fashion to Tight Lace

Ladies would at last have been free to move and breathe easily, but the craze for a small waist persisted and its easy achievement was reinforced by the availability of a maid. Pulled very tightly the "health" corset produced a hand span waist, but at the same time the straight fronted busk forced the bust prominently forward, whilst throwing back the hips, creating the 'S' shape characteristic until 1907


The Monobosom EffectPicture of a bust bodice.

The general impression given was of an enormous one piece bosom, referred to as a monobosom. Because the bust was largely unsupported, ladies began to wear various styles of bust bodices and added other extra padding, even handkerchiefs, to increase the frontage which hung low over the waist. 

The bust bodice was in use by 1905 in England and was the earliest 20th century bra, but never got patented.  One style of a monobosom health bust bodice 1902.

The Corset after 1907

Picture of  2 longer line corsets from 1909 and 1916.After 1907 the wasp waist became less acute and corsets became straighter. Picture of fashionable woman of the late Edwardian era.The corset of 1907 achieved a long slim silhouette. The corset started just above the waist and fitted well down the thighs. They often had elastic gusset inserts which were supposed to increase comfort level.Picture of 4 ladies in slimmer Edwardian fashions.

As ever fashion won out and to match  the new longer slimmer dress styles of 1912, corsets increased in length and almost reached the knees, making sitting down quite difficult.

Above - The new slimmer silhouette showing long slim line corsets of 1909 and 1916, both worn with simple bust bodices.

Veblen's Corset Theories

Veblen's comments on the corset is particularly relevant to the Edwardian woman:

'.... the corset is, in economic theory substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subjects' vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.... the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer's comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women's apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still in theory, the economic dependent of the man, - that,.... she is still the man's Chattel..... '

and further on he writes:-


'The women of poorer classes, especially of the rural population, do not habitually use it except as a holiday luxury. Among these classes, the women have to work hard, and it avails them little in the way of a pretence of leisure to so crucify the flesh in every day life. The holiday use of the contrivance is due to imitation of a higher-class canon of decency.... .it may be said that the corset persists in great measure through the period of snobbery..... it continues in use wherever and so long as it serves its purpose as an evidence of honorific leisure by arguing physical disability in the wearer.'

Veblen's theories aptly apply to the Edwardian lady, who was quite helpless in many ways once laced into her corset. Engagement in sports was certainly difficult, although not impossible; engagement in housework equally difficult and undesirable.  

Wearing the corset merited the assistance of another; a personal maid who could pull and tug at the lacing, reducing the normal circumference of the waist from 25 or 27 inches to 20 inches. The corset was functional in that it prevented any function in everyday chores.

On a young body with about two years training a handspan 16 inch waist which some dressmakers considered ideal, could be achieved. When people wonder today how past women had such small waists they forget that those women worked at wearing a corset daily in the same way as a woman today visits a Gym to tone her thighs.  

The corset for the Edwardian woman was then, a status symbol showing she belonged to the leisure class.

The 1911 Elastic Belt and Bust Bodice

In 1911 elastic belts were first worn and were frequently adopted by younger women when they were active during the First World War.

About 1910 the bust bodice became essential and could not be left off as less support was worn. By 1914 a simple darted band a few inches wide with fine straps and worn under the bust and covering the nipples was an alternative to other underwear. It was a forerunner of the brassiere. The exact date of the forerunners of the official bra designed by Mary Phelps Jacobs in 1913 is thought to be about 1908. Obviously there was a need for a separating bust support at that time, but several countries maintain that they had versions of the bra before her invention. However it was Mary Phelps Jacobs who got the record book attention because she was astute and clever enough to patent the item in 1914, under the name of Caresse Crosby. Link to Bras and Girdles Before 1950.

Once the First World War was over, women's attitudes and fashions shifted. There could be no return to the heavily boned corset as it had been in former times. The world was ready for bras and girdles. 

See 6 Edwardian Fashion Plates Sept 2004


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My How to Recognise Undergarments in Fashion History e-book has 12 chapters about the changes in under foundations in costume history found in various articles on this website.  It also has a new chapter on the history of  drawers and knickers and one covering the chemise and petticoats.  This ebook enables you to read, print and copy from various web pages of all in one go.   

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The Undergarments ebook includes information from my articles on early corsetry, C18th Paniers and the sack dress, stays to corsets, crinoline styles from 1830s to 1860s, bustle styles of 1870s & 1883/5, Edwardian corsetry, bras and girdles before and after 1950, and a new chapter on drawers, pantaloons, knickers to panties.  A look at Rational Dress Reform, the contribution of Mrs. Bloomer and Dr. Jaeger to the resultant cycling and swimming dress.   For more information on the contents of Undergarments click here.

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Footnote:-This page was partially based on content I updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The dissertation a Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess and the Edwardian Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress and the rôles of women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle and high lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading working conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made clothes for hostesses.

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