The shape and construction of the corset changed over time. 18th-century stays created a cone-shaped silhouette. By the 1790s, the new fashion for high-waisted dresses led some women to adopt shorter stays, resembling proto-brassieres.
There do exist in museum collections certain notorious iron corsets, which are usually dated to about 1580 to 1600. But were they really the first fashionable corsets? Modern scholars tend to believe these metal corsets were orthopedic devices.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors blamed the corset for dozens of diseases, including cancer, hysteria, "tight-lacing liver," tuberculosis and scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Most of these diagnoses are unsupported by the evidence.
Contrary to popular belief, most Victorian women did not have 16-inch waists. Corsets were usually advertised with waists of 18 to 32 inches when laced completely closed, but they were often left open an inch or two.
Not only did the corset support the bosom and idealize the figure, its status as underwear implicitly alluded to the act of undressing and making love. Paradoxically, the corset was also a sign of respectability, because it controlled the body and, by extension, the physical passions. A strait-laced woman was not loose.
By emphasizing the sexually dimorphic curves of a woman's body, the corset functioned as a symbol of female beauty. Women with slender waists look younger and more feminine, because the waist-hip differential in young women tends to be 0.7 (waist seven-tenths as large as hips), in contrast to men's ratio of 0.85 or 0.9. After menopause, as fertility and estrogen levels decline, women's bodies approach the male ratio.
With the fashion revolution of the early 20th century, most women stopped wearing boned corsets and adopted elasticized foundation garments. Why did women abandon corsets? Historical evidence suggests that changes in fashion were directly associated with changing attitudes toward the body. The corset did not so much disappear as become transformed. First it evolved into the girdle and brassiere. Then, more radically, the corset became internalized through diet, exercise, and now also plastic surgery. The hard body replaced the boned corset.
In the wake of the sexual liberation movement, young women associated with London's punk and goth subcultures in the early 1970s began to reappropriate the corset as a symbol of rebellion. Corsets were also increasingly adopted by young men who wore the garment to clubs that welcomed the expression of "radical" or "transgressive" sexuality.
Long disparaged as a symbol of female oppression, the corset was reconceived as a symbol of female sexual empowerment by Madonna, aided and abetted by Jean Paul Gaultier.
Adopted by avant-garde fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, herself a punk in the late 1970s, the corset began a second life in fashion.
Most designers tend to focus on very feminine or beautiful corsets, but there are also a variety of "exotic" corsets. The Dinka "corset" from East Africa (center) was the inspiration for this Dior gown.
Another type of contemporary corset treats the body not as an idealized female form, or a surrogate for the hard body, but rather as something deeply vulnerable, even wounded.
Especially within the world of fashion, cultural signs, like the corset, have no fixed meaning. Throughout human history, people in all cultures have demonstrated an urge to "dress" or "fashion" their bodies in ways that respond to particular sociocultural ideals of beauty, eroticism, status, conformity, and other powerful forces. As we move through the 21st century, the corset shows no signs of disappearing.