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Women's Fashion 1910 - 1920 - Corsets

When I first set out to research women's fashions between 1910 and 1920, I had no idea what I was about to discover. I expected to put up some pretty pictures and report on easy concepts such as hemlines and gown shapes, but with my art history background, I should not have been surprised to find that fashion, like most other socially driven forms of artistic expression such as art and film, are heavily influenced by the surrounding cultural environment. Soon, I fell down the rabbit hole and was caught up in reading about the suffrage movement and efforts at labor and dress reform as well as learning about World War I which had a very surprising and pivotal role in the elimination of a major component of women's fashion, the corset.

1900 Coronet CorsetBefore we begin our discussion of ladies' fashions, let's briefly discuss the underpinnings which shaped the body according to society's idea of what a woman's body should look like. Corsets were first invented in the 16th century and their shape changed many times over the years as clothing fashions changed. During the Victorian era, corsets were brutally tightened to create the wasp waist that was thought to be the ideal. In the late 1800s, a movement began that aimed to reform women's clothing to make women's dress more "rational" and comfortable. The Edwardian or "S-bend" style corset had a straight front and was worn from about 1900 to 1910. This new style was an early attempt at a healthier corset because it was designed to reduce squeezing around the waistline. The straight front forced an artificial posture on the body, making the torso lean forward, creating an S-shaped profile. This is rather dramatically illustrated in this ad (dated 1900) for a new style Coronet corset shown to the left.

On the right, this shopping catalog page from 1902-1903 shows the different shape of the straight front corset. The corset still curves on the side, but the rigid front panel reduces overall constriction around the waist reducing the compression on the abdominal area. (If you right click and view the image, it will enlarge slightly so you can see more detail.)
1902-1903 corsets

1913 CorsetAfter 1907, the corset became longer and straighter to better support the higher waisted, columnar style of gown popular during the early 1910s. In this catalog illustration from 1913, you can see just how long and straight the corset had become by then. The corset now starts under the bust and extends over the hips to the mid-thigh area.

If you are interested in viewing historical examples of actual corsets from different time periods, you can visit The Antique Corset Gallery. I was impressed at how beautiful the fabrics and trims are.

In 1917, in response to a shortage of steel, the War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets in order to support the war effort. It is said that this action freed up enough steel to build two battleships. Also, there was a large increase of women in the workforce as the men went off to fight in the war. Corsets, being rigid as they were, did not allow women to move as they needed to while working, so working women wore them less frequently. When the war was over, so was the heyday of the corset. From then on, the newly invented brassiere and girdle became the standard body shaping garments.

There will be additional installments discussing the additional elements of 1910s fashion so be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you don't miss out on the latest segment!

If you are interested in learning more about corsets, check out these books:

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