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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset

» Unknown artist, United States

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, United States
Region: North America
Date: ca. 1899
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Photographic print
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Location: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In cultures around the world, fashion is one of the most important and most common forms of body art.

The way people shape and manipulate their bodies through clothing and accessories is about both aesthetics and identity.

Although there are examples of some types of corsets from the ancient world, the modern corset first came into use during the Renaissance. Corsets are made of fabric stretched over shaped whalebone (baleen) or some other stiff material. Fitted and tightened by laces that run down the back, corsets alter the silhouette by shaping the torso. In giving wearers the form they desire, these garments not only redistribute flesh and fat around the body, but also compress internal organs and can permanently deform the skeleton. In the nineteenth century, corsets became quite controversial. Detractors found them unhealthy for women and saw them as potential signs of immorality or perversion. Nonetheless, they remained both highly fashionable and essentially required for respectable women.

This anonymous photograph from circa 1899 shows a woman wearing a rather extreme corset. It creates what is known as a “wasp waist,” making the waist as small as possible to emphasize the glamorized “hourglass” figure. Cinching the waist emphasizes the hips and breasts, thus creating a hyper-feminine body shape. The woman in the photo holds a hairbrush as if caught in the process of dressing, but it is an obviously posed image. She is bathed in sharp white light and stands with her arms thrown up and back, a position that helps to emphasize the contour of her constricted body. By the beginning of the twentieth century, corsets had begun to go out of fashion, as looser, less structured garments prevailed.

Expert Perspective:
Andrew Bolton, Associate Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Throughout history, clothing, the idea of practical utility isn’t the paramount driving force of fashion. The corset is a great example. The style changed throughout the centuries since the Renaissance onwards. In the eighteenth century, where women had to literally bend from their hips in a way, the bottom of the waist didn’t actually get any movement. And it was reinforced by what you call a busk, which kept you more rigid. And there was no practicality in that. That was really about trying to achieve an ideal form of beauty. The corset and the pannier are very much about trying to evoke an ideal form of beauty that was very much fashionable in the eighteenth century—less about practicality and more about idealism. So the idea of the sort of the corseted body was a fettered body, it was a body that had a particular way of moving the body. And in the eighteenth century, there are actual manuals that were published about how a woman of leisure or an aristocratic woman would actually walk or behave or function in not just undergarments, but the dressed body itself. So the idea that in the eighteenth century manuals existed to actually teach women how to walk, present themselves, sit, very much talks about the idea, or alludes to the idea, of fashion being a more wider part of culture which is about defining aristocratic ideals, and not just about the idea of an ideal beauty, it’s about aristocratic ideals or elite ideals.

Ideals of beauty change throughout history, and in the twentieth century, for example, you have Paul Poiret who abandoned the corset and looked much more towards a classical ideal of beauty, which was an unfettered body, a body that was free from any undergarments, and women, at the time, very much missed or bemoaned the corset because it meant that you had to achieve an ideal form of beauty, or an ideal body, through exercise or dieting. A corset was quite democratic in a way in that fact that you could achieve an ideal form through just donning a corset. When you think about Chanel in the 1920s and the idea that the garçon silhouette, which is all about a flat chest, a very boyish sort of silhouette, which was the ideal of the 1920s, which very much suited the flapper fashions of the period. And again, in the fifties, you see the return of the corset, the very hourglass new look that Dior promoted in ’47 and the fifties.

So the corset is strange, because it has this image of being this sort of anti-democratic sort of structure, which from one point, it is of course. But the other side, women did miss it when they no longer had it, because it meant more of an effort, in terms of their own sort of physical appearance.”

Additional Resources

Glasscock, Jessica. “Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2004).

Glasscock, Jessica. “Twentieth-Century Silhouette and Support.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2004).

Hill, Daniel Delis. As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Stroud Gloucestershire, England: The History Press, 2006.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Waist Not: The Migration of the Waist 1800–1960, exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

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