In ancient times, a draped form covered the body and outlined one’s figure. This was the case in Egypt where underwear did not exist and the body was naked under the tunic. Slaves, dancers and musicians were entirely naked, which marked the difference in status between themselves and their masters who wore translucent tunics. Even though an open tradition existed in classical and Hellenistic Greece concerning clothing and draping, the female form was disguised with straps that flattened the bust and hips.
Hellenistic women appeared completely draped and their femininity disappeared under the panels of their robes. Roman civilisation also fought against curves. In an exclusively male world where women had no role, they were forbidden from showing any specific body characteristics. Certain doctors even proposed treatment to prevent the bust developing too much: Dioscoride7 advised applying powdered Naxos stone to the breasts; Pline8 suggested scissor grinder mud, and Ovid9 recommended a poultice of white bread soaked in milk. There is no evidence that these magic potions were effective, but their existence does show a certain disdain for curves and soft shapes as well as a desire to disguise the female form.
The strict confinement obtained with interior boning which compresses and rules the body is in opposition to these supple clothes of olden times is. European 16th century clothing is marked by a certain uprightness influenced by Spain. The farthing-ale was a garment which was designed to make skirts more voluminous. It was adopted in England in 1550 and it became all the rage in 1590. In Spain, it did not disappear until 1625. The farthing-ale gave volume to the hips, accentuated the belly and demarcated the curve of the body. Underneath, women wore bloomers which were sometimes “deceptive” (padded) that shaped thighs and buttocks and increased the volume of skirts. The bust was shaped like a funnel, held rigidly by the Basque which compressed the waist and opened up towards the shoulders.
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In the 17th century, the female bust regained its round shape and was accentuated by stays up to the top of the torso tightly laced to the waist. Around 1670, the bust lengthened as the stays reached further up the front and the back of the waist. In the 18th century stays were worn very early by young girls and they reached even higher up the back. At the end of the 18th century certain women cheated by reverting to false breasts hidden in their stays.
The 18th century saw a definitive end to the farthingale when the fashion for flowing dresses arrived. Panniers shaped the skirts, following rapidly evolving trends. The panniers of 1718 were quite rounded, and became oval around 1725, remaining this way until 1730. Later, they took on a multitude of forms including the elbow pannier which stretched out a long way to the sides. After 1740, each side of the skirt had a pair of small panniers which gave it a flattened shape from the front and back but a very wide aspect from the front.
At the end of the 18th century, panniers were replaced by the bustle worn behind and which improved or enhanced existing curves. From 1770 onwards, there was some contemporary criticism of stays, including from Jean-Jacques Rousseau who advocated a return to simplicity and nature. Nothing could be done: a small waist, large skirt and generous bust remained the flavour of the day. Nevertheless, fashion evolved towards a return of the slim figure, and the pannier gave way to the bustle which, in turn, gradually disappeared.
The result of this revolution was a new slender fashion. It started in France, introduced by the “Merveilleuses” (“The Marvels”) like Mme Récamier and Mme Tallien. This long, straight silhouette conquered England following the emigration of Rose Bertin after the French Revolution. With the return of the Greek tunic, the first fashion revival in history was recorded. The silhouette was long and straight with a high bust. But this did not mean that underwear disappeared for those who were not built like fashion plates.
In 1800 the Corsets UK was still necessary to disguise too ample curves: the best-known Corsets UK makers were Lacroix and Furet. During the first Empire, the fashion for widely spaced breasts was launched by Louis Hippolyte Leroy and made corset-wearing indispensable. The “Ninon” was padded to give opulence to the body and reached to the waist. It marked a return to the voluptuous and fertile womanhood desired by Empire politics. The “divorce Corsets UK”, which separated the breasts, appeared in 1816 and followed the trend for wide-apart breasts. The waist returned to its natural place. A romantic woman would have her waist defined by a laced Corsets UK; she would wear a flared skirt in a wide bell shape which was supported by a crinoline, and she would have boned, bouffant sleeves. Drop shoulders accentuated by low inserted armholes were popular.
The crinoline was really a large bell shape, rounded at the bottom and slightly curved at the back. After 1860 the back became much longer and gave the impression of a large corolla. But after 1868, as a reaction to these excesses, the crinoline was reduced to a simple cone which only appeared behind the costume. Around 1865-1870, silhouettes became less voluminous: the “Parisian bustle” accentuated the curve of the body and allowed the folds of the skirt to be trained behind. The front was very flat due to high Corsets UK restraining the bust. These cramped the waist and gave the figure an hourglass shape.