Throughout most of the Victorian period, a variation of the hourglass shape was seen as the ideal silhouette for women, but by the turn of the century fashionable corsets had shifted dramatically, sitting lower on the body and creating a distinct S shape.
Like we mentioned in our article about the Victorian belly, corset styles in the second half of the 19th century often had a pronounced curve at the front, swelling out at the bust and abdomen, and dipping in at the waist, and this look could be achieved through strategic pattern cutting, shaping, and the use of a curved busk. However, by the 1890s, an angular, elongated silhouette had taken over from the rounded look of the 1870s and 1880s, and straight front corsets began to be advertised alongside the older, more curved styles.
The “S-bend” style, a modern term, was often advertised as a healthy, sensible, natural alternative to the supposedly more restrictive hourglass shape. Some contemporary advertisements even went so far as to claim they were doctor recommended.
1900 illustration depicting the "new figure"
This new pigeon-breasted look emphasized a low, wide mono-bosom, and according to a February 1901 article in The Queen, an “unbroken front from decolletage to the knee.” The straight front tilted the hips backwards and shifted the chest forward. And because the bust was supported but not compressed, women could choose to wear a bust bodice or bust improver for additional control and shaping.
Still, the change didn't happen overnight, and the article goes on to state that “the adoption is by no means universal” and that “[m]any of our fashionable dressmakers still keep to the old style and the curve at the waist line.” Like with any trend, women still choose to wear what they found most comfortable, and both styles were seen in contemporary ads simultaneously for the next couple of years.
For example, while the S-bend might have been the latest fashion innovation, with the April 27, 1899 edition of Vogue featuring advertisements for “The New Straight Front Pansy Model,” an advertisement for the “Queen Moo” in the May 27, 1899 edition of Saturday Night (a more work-a-day publication) shows a much curvier corset, reminiscent of the earlier 1890s.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the “new French style corset,” with various sources claiming to have invented the new style, but the change seems to have happened sometime around 1898–1899. An article in Vogue’s August 25, 1898 edition introduces the “new Louis XV corset, which springs out below the bust, at the very spot where it was once good style to curve into a concave hollow.”
According to the author,
“[b]odices with blouse fronts, so popular for the past two or three years, have educated our eyes to a complete forgetfulness of the existence of those front curves of the figure which were the hall-mark of all fine fitting and dressmaking in former days of tight-fitting bodices.”
The article continues to describe this new style, commenting,
“[i]n order to perfect this new straight line in front, the corset gores seem to take a forward slanting direction, the bust left to its natural place, which is much lower according to former corset fitting. From the hips the belt line descends at least two inches forward, causing the waist to appear quite long in front”
This is just a brief overview of the topic, and there is a wealth of contemporary images and primary resources available if you really want to take a deep dive into the subject.
But if you are looking to make or buy your own late 19th century or early 20th corset, Redthreaded has you covered.
With a higher, mid-bust height, and a longer hip line, our 1880s corset is made with shaped pieces that give a smooth line with a nipped waist, an important foundation for styles from the mid-1870s to the 1890s. This style comes with a straight busk, which can be curved to create a more dramatic hourglass effect.
In contrast, our 1900s Edwardian S-Bend Corset is cut with a lower mid-bust point and is patterned with an extra 2–3 inches in the hip. Appropriate for 1900–1907, this style can be worn with optional hip pads or a bust bodice/bust pad to help create a fashionable Gibson Girl silhouette without tight lacing.
We also have several videos on our YouTube channel examining extant clothing, including this corset dating to 1901: