When you think of corsets, the first thing that comes to mind may be images of Victorian women with unnaturally tiny waists. In fact, women have been wearing corsets since the early 1500s and continue to wear them today.
“A corset is as much about an attitude as it is about fashion,” explains fashion expert Nancy LeWinter. “In an interesting way, what used to mean confinement in the past now means feminine empowerment since we choose to wear corsets rather than having it as a fashion mandate.”
Form and function of corsets
While corsets were originally cone shaped and made of rigid whale bone or even wood, today’s corsets are designed to be flexible for a more natural contour.
“Corsets are not really used as alternatives to shapewear, they are worn to feel sexier while you create shape and control,” adds LeWinter. “When wearing as an undergarment, women also sometimes choose to wear a corset when they are looking for a next-level solution, since corsets can take inches off your waist in a way that no [shapewear] will be able to, not to mention the benefit of adding a few cup sizes.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, corsets may actually have therapeutic qualities. A condition called diastasis recti occurs in some women during pregnancy and results in the separation of the abdominal muscles into two halves. Wearing a corset can help, says Leah Keller, a New York-based pre- and postnatal fitness expert.
“A corset can physically draw together the two halves of the rectus abdominis, your six-pack muscles,” she explains. “This support minimizes stress on the connective tissue, and, when combined with the proper exercises, can help speed up the restoration of a firm, flat abdominal wall in conjunction with core exercises.”
Modern corsets wonderfully wearable
To some women, the mere mention of the word “corset” can invoke feelings of discomfort. Fortunately, there is no need to worry about fainting from an overly constricting corset nowadays. Consumers can find corsets in a multitude of styles and sizes, but the most important factor when corset shopping is fit.
“Women are often tempted to purchase a corset that is a size too tight, thinking it will give them extra lift and extra cinching,” says LeWinter. “That is a recipe for discomfort and will not give you a natural-looking shape.”
Instead, she recommends choosing a corset with lacing in the back to allow more flexibility for adjustments. Alternatively, those with hook-and-eye closures are less customizable but easier to put on.
Shopping for a corset is the same as shopping for a bra or shapewear. If you are unsure of your size, ask a sales associate to measure you. Women with a larger bust size should consider corsets with cups, or one that sits right below the bust and that can be worn with a bra. For a seamless look, choose a corset that extends slightly beyond the hips.
Boning is the cordlike material that supports the desired shape of the fabric, and “should be flexible so you can sit and move around, yet firm so it provides the necessary support,” says LeWinter. “Essentially, the type of fabric and fit are what distinguishes a high-quality corset.”
Higher quality corsets have six to eight bones, whereas lower quality ones typically have four bones or less.
Corsets for every occasion
So when should you wear a corset? Really, it’s a matter of preference.
Full-length corsets – those that are waist or hip length and have cups – are ideal as a bra/shapewear/undergarment in one.
“The best and most practical time to wear a corset is for a special occasion, such as a wedding,” explains Heather Garcia, a New York-based apparel buyer. “Brides benefit from wearing corsets more than any other underpinning mainly because of the functionality – it’s a bra and shaping piece all in one.”
A “fashion corset” is designed to be seen, such as peeking out from under a shirt or as a top in and of itself. In this case, look for something with less boning and more stretch.
Don’t forget to walk, sit and practice other basic activities before making your purchase. The goal is to feel as comfortable as possible while creating the effect you want.