When someone mentions a corset, many of us instantly picture an image of a woman unable to breathe or move, all for the sake of looking elegant.
Even though corsets were associated with nobility, the question is whether peasants wore corsets and why?
Let’s find out.
Table of Contents
Did Peasants Wear Corsets?
Corsets originated in the 16th century but weren’t popular until a few centuries later.
Peasant women in the 19th century used to wear corsets to show that they were respectable. They wore them when performing hard labor jobs, but also to social conventions or church.
Working-class peasant women made their own corsets from cheap materials in the late 1800s. They were able to do that in part because of the invention of the sewing machine.
Corsets were a part of the everyday outfit of peasant women, and they also wore them as a substitution for a bra, as there were no bras in the 1800s. In fact, the first modern bra was invented in 1889, and it appeared in a corset catalogue as an undergarment made from two pieces.
History of the Corset
Origin of the name
The name “corset” originated from the french word cors, which means “body”, and it’s also derived from the old Latin word for the body – corpus1.
The earliest depiction of the corset
The earliest depiction of corsets was found in the Minoan civilization2, around 1600 BC. Sculptures of the time showed clothes similar to what we know today as corsets.
The corset in the late medieval times
The shape and appearance of the corset as we know it today began to emerge in late medieval times, in the 15th century.
During this period, the corset was worn by women of high stature who wanted to flatten their small waists (considered visually appealing). By wearing a corset, they could emphasize their chest and gain a more prominent and proud look to their physique.
In these late medieval times, women wore corsets as both under and outer garments. It was held tight with laces in the front or back. Front-lace corsets were covered by stomachers which covered the laces and made the corset look like one piece.
The corset in the 16th-19th century
You may know of Queen Elizabeth I3 and how she has been depicted in portraits wearing an outer garments corset. She is an example that corsets were exclusively worn by royalty.
Corsets at this time were also known as “stays”, worn by prominent men like Henry III4, King of France.
By the 18th century, the corset was adopted by the bourgeois (middle class) and the peasants (lower class).
Peasant women of this time made their own corsets from cheap materials and were later able to mass-produce them because of the invention of the sewing machine5 in the early 19th century. Corsets were also shaped using steam molding, making it easier and faster to produce them on a larger scale.
Since fashion evolved during the late 19th century, corsets were made longer and often extended to cover the hips.
The corset in the 20th century
The beginning of the 20th century marked a decline in the corsets’ popularity.
With the evolution of fashion, women of all classes started wearing bras, which were evidently more convenient.
This didn’t mean that people completely forgot about corsets. They were still popular for formal ceremonies, especially as outerwear in the mid-20th century.
Why Did Women Wear Corsets?
Women used to wear corsets for more than 400 years because they were a symbol of status, beauty and reputability. They emphasized the beauty of a woman’s body, as women with a slim waist were thought to be younger, more feminine and attracted to men.
The idea also was that corsets would restrict a noblewoman’s physical movements, meaning she could afford to employ others as servants.
This was true for the late middle ages, but by the late 18th century, working-class women wore corsets as their everyday wear. The fact peasant women were also wearing them meant that the corsets didn’t restrict them from working.
Most importantly, peasant women wore corsets in the 18th century to show themselves as respectable and get closer to higher nobility in social status.
How Are Corsets Perceived Today?
Today, corsets are perceived as relics from a bygone age.
The modern way of life, which started at the end of the two world wars, contributed to a rapid fashion evolution. New technology and understanding of the human body made plastic surgeries, healthy diets, and regular exercise a way of modern living.
Because of many evolving factors, the corset remains a small part of traditional festivity clothing. But it no longer signifies respectability and nobility, as it did centuries ago.
Variations of corsets are used today in fashion. Many designers who want to emphasize a female body’s beauty use custom-made corsets with different design patterns and shapes as outerwear.
Undoubtedly, the corset remains popular today, not as part of our everyday wear, but as an addition to fashion and traditional festivities.
Did peasants wear corsets because of fashion, status, or maybe because they thought of them as comfortable?
As people of today, we will never fully understand the complex nature of the fashion beliefs that existed centuries ago.
For us, corsets mainly represent a time of history when women lacked the freedom of speech. When they had to endure excruciating physical pain to look good for the dominant males.
It simply reminds us of a time when women were unequal to men in every way.
Header image courtesy: Julien Dupré, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons