Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup

13 / The Body

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset
Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, United States
Region: North America
Date ca. 1899
Material Photographic print
Location Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Credit Courtesy of the Library of Congress

expert perspective

Andrew BoltonAssociate Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Additional Resources

Glasscock, Jessica. “Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/19sil/hd_19sil.htm (October 2004).

Glasscock, Jessica. “Twentieth-Century Silhouette and Support.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/20sil/hd_20sil.htm (October 2004).

Hill, Daniel Delis. As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Stroud Gloucestershire, England: The History Press, 2006.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Waist Not: The Migration of the Waist 1800–1960, exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset

» Unknown artist, United States

In cultures around the world, fashion is one of the most important and most common forms of body art.

The way people shape and manipulate their bodies through clothing and accessories is about both aesthetics and identity.

Although there are examples of some types of corsets from the ancient world, the modern corset first came into use during the Renaissance. Corsets are made of fabric stretched over shaped whalebone (baleen) or some other stiff material. Fitted and tightened by laces that run down the back, corsets alter the silhouette by shaping the torso. In giving wearers the form they desire, these garments not only redistribute flesh and fat around the body, but also compress internal organs and can permanently deform the skeleton. In the nineteenth century, corsets became quite controversial. Detractors found them unhealthy for women and saw them as potential signs of immorality or perversion. Nonetheless, they remained both highly fashionable and essentially required for respectable women.

This anonymous photograph from circa 1899 shows a woman wearing a rather extreme corset. It creates what is known as a “wasp waist,” making the waist as small as possible to emphasize the glamorized “hourglass” figure. Cinching the waist emphasizes the hips and breasts, thus creating a hyper-feminine body shape. The woman in the photo holds a hairbrush as if caught in the process of dressing, but it is an obviously posed image. She is bathed in sharp white light and stands with her arms thrown up and back, a position that helps to emphasize the contour of her constricted body. By the beginning of the twentieth century, corsets had begun to go out of fashion, as looser, less structured garments prevailed.


next artwork

© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy