Talk at Historic Huguenot Street recounts painful trends in women’s undergarment

Historian Susan Stessin Cohn with a mid to late 19th century corset with bust enhancers made of horse hair. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Women have been mutilating their bodies through fashion in a myriad of ways throughout history, and no less so than with the corset: a figure-tightening straitjacket of sorts that can be dated back to 2,000 BCE. With more than 2,000 items of clothing in Historic Huguenot Street (HHS)’s collection, HHS educational director Susan Stessin-Cohn decided to present a talk focused on corset trends that wove their way through the fashion world and onto woman’s bodies over several centuries.

The talk, called “The Corset Controversy,” took place upstairs in the master bedroom of the Broadhead house on Huguenot Street this past Thursday evening, in the middle of a heat wave. But the temperature actually helped to demonstrate how hot these 16th-, 17th-, 18th-, even 19th-century women must have been with so many layers and steel hoops and whalebone corsets both concealing and showing off certain parts of their figures.


“I love to play with clothes,” joked Stessin-Cohn, as those in attendance glanced at the array of corsets, dresses, hoops, pantaloons and other garments arranged throughout the room. After receiving a two-year grant, Stessin-Cohn and curatorial assistant Ashley Hurlburt were able to inventory the majority of HHS’s clothing collection, in the course of which they discovered “so many incredible treasures!” said Stessin-Cohn.

She began the talk by explaining that corsets had a long history, dating back to ancient Greece, where women “were wearing corsets in Crete!” Between 1550 and 1660, according to Stessin-Cohn, corsets became designed to flatten the waist, stomach and breasts. “There was nowhere for the breasts to go, except to pop out of the top of the dress,” she said. What was often referred to as a woman having a “fit of vapors” was actually the result of too much pressure being applied to the solar plexus and stomach, causing women to faint — whence the popular furniture piece, the “fainting couch.”

This style emphasized the then-popular panniers or side hoops that extended the width of the skirts at the sides while leaving the front and back relatively flat. The panniers provided a panel where woven patterns, elaborate decorations and rich embroidery could be displayed. These corsets were typically reinforced with wooden busks made out of bone, ivory or wood. “There were little inserts sewn into the corsets for these busks, and if a woman fancied a gentleman, she might give him one of her busks,” explained Stessin-Cohn. “Men might carve a busk for a woman they fancied.”

While Stessin-Cohn said that the dresses of the period, with the large bustles of embroidered materials billowing out on either side, “are beautiful, they’re not easy to move around in. I have one that I wore to a costume party, and found it very tricky to move around small corridors or get into my car!”

Something happened in the late 1790s that many believe to be a direct influence of the French Revolution. “Corsets went out of fashion, and instead, women were wearing Empire-style dresses with very sheer material. In Paris, men were known to hose women down, because once wet, every part of her body could be seen. These are the period dresses one might see in the period film Pride and Prejudice.”

Stessin-Cohn said that the Empire-waist dresses lasted approximately two decades, but that “much was written about how risqué they were, and those who were opposed to the sheer style said that they caused men to have a ‘fit of apoplexy’ — which meant a stroke — after seeing women so exposed.”