Corsets: A Beginner’s Guide to the Right Fit

Does any other piece of lingerie capture the imagination like the corset? Worn as figure-shaping, bust-lifting, dress-supporting undergarments for hundreds of years, corsets were replaced by bras a century ago, but their sinuous lines still capture our attention. Here’s where this time-tested apparel item comes from, and how to find and flaunt your own.

Where does the corset come from?

Corsets have their origins in the stiffened dress bodices latter part of Middle Ages Europe. As the invention of tailoring made women’s dresses more body-conscious, people began to look for ways to show off their figures. After dresses split into two distinct parts, bodices and skirts, bodices were reinforced with paste, wood, reed, or horn. Gradually, these reinforced areas migrated underneath the dress, leading to the development of the first European corsets in the 1500s. These were called stays, and they had a roughly triangular shape.

Stays fell out of fashion after the French Revolution, when aristocratic styles of clothing grew unpopular. The brief popularity of the Empire waist, a silhouette in which a dress is cinched well above the natural waist, popularized short stays, a type of corset that supported only the bust.

Anne Hathaway's Jane Austen in

Anne Hathaway shows off the empire waist style while playing Jane Austen in Becoming Jane.

Everett Collection

However, between the 1830s and 1860s, these short stays lengthened into the hourglass corset silhouette we all recognize today, featuring both a cinched waist and a number of “bones” to shape the torso. While the rise of leisure sports and the end of World War I led to a decline in everyday corset-wearing, the corset never completely disappeared. Corsets were still very popular in movies and pinup imagery, and they developed a special cachet as more than ordinary undergarments but rather an item of clothing with transgressive, seductive powers. Perhaps this reputation is why corsets are experiencing a miniature resurgence.

In an era in which stretchy, casual athleisure is everywhere, something as tightly structured and formal as a corset can seem taboo just for breaking with the norm. With their suggestive framework that retains a traditionally feminine silhouette — even when the garment isn’t being worn — corsets are also powerfully sensual in their own right. Unlike with most modern-day undergarments, your body takes on the shape of the corset, not the reverse. And corsets can lend a little (or a lot) of drama to any ensemble.

Sophia Loren as Epifania Parerga in The Millionairess
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