Take a second to Google “Steampunk.” What’s the most common feature you find among the image results? That’s right, corsets. Corsets everywhere. There are a few fashion staples that seem to show up over and over among Steampunk cosplayers and aficionados, including goggles, top hats, and bustles. Where exactly do these articles come from, and why are they so popular in the genre? Well, it should come to no surprise to anyone that most of the inspiration for Steampunk fashion comes from Victorian-era clothing. It’s not exactly historically accurate; a lot of creative liberties and stylistic choices are taken, but as a writer, how much of it should affect your stories? Fortunately, that’s entirely up to you. You can create a Steampunk world with your own spin on the fashion.

If you plan on making corsets a primary player in women’s (and sometimes men’s) fashion in your story, here are some facts you may not have known about this popular bodyshaper:

  • The earliest version of a corset is thought to have been made around 2000 BC, but they first became popular in sixteenth-century Europe.
  • Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) is credited with introducing corset fashion to France.
  • During the Victorian era there was the belief that women’s bodies were fragile, and needed assistance to keep her torso held up. As a result, Victorian-era corsets were thought of as a medical necessity.
  • Severely tightened corsets were known to cause asphyxiation, sunstroke, and infertility. Pregnant women were also expected to wear them, resulting in babies with deformities and cardiorespiratory issues.
  • Following the French Revolution, women temporarily gave up the wearing of corsets for looser clothing, possibly rebelling against symbols of aristocracy as well as hoping to represent new political ideals.
  • Corsets were not always used to accentuate a woman’s form. Prior to the 1800’s they were used to hide rather than shape, and it was during the post-French Revolution resurgence that the corset was used to create the idealized “hourglass figure.”

Types of Corsets:

Be sure not to get caught mislabeling your character’s clothing! There are several types of pieces that have been used to accentuate or bind the female form throughout history. You may find that you’ve been calling pieces that aren’t corsets, corsets.

Corseted tops – strictly speaking, these are not “real” corsets. Often worn in today’s modern world, these are the kinds of corset-looking tops that line the racks of Hot Topic and occasional Halloween costumes. They usually contain only enough plastic boning to last one to two wears. They stay on with bra-style hooks, and the lacing used is usually for decorative purposes and aren’t intended to be functional.

Bustier – these can be considered another modern contraption, and in a lot of ways the bustier is the technological successor to the historical corset. Today, they’re used for long term wear, and are made of spandex. Like the corseted top, the boning is made of plastic, but it’s a lot stronger. Bustiers are also exclusively worn as underwear, often to accentuate and contain the bust under formal wear such as a wedding dress.

Bodices – if the bustier is considered the corset’s successor, then it’s safe to say that the bodice is it’s predecessor. Before the rise of the corset, bodices were worn by women, mostly in medieval and Renaissance Europe. These are the highly decorated corset-looking things you find bar wenches wearing at your local Renaissance Festival. They come in different styles and worn as outerwear, often over a peasant blouse. Sometimes they having boning, sometimes they don’t. You can usually tell a bodice from a corset by the shoulder straps that corsets lack.

Overbust corsets – the meaning is in the name. This is a corset that goes over the chest, providing support of the breasts and often creating the busty cleavage look that modern wearers go for when trying them on.

Underbust corsets – Unlike the overbust, the underbust corset sits directly under the breasts. This style is used to compress the waist, rather than the chest.

Waist cinchers – a smaller version of the underbust that covers a smaller area. They have a less boning and only provide compression, rather than support.

Keep in mind, each of these styles also have their historical and cultural variations, but for the purposes of your Steampunk writing, you should now have a better idea of what your aristocratic noble lady might be wearing on her way to the opera. Visit these links for more information on the history of corsets and their uses:

History of Corsets (wikpedia)
History of the Elizabethan Corset
Reshaping the Body: Too Close for Comfort 
Corsets in Context: A History
History of the Victorian Corset
Corsets 101: Corset Types