History of Fashion and Dress
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1850s-1860s Era Corsets

Extant 1864 corset

extant 1864 corset
Extant Corset c.1864- French or English
(Image courtesy the V&A)
Mass produced European corsets were imported to the United States as early as the late 18th century. In the 19th century, many American corsets were made by male tailors who came to a woman's home. If a woman could not afford an imported or tailored corset, she made it herself. In the 1860s, "how-to" manuals for corset making were often published in ladies magazines.

In the 1850s, the introduction of the sewing machine, manufacturing, and advancement in weaving techniques revolutionized the business of corset making. In the 1860s, ingenious manufacturing companies developed ways to weave boning material directly into their corsets. By 1869, women of all socioeconomic statuses could afford a ready made corset.

Along with the technological advancements of this period came the call for dress reform. Doctors and those in the religious community argued against the tight lacing of corsets- citing the hideous health problems (and even deformities) it brought upon the female body. Religious communities went as far as to condemn it as "an act against God." In the 1850s, some radical women refused to wear the corset altogether.

1862 corset advertisement

By the 1860s, corsets contained a great deal less boning than their 18th century counterparts- the stays.  The majority of boning was applied at the torso and waist while the hip area remained free. Many manufactured corsets from this period used elastic at the side seams or in gusseted areas. One corset of this period is noted to have been made from a single layer of open weave fabric employing only cotton tapes to encase a few rows of boning. (This type of corset is also seen in later periods and marketed as a "summer corset".) The introduction of the front steel busk came about in the 1850s giving a woman the freedom to dress and undress herself without the need of an assistant.

By looking at a variety of collections- both American and European, I derive corsets from this period were primarily made of cotton or wool and seem to always have a cotton lining. Extant corsets in flame red, brilliant blue, and golden brown exist in museums today.

Remember, we only know about the past the artifacts it has left us. To assume only one artifact to be the norm for the period is a dangerous practice. The 1850s and 1860s were a transitional period for corsets. Some women might have chosen to wear an older style of corset (the 1840s stays) while other women may have opted for more experimental styles like the one below.

Selected Bibliography:
Corsets: A Visual History compiled by R.L. Shep, 1993.
The History of Underclothes by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington, 1992.
Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras by Beatrice Fontanel, 2001.
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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
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Page revised January 2013