“fashion revolution” consisted of two phases.
In the first, Directoire period, the old, corseted look developed into a
straight but sinuous silhouette, with an easy and often raised waistline and a
narrow skirt that in 1911 became the notorious “hobble skirt.”
In the second (but related) phase, Orientalism was in fashion.
The 1909 Paris debut of the Ballets Russes with its costumes
by Leon Bakst contributed to
both the infamous jupes-culottes
(known also as trouser-skirts and harem-skirts) and the so-called “lamp-shade
tunic” (a short tunic-crinoline worn over a long, narrow skirt), as well as
the use of brilliant colours and richly textured fabrics, turbans, aigrettes,
beads and tassels.” Vallerie
Steele, Fashion and Eroticism 1985
1910 - the “New Figure”
– From as early as 1892 fashion houses in Paris were beginning to launch the
New Figure on an unsuspecting world, but it took time to make the break with
traditional Victorian Values. The
uncomfortable extremes of the “S” Bend corset combined with high stiff
collars created a fashion climate ready for some relief from Victorian styles.
Relief came in the form of the “Harem Look.” Couturier Paul
Poiret’s Orientalism stormed Paris successfully using the latest sales pitch,
the catwalk show. Meanwhile the
Russian Ballet’s costumes, designed by Leon Bakst, were a triumph in the
theatre and so introduced Eastern harem influences that the West could live
Most would attribute the
fall of the corset directly to Paul Poiret’s fashion designs (others
additionally site Chanel or Vionnet), reminiscent of the Directoire period
(Regency or Empire look), which appealed to a youthful public looking for a
change from the matronly Edwardian look. Having
been trained at the best couture houses in Paris, those of Worth and Doucet,
Poiret saw the need for a break from the past prudishness of the Victorians and
introduced dresses styled on the exotic Far East.
Ballet had never been so popular in Europe, not since 1830,
and this was widely reflected in the work of painters like Degas.
The Ballets Russes employed a painter named Leon Bakst to create costumes
for exotic, lavish productions like “Scheherazade”, “Cleopatre” and
“Tamar” displaying bright colours in romantic settings.
The time was right for the public to be exposed to something new and to
abandon the pastels and frou frou of the old guard.
Such was the overwhelming acceptance of the sets and costumes of the
touring Ballet Russes; interior designers, dressmakers and artists and the
public were inspired and impressed. In
addition, stage stars like the dancer Isadora Duncan took the new aesthetic to
heart and happily presented herself in public without a corset, thus introducing
the audience to something shocking and exciting.
It must be said, though, the aristocracy and the nobility continued to
maintain the use of corsetry through out the 20th century as a sign
of good breeding, thought to set them apart from the lower orders.
Poiret was possibly the
first designer to see the value of shock tactics when presenting his work and
can be compared today with advant garde catwalk displays. Poiret’s designs were so colourful, draped and tubular,
they eventually influenced fashion for the masses as they “trickled down” to
the High Street shop. His harem
skirt and the hobble skirt, a floor length pencil skirt with no pleats or slits,
would only have been worn by very few women at first but it’s impact on the
rest of society was lasting with mass production and added pleating, side panels
and slits. Such narrow skirts were
adapted by many designers and the corset industry had to progress along with
them in creating long narrow corsets with less accent on the waist and more on
the hip and upper thigh areas. (fig. 44) Corsetry
design and development must move alongside fashion trends in order to survive.
In an even more youthful
market, the use of “stay bands” for children, to protect them against the
cold, had remained standard practice for about 2 hundred years.
“A flannel binder should be worn round the stomach and abdomen next to
the skin; it should be sufficiently wide to cover the whole of the belly from
hips to chest, and long enough to go twice round the body.” Dr
D.E. Lock, Medical Officer of Health for the Uxbridge Urban District Council
The use of stay bands and
other forms of stiffened or corded vests would continue until the 1920’s but
in 1908 Symingtons revolutionised children’s underwear by developing the
“Liberty Bodice.” It was an
instant success as a soft, lightweight, warm knitted cotton vest top which had
front buttons for ease of dressing and tied fabric bands or “tapes” round it
for support. No longer would
children be required to use a boned garment or tight bindings, freedom or
“liberty” of movement was the healthy way.
Over 3 million bodices were produced and sold each year, eventually
replacing children’s stay bands completely.
The Liberty Bodice remained in use in England until the 1960’s (fig. 46) Even
an adult version was introduced which can still be obtained in an orthopaedic
form for the elderly.
1914-1918, the Great War,
not only sped up the decline of the empire of the corset it also became the
mother invention when materials for corsetry began to dwindle.
Up to 75% of the metal components for corsetry manufacture were imported
into the U.K. in addition to the vast amounts of fabrics from France and
Belgium. The war forced the U.K. to
rethink its manufacturing and export industry.
Upgrading and expansion schemes were implemented to improve the financial
gains to be made from a world wide export market, starting with the British
It is interesting to note
here that during the war, when raw materials like cotton and steel became
scarce, the Germans resourcefully made use of pressed paper and twine products
for undergarments! Recycling of
materials was popular everywhere. Even
old whalebone was taken out of umbrellas and strong pressed paper “Fibrone”
was developed and used alternately with steel boning in corsets.
When the supply of raw rubber from British plantations within the Empire
became cut off, research surged forward into alternative man-made fabrics like
rayon and new forms of elasticised fabrics.
As the war pressed on, being
fashionable was not considered important when your country needed you and so the
progressive development of lingerie in the form of basic utilitarian
undergarments was hastened. The
brassier and short elastic girdle was by far more practical than any form of
tight-lacing corset. The corsolette,
which first made its appearance in America in 1919, combined the two.
“The Warner Corselette
combines a bandeau, an abdominal confiner, and four hose supporters in such a
way to give you an unbroken line from shoulder to knee.
As a corset house, we know, and as corset wearers, you know that no
figure can long dispense with a corset and keep its lines.
Yet there are figures and there are occasions which require less corsetry
than others. We have developed for
such occasions the Warner Corselette.” Contemporary
magazine Novenber 1921
The joining of a long-line
bra and high waisted girdle, with very light boning and elastic panels, was an
instant success and has been worn by generations of “full figured gals” ever
since. (fig. 47)
In her book The History of the
Corset, Emily Yooll explains,
“Some schools of thought contend that
all the control that is necessary can be exerted by means of a skilful cut, by
stitching and reinforcement. Boning
however, is the most popular method of control.
This certainly applies so far as rigid corsetry is concerned.
Elastic corsetry comes into another category, in which the varying
degrees and direction of stretch in a cloth give greater or lesser control.”
Emily Yooll was also the editor of the industry trade magazine Corsetry
and Underwear Journal
from 1935 to 1975.
Speaking about the disappearance of the corset after the
French Revolution and again after the Great War, the fashion historian James
Laver points out that, “both epochs were periods of feminine emancipation, so
that it almost looks as if the throwing away of the corset was a kind of
symbolic gesture and that is precisely what it was. But while the women of 1800 wore no corsets at all, the women
of the post-war period merely extracted the bones
- that is, they wore a foundation garment which by previous standards
would not have been considered a corset at all.”
After “The War to End All
Wars, ”the New Figure and new lifestyles constantly required new corset
designs. Vulcanised rubber cloth
was first used in 1911 to create a sports corset with less boning and in 1913 a
dance corset (called “the tango”) claimed to prevent muscle fatigue.
In peace time, between the two World Wars, dresses, corsets and
undergarments became quite flimsy once more, in a shameless display of the
natural body and glorification of youth culture much as during the Regency
period. By 1923 sheets of
rubber fabric were first used to create girdle foundations with exotic or
vampish names like the “Madame
X,” a sort of tube corset or “roll-on” girdle which no longer served to
sculpt the figure, rather control it, as a slimming aid.
This ideal did not really take off until the health and weight loss craze
of the 1930’s but even today we still see ads in the back of magazine for such
weight control garments which haven’t changed a bit. (fig.
Inevitably, during the
1920’s, traditional rigid corsetry fell out of favour with the youth market.
The fashionable figure just did not demand it.
The accent was on youth and freedom and this meant “roll-on” and
“step-in” girdles, made in the latest perforated rubber sheeting and elastic
fabrics offering a modern image of comfort and convenience. (fig. 48)
The new short, girdle-like garments
were little more than glorified garter belts doing not much more than holding
the stockings up, but in the 1930’s something a little more substantial was
required and the corselet came into its own as only it
could produce a figure worthy of the new, slinky figure hugging Jean Harlow
style dresses. (fig.
49) A smooth unbroken line was the look,
like Art Deco styling, sleek and modern. Corsetry
now had to be sold to women without really being called corsetry.
One did not wish to wear what one’s mother wore!
Anything considered to be “old-fashioned” would not stand a chance in
a young, health conscious market. Although
still known in the trade as corsetry, this term generally referred to girdles,
corselettes and brassieres. So-called real or rigid corsetry referred to garments that
laced up with boning and a steel busk. They
would also have to be made out of strong rigid fabric as opposed to the now well
established elastic fabrics like Eclast, Wondastretch, Lustercale, Gripknit,
Wondernet and Lastex. Advertising
of these new elastic foundations called for names reflecting a youthful, modern
active woman. Names like; Formfit,
Radiante, Unda-fit, Sta-up-top, Fitu, Supacut and Flexees, calling to mind the
control offered by these “miracle fabrics” with improved designs depending
on the cut and shape for figure control.
The word corset was not in
the vocabulary of the young who lived in the age of the zipper.
During the 20’s freedom and the excesses of youth took a toll on the
feminine figure, as women were now able to eat and drink without the restriction
of a rigid corset. The decadence of the 1920’s, lead directly to the 1930’s
national craze for healthy pursuits, regular exercise and fashionable suntans.
There was now an urgency to develop “healthy” designs for bras,
girdles and corselettes, frantically trying to keep up with the mass market.
New elastics could also be combined with hook and eye tape, zippers or,
occasionally, lacing and a short busk to create garments with “comfort, not
constriction,” gently moulding the figure and not the old push and pull
treatment. Aiming at the health
conscious market, surgical support was an ideal and successful sales tactic.
Suggested reasons for use were; general wear, figure control, support of
thin women, breast support, control for larger women, muscular or posture
weakness, abdominal up lift, prescription cases, post-operative, visceroptosis
(prolapsed abdomen), hernia and orthopaedic.
Many sales assistants were experts in fitting garments and some companies
even trained assistants in physiology and anatomy to reassure customers.
The main surgical supplier in Great Britain and America was Camp.
They also preached the importance of maternity corsetry for use in the
support of the abdominal wall and protection of the foetus during pregnancy.
It is quite true, however, that the use of maternity corsetry can improve
posture and alleviate backache. Yet
another corset would then be fitted for the postnatal period, to bring back the
As the craze for health
gained momentum, brands like Slimtex and Vita-flex promoted their rubber
reducing girdles made in lightweight, perforated rubber sheeting, guaranteed not
to split, peel or crack. In 1937
Corsets Silhouette Company in Great Britain advertised the “Silhouette
Radiante” corset range for about a year.
These foundation ads claimed that they were made with fabric
“impregnated with radio-active elements – uranium, thorium and radium” and
were said to “give a feeling of energy and fitness and a resistance to
The rigid lacing corset,
known for the past three centuries, was almost extinct thanks to the popularity
of the naturally slim waist, a healthy figure and loose fitting garments.
Despite all this, society still considered it to be indecent for a lady
to appear in public without a foundation garment of some sort.
The slightest hint of a “cheek cleft” under a slim fitting dress
would be classified as indecent exposure!
In 1939 there was indeed a
resurgence in back lacing corsetry caused by a brief fashion swing towards the
“nipped-in waist” thanks in particular to the Mainbocher corset.
The “Waltz Waist” was a pale pink, back-lacing corset designed by
couturier Mainbocher and was beautifully photographed in a neo classical pose. (fig.51)
This photo was the shot heard round the fashion world and many designers
took the lead to return to small waists (the new “figure of eight”
silhouette) in their Fall collections of 1939.
But as early as March 1938 the return of Victorian styling was announced.
The “New Silhouette” or the fashionable “New Woman,” again
encouraged a 21-inch waist with nostalgic, old-fashioned styled corsetry like
the Bon Ton “little laced waist corset” from the USA.
This trend may have lasted for quite a while if it had not been for the
war and the manufacturing industry’s opinion that it was only an extreme
fashion trend and merely a novelty.
Designers like Worth,
Molyneux, Balanciaga, and to a certain extent Schiaparelli, were using genuine
influences from the Victorian era to create boned, tailored suites and evening
gowns with bustles, waist cinchers and even hoops and crinolines in their
designs. The new silhouette
dictated by fashion produced a demand for some Edwardian styles to be brought
back into production, but this time made predominantly in elastic with side zip
fasteners. Designers saw a fresh
market for their product by designing foundation garments specifically to be
worn with their own gowns and suits. Mainbocher,
the first, went on to produce a stylish collection of foundation garments with
Warners in America in 1940. Dior
did the same with Lily of France in the 1950’s and Schiaparelli produced her
own through out the 1940’s & 50’s.
War soon put an end to all of this frivolity….