Underpinning the Twenties: Corsets and Corselets

“To be smart this season one must be more than slim. The figure must defy nature and be as flat as the proverbial flounder, as straight as a lead pencil, and boneless and spineless as a string-bean. One must be straight like a boy and narrow like a lady in a Japanese print.” – Delineator magazine, February 1924.

Two corselets from 1925. Left, Butterick pattern 5691; right, ad for Bien Jolie corsette # 6099. Delineator Magazine.

Two corselets from 1925. Left, Butterick corselette pattern 5691; right, ad for Bien Jolie corsette # 6099. Delineator magazine.

Corselets, Corselettes, Corsolettes, & Corsettes, 1924 to 1929

Delineator writer Evelyn Dodge explained the difference between a corset and a corselet in her “The New in New York” column dated July 1925:

“Not all women need corsets. Women with young, slender figures find that the corselet, which is a combination brassière and hip-confiner, is sufficient. It is unboned and is therefore as soft and flexible as the natural figure. It keeps the figure straight without making it rigid. It is made of soft light fabrics such as brassière material, broché coutil and fine washable satin and has elastic gores to fit in at the hip. “

“Corsets” were heavily boned and rigid. (“For the figure that is heavier… the corset becomes heavier with heavier material, more bones… and with lacings.” — Dodge) “Corselets” (or corselettes, corsolettes, corsettes, etc. — you could find many spelling variations even in the Delineator‘s articles and advertisements) were unboned, or very lightly boned, and flexible.

Bien Jolie Corsette ad, Delineator, March 1924.

Bien Jolie Corsette ad, Delineator, March 1924.

The woman in this 1924 Bien Jolie Corsette is doing something you couldn’t possibly do in a heavily boned corset: she is bending at the waist. (If you do bend too far in a metal-boned corset, the bones develop a permanent crimp, a dent or a bulge.) The ad says, “The freedom of the uncorseted figure and the long, slim lines demanded by the modes of today are both attained by the Bien Jolie Corsette. . . .”

A Delineator article called this boneless garment a “brassiere corset” early in 1924:

A Brassiere Corset for slender women, Feb. 1924. Delineator.

A Brassiere Corset for slight figures, Feb. 1924. Delineator.

Butterick Corselette Pattern No. 5691, 1924-1925

Butterick corselette pattern # 5961, Delineator, Dec. 1924.

Butterick corselette pattern # 5961, Delineator, Dec. 1924. The corselet is shown worn over bloomers.

In her July 1925 article, Evelyn Dodge went on to say:

“You can either buy or make your corselet. It is very easily made, and if the figure is large or small at one point or another the corselet can easily be fitted when it is being made.”

You can see that there are no boning channels in the corselette, but coutil is a non-stretch corset fabric vith very little ‘give.’ Elastic in yardage wide enough for mass-produced girdles was not available before 1930, according to Ewing (Fashion in Underwear, pp. 102-107), so some corselets of the 1920s show wide bands of overlapped elastic. You can see this in the illustration on the right, below.

Butterick pattern 5961 was featured again in January and March issues of Delineator. 1925.

Butterick pattern 5961 was featured again in January and March issues of Delineator, 1925.

1924 p 36 corselette 5691 descriptionThe pattern description doesn’t say whether this corselette opens with hooks and eyes under the left arm . . .

Does it open along a side seam?

Does it open along a side seam?

. . . or along the side front seam, like this commercially made corselet.

Bien Jolie Step-in Corsette ad, Delineator, April 1925.

Bien Jolie Step-in Corsette ad, Delineator, April 1925.

Dodge continues, “These corselets have been enormously successful for several reasons — their excellent lines, their inexpensiveness, and the fact that they can be washed as easily and as often as any other piece of lingerie. They are supple enough for sports and dancing and their unbroken lines are perfect under the light fabrics of evening gowns.”

Commercially Manufactured Corselets, 1924 to 1929

Although the spellings differed, the popularity of the corselet is apparent by the number that were advertised.

The Treo company, a line available through Sears, Roebuck’s catalog, as well as in stores, called this model a “Brassiere Girdle” combination garment:

Treo "Brassiere Girdle combination garment" ad from Delineator, May 1925.

Treo “Brassiere Girdle combination garment” ad from Delineator, May 1925.

The DeBevoise company suggested that this Step-in Corsette belonged in a bride’s trousseau:

DeBevoise Ad, June 1925. Delineator.

DeBevoise Ad, June 1925. Delineator.

This Warner’s corselette for large figures is “boned in the modern manner,” although the “silk jersey top” can’t have had much impact on a large bust.

Warner's Corselette Ad, April 1925. Delineator.

Warner’s Corselette Ad, April 1925. Delineator.

This Bien Jolie satin brocade corselette dates from 1924:

Bien Jolie Ad for Corsette # 6076, April 1924. Delineator.

Bien Jolie Ad for Corsette # 6078, April 1924. Delineator.

By 1926, flattened busts were going out of fashion and a more natural silhouette was beginning to replace the “unbroken straight line” of Butterick #5691.

Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, July 1926. Delineator.

Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, July 1926. Delineator. Note the elastic curving in toward the waist and the model’s curved silhouette.

By March, 1929, Delineator showed these “foundation” garments [note the name change; they are no longer ‘corselettes’] in an article about the latest underwear styles:

Foundation garment with darted and separated bust. Delineator, March 1929.

Foundation garment with darted and separated bust. Delineator, March 1929.

By 1931, you could buy this Smart Model “co-ed” foundation with “new bustline, no boning” from a Sears catalog for $1.98.

From Stella Blum's Everyday Fashions of the 1930s. Please do not copy this image.

From Stella Blum’s Everyday Fashions of the 1930s. Please do not copy this image.

This is part 4 of a series about undergarments in the 1920s: to read “Brassieres, Bandeaux and Bust Flatteners” (click here), “Underpinning Twenties Fashion: Girdles and Corsets” (click here), “Garters, Flappers & Rolled Stockings” (click here.)

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16 Comments

Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Accessory Patterns, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets, Corsets & Corselettes, Girdles, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, Vintage Accessories, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes

16 responses to “Underpinning the Twenties: Corsets and Corselets

  1. I know that everything is relative, and these corselets must have heaven compared to a real corset…but boy, do they look uncomfortable!

    • genovefa

      A properly fitted corset is very confortable, I can wear mine for 16 straight hours without problems. Most ladies did not lace their corsets as tight as we think. It is a little bit like today in fact. What you see in magazines (the thinness of the models for example) is not necessarly what happens in real life. Not all women wear a size 2. Just like not all women tightened their corsets more than 2-4 inches smaller than their natural waist. A 3 inch waist reduction is very confortable.

      Have a great day 🙂

      • Thanks for the reality check on sizes! Those 1920s corselets were actually intended to make women’s waists look bigger! The discomfort for busty women must have been from flattening the breasts (downward) without supporting them, creating a sweat-trapping crease underneath, and breaking down the supportive tissue. Luckily, it was a short-lived fashion.

  2. “flat as the proverbial flounder”….hahaha! I find it all very interesting. How in the world did woman in the 20s and earlier go to the ladies room? That’s what I want to know :o)

    • Many 1920s combinations worn under corsets had a snap or button crotch, so women could use the restroom without taking off the corset. I think many period advertisements show corsets worn over bloomers for purposes of modesty, as well as a smooth look. In the 1950s, ads showed merry-widow corsets worn on top of full crinoline petticoats — although you couldn’t possibly hook your garters to your stockings that way! Of course, crotchless bloomers were worn by Queen Victoria and by other women well into the early 20th century. (One reason why the can-can was pretty scandalous!) When one-piece jumpsuits were popular in the 60s, I bought a couple — but you had to undress for a “pit stop.” Very inconvenient.

  3. It was very disillusioning when I first learned about the 1920s corset, having believed all the hype about Chanel and Poiret killing the corset. That was only for the very slender, so it seems!

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  6. Dinah

    Hello…yes agree re the can-can – there was a very good reason why the dancers danced with one leg raised nearly vertical!

    Corsets – i don’t think we understand the social implications of corsets in the flapper period. Before this period a corset considered essential not only for figure control – but also for a social message. Girls were brought up to wear corsets from an early age – so their movement, posture, walking etc were different from boys. It was self evident that young figures needed to be controlled with coutil and steel to stop their delicate interrnal organs falling out – this is not a joke! Therefore the flappers wearing either light corsets (what – no boning!) or even worse no corset was considered scandalous.

    Another problem was that in the 1920s there was a break from the 19 century view that even adult children must do as their parents dictated. The fact that adult young girls were ignoring their mother’s advice about proper corsetry was in itself terrible. Do the sums – a 21 year old girl in 1925 would have been born in 1904, to say a mother aged 25; The mother would have been born in 1879. When the mother was a teenager in the 1890s the wasp waist was in full swing. She probably expected the same rigid and tight corset for her daughter?

    To put it into perspective think of bras today. Many women wear a bra because it is socially necessary – to be bra less sends a message? Of course we wear more uncomfortable bras for special occasions – and are glad to take it off when we get home?
    D

  7. Dinah

    Re corsetry for girls
    I was surprised and a bit shocked to find an advert in a Sears catalog for girls’ corsets in 1923 – just when the flapper period was getting under way. You can find it here in google books
    https://books.google.fr/books?id=6aS8AQAAQBAJ&pg=PA46&dq=corsets+for+girls+sears&hl=fr&sa=X&ei=0bSnVNI3yY9ozY6A4AU&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=corsets%20for%20girls%20sears&f=true

    It’s not completely free access – it disappears if you look at it more than a few times.

    I’ve asked my amazingly technical grand-daughter to extract the page – but google try and stop you. How can I post the pics here?

    The adverts look like a target audience of girls aged14 year old and upwards. Although it was probably aimed at the mothers who paid. I find it worrying that they words like “surgical elastic” (stronger than the ordinary type!), and to “guide the figure of the young miss and to prevent mis-shaping”. This is an echo of the 19 century view that corsets were medically necessary for weak women who could not stand up straight without steel bones and coutil.

    Do other readers here find this advert as shocking (for 1923) as I do?

    Dinah.

    • The link said too many pages had been viewed, but a search for “sears corset for girls 1923” brought up a whole page of “Fine Corsets for Growing Girls.” (Caution: McAfee says do not click on the Sears Catalogs online links! Look for JoAnne Olian’s Children’s Fashions 1900-1950.) Yes, at such a late date, this is pretty shocking. Thanks for sharing it.

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