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Historical Underwear: Corsets & Crinolines

Corsets and crinolines were commonly worn as undergarments during multiple time periods and have been around for hundreds of years. The word "corset" came from an Old French word meaning "bodice," but Italy was the first country to use corsets as undergarments. The word "crinoline" used to refer to an article of underwear originated as the Italian "crinolino," or "hair cloth." Crinoline is a stiff fabric made from horsehair and linen.

Origins of Corsets

The earliest image of a corset was made around 2000 B.C. in Crete. They were used by Cretan women as specialized undergarments intended to improve posture. Eventually, Cretan women began to use them as outer garments. It wasn't until the 1500s that Catherine de Medici introduced the corset as everyday underwear for women.

Over time, the corset became an instrument to force a woman's body into whatever shape was trendy at the time. They were made of layers of fabric stiffened with glue and worn tightly laced. Some were structured with steel, iron, or whalebone.

Renaissance Corsets

Well into the 17th century, the bodices of dresses were so stiff that a corset would have proved unnecessary. Toward the end of the 17th century, corsets were more commonly used as standalone undergarments rather than adding shape to a dress bodice. During this period, the corset was more conically shaped and had shoulder straps ending in flaps at the waist. It was used to flatten the breasts, producing the round tops of flesh peeking out of the bodice. A flat piece of whalebone, or busk, was sewn into the casing to maintain a stiff position. A stomacher was worn to cover the front of the corset.

Georgian and Regency Corsets

Early in the Georgian Era, a small waist was coveted, and corsets were still used as undergarments. Tightened to reduce waist size, they restricted breathing. Now, rather than flattening the breasts, they were designed to raise and shape them.

By late in this era, the chemise was the fashion of the day, and due to the high waist of this style, corsets fell out of fashion for a time. However, in the 1820s, traditional corsets become popular again. Lacing eyelets with hammered-in grommets were invented in 1828 and are still used to this day; up until this time, eyelets had been stitched. In 1829, planchets, an early version of the hook-and-eye closures commonly used today, were introduced. With the advent of the planchet, lacing and unlacing the corset became a thing of the past. At this point, corsets were primarily worn by the well-endowed and portly.

Victorian Corsets

By the middle of the 19th century, corsets were once again considered mandatory for social propriety. The hourglass shape was fashionable again. Beautiful and elegant fabrics were again being used with an emphasis on elegant lines.

Until 1870, the crinoline hid everything from the waist down, so most corsets of the time stopped at the waist. Around 1880, the fashionable silhouette hugged the hips, so corsets became longer. They cinched the belly but didn't flatten it. During the 1890s, tight lacing again became trendy with the fashionable "wasp waist" that we associate with Victorian ladies.


"Crinoline" is a term that didn't come into fashion until the 1800s. The predecessors of the crinoline were farthingales and panniers. The purpose of all of them was to enable skirts to spread wider, fuller, and more evenly.

During the 16th century, farthingales were undergarments that brought shape and structure to dresses. Made with rings of stiffened fabric, the style of the farthingale varied according to the country. Spanish farthingales were cone-shaped and started at the waist. French farthingales were wider at the top, creating a table-like effect. The guardainfante was a farthingale that started below the bust. Popular in the early 17th century, it generated political debate due its ability to hide illicit pregnancies. It was considered scandalous, and in 1639, it was banned by Phillip IV of Spain.


Panniers, made of metal, cane, or whalebone, were designed to add width to the hips, primarily jutting from side to side while hanging relatively flat in the front and back. Formal occasions called for wide panniers, expanding up to seven feet wide by the middle of the 18th century. Ladies wore smaller panniers for everyday.


The first steel-hooped cage crinoline was patented in April 1856 by R.C. Milliet in Paris. They proved massively popular, and at the height of this fashion trend, they were mass-produced at the rate of tens of thousands per year. The circumference at this time could flare out as much as six yards. By the late 1860s, they were beginning to reduce in size, and by the 1870s, they had been replaced by crinolettes and bustles.


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