Last updated on January 31st, 2022 at 04:24 pm
As any historian would attest, the corset was not merely a fashionable garment designed to shape the wearer into the desired silhouette of the day. It was utilitarian foundation-wear that served to support the bustline before bras were invented, distribute the weight of 10+ pounds of petticoats, support the back of the working class, promote good posture (however that was defined at the time), and more.
Naturally, humans strive to invent, innovate, and improve upon earlier designs. As the corset fell out of mainstream fashion in the 20th century, many (and I do mean many) different garments and devices cropped up to functionally replace the corset. Some were improved upon, but as many of the writers in Solaced have come to realize, sometimes it’s reasonable to go old-school with a well-fitted corset that combines the functionality of multiple products here, rather than reinventing the wheel.
Here I’ll go through a dozen or so of the descendants of the corset. Call it an extended family reunion, if you will.
(P.S. you can test your knowledge in my Corset Descendants Quiz here!)
We’re starting with the most obvious, mostly because I want to get it out of the way. Yes, we are all familiar with the story of Mary Phelps Jacob and her 1914 patented handkerchief brassiere.
Bras hoist the bust tissue like a cantilever bridge using tension around both the ribs and the shoulders, while corsets provide a resting place for the breast to sit on, more like a beam bridge (the “beams” being the vertical bones) or perhaps a window flower box. The physics for each is different, but sound.
Where bras can become troublesome is with particularly heavy bosoms; too much tension on the shoulders can squeeze the nerves and blood vessels against the collarbone – this is much more serious than just permanent deep grooves in the shoulders. It can lead to numbness, tingling, pain, and eventually neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.
2. Waist Trainer / Cincher / Faja
Often made out of of latex rubber or neoprene (blended with cotton or polyester), a trainer or cincher is a wide, stretchy belt that provides compression to narrow the waistline – albeit, a more gentle compression than corsets are capable of achieving, and the latex may dry-rot or stretch out over time. It may also cause allergic reactions in some individuals.
It is also designed to hold in body heat and sweat via its unbreathable fabrics (whereas cotton and linen corsets allow for heat exchange and sweat to be wicked away). These cinchers claim that the metabolism will increase with body heat, and increased sweating will detoxify the body. As we now know, it really just temporarily gets rid of edema and dehydrates the wearer but this does not cause fat loss.
The single one-up that this garment has over corsets is that it’s more flexible and “stealthable” under clothing, but modern innovations are challenging this claim with the No Line and the Power Corset.
3. Post-partum belly binder
Gentle post-partum belly binding has been practiced independently for centuries, by different civilizations all over the world. The belly cloth or binder goes by many different names – sarashi in Japan, faja in South America (originally a simple cloth, not to be confused with the rubber faja above), and Bengkung in Malaysia (seen here).
The binding practice is supposed to help keep the body warm (in line with the Indian practice of banantana, where no cold food or drink is allowed, no cool showers, drafty dwellings, etc), assist in contracting the uterus, and pull the abdominal muscles together to minimize diastasis recti. Especially notable is the way the bengkung is wrapped and tied back to front – not pulling from front-to-back as in the case of many front-lacing corsets.
If wrapped low enough over the hip bones, it can also stabilize the pelvis as relaxin leaves the body and your joints become less loosey-goosey.
The operative word here is gentle binding. I would not recommend wearing an actual corset any sooner than 6-8 weeks postpartum (or more!) – whenever your midwife/OB says you are finished with your pelvic rest period, your pelvic floor has fully healed and strengthened, and you’re free to return to normal activities, including vigorous exercise.
4. Post-surgical Compression Binder
There are many different types of post-operative binders, but most of them are some variation of a wide, stretchy, adjustable tensor bandage. Surgeons keep these on hand and gently wrap the patient with one of these bad boys (overtop of the regular gauze and dressings) after some kind of abdominal surgery – whether that’s bariatric surgery, liposuction, tummy tuck, gall bladder removal, endometrial excision, hernia correction, or some other type of surgery.
It is flexible enough to allow limited movement in the patient, but not so much that the patient will accidentally pop their stitches / staples. The compression will also curb edema and prevent the body from swelling too much (excessive inflammation can impede proper healing). This is also helpful after liposuction, where the skin may be slightly loose and the compression can help the skin to contract (to a limit).
After open surgery (where a large incision is made and organs might be moved/pushed out of the way), compression can help the organs return back to their original positions (more or less – peritoneal organs are less fixed than we believe!). In laparoscopic surgery where there’s usually insufflation (the abdomen is pumped full of carbon dioxide to inflate the area and allow the camera to see where you’re navigating), the gas has to eventually escape by whatever means possible – through incisions, burping, passing wind – and compressing the abdomen may help expedite this process.
This type of garment (made by NYOrtho in this case) is cheaply manufactured and designed to be discarded, which is a positive in this case as it will very likely become soiled with blood and other fluids draining from the incision sites. It would be a shame to soil an expensive corset!
5. TLSO (Rigid Orthopedic Back Brace)
There are dozens of different rigid corrective braces out there: Milwaukee brace, Charleston brace, Boston brace, Lyon brace, etc. but the Sforzesco brace (seen here) caught my eye, for reasons you can probably guess.
TLSO stands for Thoracic (the part of the spine where the ribs are attached), Lumbar (the lower back), Sacral (the fused part of the spine attached to the pelvis) Orthoses. A longline underbust covers from the lower thorax to the sacrum; an overbust can cover from even higher on the thorax.
The Sforzesco brace was created in Milan, a fashion-forward city, and was designed to functionally outcompete many other TLSO braces while at the same time being (mostly) transparent rigid plastic; thin and easily stealthable under clothing; and creating a (mostly) symmetric and fashionable silhouette – all features that may appeal to a self-conscious young scoliosis patient, thus encouraging patient compliance to wear the orthosis as much as possible, for the best possible outcome.
There are corset makers who are able to create stabilizing asymmetric textile braces and traction units for scoliosis patients, but be sure to carefully weigh the pros and cons for yourself and discuss with your trusted osteopath/ chiropractor/ orthopedic physician before jumping in.
6. SI-Joint Belt
An SI-joint belt (SI = sacro-iliac) is designed more for symptomatic pain relief rather than claiming to correct an asymmetry, in the case of the TLSO brace above.
That being said, this particular belt by BraceAbility comes with many lofty promises, including being able to help with SI-joint dysfunction and symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD, a condition that affects pregnant women where the joints of the pelvis loosen and slip around painfully), stabilizing hairline vertebral fractures, providing relief for arthritis of the spine and hips, and more. The “lacing gap” in the back also clears the tailbone if the wearer suffers from a cracked or bruised coccyx.
While SI-joint belts and lumbar braces come in many forms (usually padded velcro belts) I was tickled to see this one by BraceAbility with a pulley system that closely resembles the form and function of a back-lacing corset. It’s also not uncommon to find lumbar braces with vertical bones to provide the necessary perpendicular tension to hug the small of the back without collapsing on itself.
7. Kidney Belt
Betcha thought this was yet another lumbar brace – but it actually serves a completely different purpose in this context! Sure, it provides some posture correction and lumbar support, but the kidney belt replaced what the corset did for cavalry (soldiers on horseback) since the 1820s or so.
Spending all day, every day on horseback (or in today’s case, on motorcycles) constantly jostles the body – from bouncing steeds to vibrations on gravelly or pothole-riddled roads, your organs take a hit – now, the intestines are fairly durable, but kidneys are sensitive (they’re enrobed in a layer of fat and we have two of them for a reason, in case one eventually gives out). Riding often enough or long enough can result in kidney damage over time, and there was a time when it was not uncommon for a rider to see blood in their urine. This belt holds the kidneys still, minimizing injury – and the belt can also serve as armor, shielding the lumbar spine from damage if the rider is thrown.
The pink sash sported by Fairytale Groom Ken (which I had a very similar Ken doll in my toddlerhood) is designed to replace a waistcoat in a 3-part tuxedo – but more interestingly, it hails back to a protective and practical garment worn by military, sportsmen, and ushers alike.
The etymology and history of the cummerbund is one of my favorites. The name comes from two Hindi words: kamar, meaning “waist”, and band meaning “belt” or “tie”. So cummerbund literally means a cloth to bind the waist.
Cummerbunds were originally simple sashes used in the Middle East and India for over 400 years, worn by military (likely used for the same purpose as kidney belts or cavalry belts, see above). Today, some modern military groups (including the US Navy) still wear a cummerbund as part of their formal dress.
Cummerbunds were also used in sporting events in the 1800s and early 1900s – whether to wick away sweat or to provide postural support, perhaps in the same way as modern lifting belts (we’re getting to that next!).
Lastly, cummerbunds were often worn by servicemen in high-class facilities (“fancy buildings”). E.g. worn by ushers in opera houses, doorkeeps at galas, bellhops in high-end hotels, etc. The upward-facing pleats of the belt functioned as several tiers of shallow pockets – enabling the wearer to keep ticket stubs, cash tips/change, or other small items within easy reach.
Depending on how tightly a traditional cummerbund is fitted to the body, it can also pull in the abdomen and prevent one’s spreading figure from outgrowing their uniform.
These days, cummerbunds usually have an elastic or velcro backing and don’t provide much support, but are now only for show. They’re most commonly worn during proms or weddings as an alternative to a waistcoat – so it’s more lightweight and cool for someone who doesn’t want too many layers.
9. Weight Lifting Belt
As mentioned above, the weight lifting belt has existed in “primitive” forms as a tight cloth wrapped around the waist back in the 19th century, and has since been reinvented as ever-more-macho wide leather belts designed to be worn around the navel.
Weight lifting belts serve several purposes – according to ProFitness (the producer of this particular piece), the belt supports and holds the lumbar spine and abdomen in a neutral position – preventing muscular strain, herniated discs, or other injuries. It also applies counter-pressure to the abdominal stress already being exerted on the body from the lifting action, preventing umbilical or abdominal hernias.
Encouraging good form and allowing the lifter to build good muscle memory will also enhance their performance and allow them to lift up to 10% more weight, they say.
10. Hernia Girdle
Sometimes hernias happen: whether you lifted too much without proper support (see above), you gestated a child and your diastasis recti was uncontrolled, you had surgery and the muscles never properly healed, or you have a congenital condition – plenty of people have abdominal hernias. Particularly common are umbilical hernias, because when you were in the womb, your belly button used to be a literal hole where the umbilical cord outside your body led to a vein inside your body (it went to your liver and vena cava, for those curious – and it closes up minutes after birth).
Anywho, you have quite a lot of pressure inside your body, and your muscles hold everything in nicely – most of the time. But if you have a hole in your muscles, and the pressure inside your body is greater than the pressure outside of your body, your intestines want to make their slippery escape. This is painful – and dangerous, if blood flow to the bulging intestine is pinched off. Hernia girdles stop this from happening by applying external pressure on the area and pushing the intestines back in.
Corsets have been known to do this as well – but it’s important to note that it’s only good for abdominal hernias. Inguinal (groin) or hiatal hernias (where the stomach pushes through the diaphragm) require a different type of bracing or truss (or surgery). Corsets, as well as the abdominal binder seen here, will not help with inguinal and hiatal hernias, and in fact might exacerbate the condition, so be sure to know exactly what you’re dealing with.
11. Shoulder Posture Harness
I don’t blame you if you’re confused by this harness being here, because back in #1 we discussed some of the advantages of corsets NOT having shoulder straps. But corsets can help reduce a rolled shoulder posture actively (through the use of waistcoat corsets or corsets with shoulder straps) OR passively, simply by virtue of taking the weight off the shoulders and allowing them to relax and return to a more neutral position.
Many folks who suffer with a heavy bustline will find that a supportive overbust corset relieves the weight that pulls the pectoral and trapezius muscles forward – allowing the wearer to open and stretch their chest muscles, hold their shoulders back, and reduce slouching much in the same way as this harness. However, one should be careful not to go overboard with a “proud” posture (looking at you, Edwardian S-curve!).
There’s such thing as “too much of a good thing” so whether you use a corset or a posture-corrective shoulder harness, be sure that it’s properly fitted and not too tight or forcing you into an unnatural stance.
I am loath to include this in the list (I’m a bit of a snob) but the family tree would not be complete if I didn’t invite the bustier to this reunion.
The bustier is visually the most similar to a corset, but it does have some marked differences in form and function. They are most often worn as lingerie or club wear.
Bustiers do provide some bust support, with or without shoulder straps. They can have separate cups, or look similar to the one shown here. However, they tend to come in a limited range of bust sizes – and because they are more lightly structured than corsets, they can have a tendency to slip down (but few people care if they plan to only wear it short-term anyway).
Most bustiers also have bones to hold vertical tension, albeit usually featherweight plastic boning. Bustiers also always have some elasticity to allow for greater range of motion, to more easily fit a wider range of bodies, and also to be able to use hooks & eyes or a zipper to secure the garment (instead of a lacing system).
As such, apart from some modest bust support, the bustier’s main purpose is primarily aesthetic – which is 100% okay, it just should not be conflated with the corset, which offers a broader range of practical uses.
Is there any other garment or device that you would add to this list? Leave a comment below! Also, now that you’re familiar with the corset-adjacent modern garments, test your knowledge in my newest quiz here.