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A close-fitting garment, tightened by laces and reinforced with stays to shape the body from the hips to the breasts. Laced outer garments to shape the body existed from antiquity, but laced undergarments date from the end of the sixteenth century. A ‘pair of bodies’ was tied at the sides and stiffened at first by paste on linen or cardboard, and later by a removable busk — a flat, tapered strip of wood, ivory, horn, or whalebone — inserted down the centre front to keep the body straight. Later, the ideal of a smooth, cylindrical torso, seen in Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), was achieved by sewing strips of rigid materials, such horn, ivory, silver, or steel, into the bodies, which became known as stays. Bodies were originally waist-length, but the stays gradually lengthened over the hips, split into tabs and met in a point below the waist. The favorite shaping material of stays was whalebone (baleen), cut into thin strips and sewn in a fan pattern to make the torso appear rounder. Though earlier stays did not shape the breasts, by the mid eighteenth century whalebone strips curved around the bosom. Stays dictated very straight posture and necessitated stylized dance movements. As body carriage was essential to good deportment, both girls and boys were dressed in stays at an early age.
The nineteenth-century corset separated the breasts and extended over the hips by the addition of gussets. Some closed in front with metal clips, some laced in back, and some laced in front. Metal eyelets, invented in 1828, allowed for very tight lacing. By the end of the century corsets produced the sinuous body shape of the Gibson girl, with a protruding bust and derrière, and small waist. Despite reports of 18-inch waists, historians have found no Victorian garment with less than a 20½ inch waist.
Tight-lacing generated criticism almost from its inception. Clerics fulminated against the vanity of the fashion as well its sexual nature. Some women viewed corseting as a form of self discipline (an attitude favored by the Puritans) and the essayist Montaigne recognized how heroically women bore pain to be attractive. Physicians and social critics argued that the corset caused a number of health problems, including spinal deviations, breast cancer, consumption, digestive abnormalities, miscarriages and other obstetrical problems, mental and moral impairment, and even death. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Punch and other humorists satirized the corset.
Tight-lacing has not been limited to women. King Henri III (1551–89) wore stays to accentuate his slim figure. At the end of the eighteenth century, dandies began to wear stays, and the fashion became popular around 1815 with military officers and persisted until the end of the century. Though corsets left the fashion mainstream in the early twentieth century, tight-lacing has been and continues to be part of fetish-dressing for both men and women. Some male cross-dressers wear corsets, and the singer Madonna has appeared on stage in corsets with projectile breast cones.