Corset Culture

From my vantage point here in Salem, it appears that we’re in the midst of a corset comeback:  not only do we have our own corsetmaker who sells her creations online, but also a new bricks-and-mortar corset shop in Derby Square, right across from Old Town Hall.  A Beautiful Corset (10 Derby Street, Salem) offers made-to-order corsets by the British corset manufacturer Vollers, for which it is one of the few distributors in the United States. The owner explained to me that she has operated an online business for several years, but opening a real shop was a necessity, because with corsets, it’s all about the fit (and the fitting!)  Her expansive store is filled with “models” named after years, as Vollers still cuts their corsets from patterns made in 1899, and 1903, and so on, as well as a gift shop-within-a-shop called J’adore. 

The shop window at A Beautiful Corset/J’Adore, fabric choices for the corsets, a finished product in Chinese silk–with Salem’s Old Town Hall as backdrop.

My interest in corsets doesn’t come from a love of constraint, but rather of craftsmanship, and I always like to see a new shop open up in Salem, particularly one that doesn’t offer the same old (kitschy, witchy) things.  Corsets are both very old and very new, given that they morphed into girdles several generations ago, coincidentally with the invention of all sorts of synthetic and stretchable textiles, and essentially disappeared.  The reappearance of the hand-made corset is something to celebrate, just like letterpress printing.

The commercial revival of corsetry seems to be coincidental with a cultural one.  Several exhibitions featuring the corset have been mounted in the last few years, including the Victoria & Albert Museum’s touring exhibition Undressed:  350 Years of Underwear in Fashion and the Worcester Art Museum’s Bound by Fashionthe Corset in European Art.  It seems absolutely fitting that Worcester should have a big corset exhibition, as that city was the absolute center of corset manufacturing here in Massachusetts (with claims of being the largest corset manufacturer in the world) in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the Royal Worcester Corset Company (1861-1950) employed over 2000 workers (mostly women) at its state-of-the-art factory.

Pink silk corset, circa 1885-95, from the Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Portrait of a Woman, 1556, by an anonymous painter of the Flemish school, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, and interior view of the Royal Worcester Corset Factory main stitching room, from Digital Treasures:  a Central and Western Massachusetts Library Project.

Worcester might have had claims to worldwide corset domination, but in terms of advertising claims, the company that seems to have led the industry in innovations was Warner Brothers, the founding corporation of the present-day Warnaco.  The company was founded by a pair of physician brothers, Lucien and Ira Van Der Warner, who founded their “reformed” corset company in Bridgeport , Connecticut in 1874 after several years of lecturing on the considerable dangers of whalebone- and steel-boned corsets.  Their new “healthy” corset was boned with more flexible coraline, an organic product made from the agave americana plant, and they must have spent a fortune on colorful chromolithographic advertising to showcase its natural benefits.  Two decades later, they had both retired as millionaires.

Warner Brothers Coraline Corset advertisement and trade cards, from Duke University Digital Collections and the Library of Congress.

The history of the corset is really essentially the history of women–women’s fashions, women’s health, women’s work–so obviously a short blog post can only scratch the surface.  Another major reason why corsets have been having a “moment” in the past few years is an amazing book:  Valerie Steel’s The Corset:  A Cultural History (2001), a work of intensive scholarship and immediate accessibility.  If you want the whole story of the corset, pick it up.

A 15-year-old corset worker in 1917:  Library of Congress.


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