The Corset, Caresse Crosby, and Shapewear

This delectable 1901 gown had under it a ‘swan’s bill’ corset, which combined a slim waist with a bit of rump action.

No garment seems to attract so much misinformation (and even ire) as the corset—which in modern opinion is seen alternately as an instrument of torture, a symbol of female oppression, or a bit of naughty boudoir dress-up gear.

But modern opinion is just that: modern, and opinion. So today we’ll look at some of the period facts (and more modern fancies) surrounding this poorly understood bit of underwear.

What is a corset?

It’s a semi-rigid, support undergarment, typically made of layers of cloth and padding with flexible whale baleen or spring-steel stiffeners sewn inside.

It was worn over a light undergarment called a chemise or camisole, laced to fit at the back, and then fastened in the front with hook-and-eye closures.


The garment in question, and a lovely one too.

Notice the names of the four styles available: no punches were pulled in 1901 advertising . . .

Why would anyone wear such a contraption?

In the Gilded Age, women of all classes wore corsets daily to

  • Flatten the stomach
  • Improve their posture
  • Support a weak or injured back
  • Look sexy to impress men or other women
  • Conform to the dress styles of the day

You might think of corsets as the “shapewear” of the Gilded Age—a single garment that did the work of two later ones, the brassiere and the girdle, neither of which had been invented then.

Were women compelled to wear them?

Women’s dress clothing of the Gilded Age tended to highlight the curves and contours of the female body, and corsets could be employed to accentuate those contours further, or to conceal the shape-changing consequences of childbirth or age.

But it wasn’t men who forced women into constrictive corsets, any more than women compelled men to cinch a length of cloth around their necks that applied pressure to their carotid arteries, windpipe, and throat.

Most women’s fashions of the Gilded Age were designed by women, made by women, and promoted by women. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at the editorial staff and writers for The Delineator and Harper’s Bazar, the two leading fashion magazines of the time. And yes, today’s Harper’s Bazaar had one ‘A’ then.)

In fact, not a few (male) doctors of the day expressed concern that the corset’s stomach-flattening function could either result in infertility or, worse, the seriously bad female moods then called ‘hysteria’.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, when men’s fashions tended to be slim and trim—and actual men not always so much of either—men often wore corsets, too. The later sea-change in fashion to the blocky “sack suit” (see my previous post) allowed men to let it all hang out.

Sports corsets were worn even while playing football! (Which women were encouraged to play—with other women, of course.)

Were corsets a form of oppression?

Compared with modern shapewear, corsets were heavy and stiff, but that was more a reflection of the materials available at the time than of a desire to torment their wearers. Prior to the development of rubberized elastic (in World War I) and fabrics like Lycra and Spandex (in the 1960s), shapewear had to be made of relatively bulky, heavy materials in order to do its job.

(It simply must be noted in passing that women did not generally cling to bedposts while an assistant or two hauled on the victim’s corset-laces as though hoisting a mainsail. This ‘straight-lacing’ or ‘tight-lacing’ did happen, but typically only by corset models, whose bodies were generally as unlike most women’s bodies as supermodels’ bodies are today.)

Why did they vanish?

The corset’s demise is almost single-handedly due to a young New York débutante—Mary Phelps Jacob (1892-1970). One evening in 1910, Mary was putting on a particularly daring evening gown and noticed, to her horror, that its plunging neckline revealed the upper part of her corset. Without time or desire to change her dress, from two handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a needle and thread, Mary fashioned the first brassiere. Under the name of Caresse Crosby, in 1914 she patented her invention as ‘The Backless Brassiere’, and corsets quickly became obsolete—not because men had suddenly become less oppressive, but because something much better had come along.

At least for the bosom, that is. The bottom half of the corset—the ‘girdle’ of more recent memory—remained de rigeur until the late 1960s, when the invention of the lighter and stronger Lycra and Spandex elastic fibers made those obsolete, too.

Mary Phelps Jacob and the US Patent for her uplifting invention.

Which brings us to our present era. Today, while the brassiere remains a staple wardrobe item, you won’t find corsets anywhere except in vintage clothing or naughty dress-up shops. But you can still find shapewear . . . everywhere.

This from the website of Shapeez (*, one of the many brands of shapewear:


The Benefits of Wearing Shapewear Every Day


  • Reduce appearance of belly fat
  • Improve posture
  • Support back muscles
  • Increase confidence
  • Enhance exercise performance

Compare that list to the reasons for daily corset wear, and you’ll see that the corset remains very much in fashion, if in different form.


*Robert Brighton neither wears nor endorses Shapeez products, and is not compensated in any way for mentioning them. But it is a woman-owned company, featuring products designed by women for other women, and there’s something very Gilded Age about that.