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Beyond the Hourglass

Different Era -- Same Health Concerns

The Corset

Women’s waists have been a societal preoccupation for centuries, manipulated to fit shifting silhouettes throughout centuries of changing fashion. More often than not, a small waist has been the mode.


The corset, the most infamous of body shapers, has undergone many alterations and developments throughout its centuries-old history as both fashion styles and the ideal silhouettes have changed. These structural undergarments often incorporated stiffeners made from whale bone and then eventually steel to reinforce the rigid shape. The corsets and stays of the eighteenth century created an inverted cone-shape that flattened any feminine curves and elongated the torso. By the nineteenth century, a rekindled appreciation for the naturally curvaceous feminine physique returned, and corsets that accentuated the waist and bosom were developed in a more hourglass-style shape. Women’s clothing increasingly hugged the torso with the corset squeezing in more and more of the body to create an “ideal” female shape from shoulder to thigh.

From eighteenth century stays and nineteenth century corsets to the modern girdles of the twentieth century, the obsession over the waist has had much influence over other areas of the body such as the size and shape of both the hips and bosom.

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The Crinoline

Along with the nipped-in waistline of the mid-nineteenth century, the huge bell hoop skirt gained popularity. As early as the 1840s, layers of petticoats made out of cotton, linen, cambric, and flannel for winter, would be worn at once to provide a bell-shaped structure for the skirt and were stiffened with horsehair at the hem. 

The crinoline undergarment developed into a domed cage made from steel that allowed for less layered petticoats and an expansive skirt that hung from the waist. In spite of the constricted waistline, women felt a greater send of freedom while wearing their crinolines which allowed them a wider gait and the wide skirt offered them personal space from too-close, unwanted attentions.


With the invention of the cage crinoline, petticoats became less structural and women began to wear only one under the crinoline for warmth and modesty as the cage had a habit of flying up when a wearer sat down too rapidly. The hoop skirt was impractical, cumbersome, and even dangerous. Instances of death and injury were exaggerated in cartoons that criticized crinoline fashion. These cartoons, like the ones displayed, acted as warnings against standing to close to open flames, getting on and off streetcars, and passing through doorways which could be a rather tricky affair.


The Bustline

Although the quantity of underclothing worn by women decreased between 1909 and 1914, many women continued to wear corsets of some design. The early twentieth century versions were a combination of both a corset and a brassiere that provided both torso shaping and chest manipulation. The fashionable bustline has alternated between non-existent and exaggeratedly full depending largely on the clothing styles that were in vogue. The preferred shape of the bosom, as well as its location on the chest, has also wavered dramatically from the conical “Bullet Bras” bras of the 1940s and 1950s (briefly made popular again by Madonna in 1990 during her Blonde Ambition tour) to the conspicuous absence of bras fueled in part by women’s liberation in the 1970s

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