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Bound & Determined: A Visual History of Corsets, 1850-1960

Bound & Determined: A Visual History of Corsets, 1850-1960

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Bound & Determined: A Visual History of Corsets, 1850-1960

4.5/5 (3 ratings)
358 pages
35 minutes
Apr 9, 2013


Corsets in one form or another have existed since biblical times. By the 19th century, they were so firmly entrenched in feminine life that it seemed impossible to live without them. These foundation garments altered more than the figure — their restrictions affected the wearer's behavior as well as impressions of her character. Until they were supplanted by diet and exercise, corsets offered the customary means of obtaining the currently popular shape: the rigidly flat torso and raised bosom of the seventeenth century; the eighteenth century's shoulders-back, flat-stomached, high-busted look; or the hourglass figure of the 19th century. This revealing history of corsetry ranges from the 19th through the mid-20th centuries, showing how simple laced bodices developed into corsets of cane, whalebone, and steel — many of them painfully constricting. Abundant illustrations include line drawings, photographs, and patterns from a diversity of sources, such as clothing catalogs, newspaper advertisements, and magazine articles. Costumers, designers, and fashion historians will find this volume a valuable source of information and inspiration.
Apr 9, 2013

About the author

Kristina Seleshanko, former adjunct instructor of writing and women’s history, is the author of fourteen books, including Victorian and Edwardian Fashions for Women (featured in Martha Stewart Weddings), Victorian Fashions in America, Singing Secrets and others. Kristina also writes articles on a variety of topics for magazines such as Today’s Christian Women, Woman’s Day, Country Victorian, True West Journal, and Sew News.

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Bound & Determined - Kristina Seleshanko









Copyright © 2012 by Kristina Seleshanko

All rights reserved.

Bibliographical Note

Bound & Determined: A Visual History of Corsets, 1850–1960 is a new work,

first published by Dover Publications, Inc., in 2012.

International Standard Book Number

ISBN-13: 978-0-486-47892-0

ISBN-10: 0-486-47892-0

Manufactured in the United States by Courier Corporation



It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,

Women to change their shapes, than men their minds.

—William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

One of the highest entertainments in Turkey is having you go to their baths, aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote in an 1850s edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book. When I was first introduced to one, the lady of the house came to undress me—another high compliment they pay to strangers. After she slipped off my gown and my stays, she was very much struck by the sight of them and cried out to the ladies in the bath, ‘Come hither, and see how cruelly the poor English ladies are used by their husbands. You need not boast, indeed, of the superior liberties allowed to you when they lock you up in a box.’

The box, which every American woman from colonial days through the 1950s came gift wrapped in, was the corset. To modern women, the idea of keeping house, shopping, rearing children, dancing, and even swimming and playing sports— all while barely able to bend over in a corset— seems impossible and even ridiculous. Why did women do that to themselves? we wonder.

The answer heard most often is vanity. Then, as now, few women were satisfied with their natural figure. Corsets were the only means of obtaining the currently-popular shape, whether it was the rigidly flat torso and raised bosom of the seventeenth century, the flat-stomached, high-busted, shoulders-back look of the eighteenth century, or the hourglass figure of the nineteenth century. In the early- and mid-twentieth century, corsets worked something like a rigid diet and hours in the gym do today, flattening the stomach and hips, and often trimming the waistline, too.

While many women did wear corsets for vanity, there were other reasons for putting on a corset. Bras didn’t become popular until the 1930s, so corsets acted as a bosom support. Also, during many eras, women’s clothes were skin tight; without a corset, bodices would have constantly wrinkled and ridden up.

Corsets also affected a woman’s demeanor. As one Victorian mother wrote to a fashion magazine, at first her daughter rejected the discipline of the corset but now her only objection is that the corsets are uncomfortable and prevent her from romping about... Which was exactly the point. Corsets altered more than the figure; they also affected the behavior and, it was believed, the character of the women who wore them.

Dress reformer Helen Gilbert Ecob, in her 1892 book The Well Dressed Woman, mentions this argument. She wrote: Those who uphold the corset argue its morality because ‘the only period in which its general use appears to have been discontinued are the few years which immediately followed the French Revolution, when the general licentiousness of manners and morals was accompanied by a corresponding indecency in dress.’

And to a great many women, not wearing a corset did seem indecent. Corsets in one form or another had been around since biblical times, and were adopted by nearly all women by the sixteenth century. Ecob claimed that by 1892 American women bought 60,000,000 corsets each year. After generations of dedicated corset wearing, many women were uncomfortable going without—as if they were walking around naked.

Corsets always had their detractors. In the early days of corset wearing, many people condemned them as the artifice they were. Pastors and priests considered them a rejection of the naturally beautiful figure God gave woman, in addition to a device meant to snare men by calling attention to female sexuality.

Havelock Ellis, an early sexologist (who was himself sexually dysfunctional), wrote in 1923 that one of the main attractions of the corset was that it caused women to breathe in a shallow manner. This, in turn drew greater attention to the breasts, because they moved up and down in a more

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