Fashioning the body

Stays and corsets, panniers and crinolines from the 18th to the 19th century

By Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The reliance on structured undergarments to refashion the body is not a recent invention. Since the end of the Middle Ages, men and women have used a number of different methods to amplify or constrict various body parts, according to the fashion of the day. Creativity and technical ingenuity combined to create highly complex articles of clothing that responded to the canons of beauty of the day, while actively creating them.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] (1760)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Panniers and stays: the creation of a singular silhouette during the 18th century

Panniers and whaleboned stays - corps à baleines - formed the distinctive armature that allowed women to wear the robes volantes and sack-back gowns - robes à la francaise - fashionable in high society during the 18th century. Beyond their primary function of remodeling the torso, they were also a means of asserting the wearer’s rank. The lifted bust and mincing gait of the women who wore them were indicators of social standing.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress "à la française" (1760)

During the 18th century stays and panniers transformed the female body, shaping the silhouette according to the beauty standards of the period: a slim waist and a "raised bust, firm and well rounded."
The female body was essentially remodeled, its natural lines erased and new contours created.

Alphonse Leroy, Recherches sur les habillemens des femmes et des enfans ou Examen de la manière dont il faut vêtir l’un et l’autre sexe, Paris, Le Boucher, 1772, 2e partie, chap. III : "De l’origine des corps et de leurs différentes espèces," 184

Stay (1740/1760)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Whaleboned stays

"Despite certain authors’ claims that stays were worn throughout society, including by country women, it’s more likely that during the 18th century they were only worn by women of the wealthiest classes, the constraints placed on the bust being, by all evidence, maladapted to a working lifestyle." - Anne-Cécile Moheng, "Corps à baleine et paniers. La mécanique du maintien au XVIIIe siècle", in Denis Bruna (dir.), La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, catalogue d'exposition (Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2013), 109.

Whaleboned stays (1740-1760)

Stays barely changed shape over the course of the 18th century and did not systematically adapt to the shape of the clothes worn over them.

Baskets (1775/1790)Musée des Arts Décoratifs


Unlike stays, the size and shape of panniers changed according to the wearer’s activity and the time of day. Their form evolved throughout the course of the 18th century. It’s likely that panniers were only worn by the most affluent classes and were rarely worn outside cities.

Dress (1805/1810)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Corsets, crinolines, and bustles: female artifice in the 19th century

"The 19th century opened with an intense reaction to the excesses of 18th century court society, founded on artifice, appearance, and constraint. […] The bourgeoisie, which built its fortune on the strength of its work ethic, installed a new value system where proper bearing was maintained through constricting undergarments. A new feminine ideal gradually came into being over the course of the 19th century and was made visible after the first third of the century through the new ‘hourglass silhouette.’" - Aurore Bayle-Loudet, "Le corset, acteur essentiel de la féminité moderne," in Denis Bruna (dir.), La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, catalogue d'exposition (Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2013), 160.

Dress (1805-1810)

Dress Dress (1790/1799)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The politics of bust support

Silhouettes were straight under the Directory, the bust held up by cotton or linen bands stitched to the inside of the dress. However, female modesty - and with it, the need for bust support - was reinstated after the end of the Directory. Breasts were either held by so-called "divorce" brassieres (their name stemming from the fact that they separated the breasts), or by corsets "à la ninon".

Dress Dress (1822)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The corset and the advent of the bourgeoisie

The industrialization and urbanization of society during the 19th century brought about new modes of living. The corset reappeared in women’s wardrobes, notably those of bourgeois women, during the first third of the century. During this time, bourgeois women began affirming their place in the public sphere by showing themselves more frequently outside; in private, they developed new ways of thinking about their bodies.

Dress Dress (1830/1835)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

"Wasp waists" under the July Monarchy

Under Napoleon, the female silhouette retained a straight silhouette, with the waistline under the breasts. A return to court etiquette imposed by the Emperor led to the creation of richer garments that accentuated the high waistline. Outfits progressively became more rigid and acquired new volume at the sleeves and skirt, changing the silhouette first to a conical form and then to a bell-shaped form. During the 1820s, the waistline was gradually lowered to its "natural" state. The notion of "wasp waist" appeared under the July Monarchy.

Dress FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress (1830-1835)

Women dressed by first putting on a chemise, then a corset, then a petticoat of stiffened linen (or several superimposed petticoats to create volume). They finished their toilette by donning sleeve amplifiers held in place by the corset’s epaulettes.

Engraving (1875-1880) by Gustave JanetMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The appearance of thighs and the evolution of the corset

After the crinoline was abandoned around the 1870s, the body, long hidden under vast meters of fabric, began to reveal itself. The shape of the corset evolved, becoming longer and more rigid until it covered part of the thigh. Short whalebones were arrayed horizontally and used to form the volume of the bust and to reinforce the rigidity of the shoulder blades.

Corset (1880)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Corsets and capitalism under the Third Republic

"From the end of the Second Empire to the dawn of the 20th century, the corset became increasingly complex, its usage layered with meaning. The new imperatives of capitalism rendered it subject to constant renewal, while those of industrialization found in it a source of revenue and a means of distinguishing working and upper classes." - Aurore Bayle-Loudet, "Le corset, acteur essentiel de la féminité moderne," in Denis Bruna (dir.), La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, catalogue d'exposition (Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2013), 164.

Corset BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Corset (1895-1905)

Colored corsets were first worn by prostitutes before becoming a fashion for the elites, thus inverting the top down model of the fashion diffusion from elites towards the masses.

Following the economic crisis of 1871, prostitution had become a necessary job for certain women from already precarious social classes. These courtesans, who were thought of as fascinating yet threatening to the social order, undoubtedly helped contribute to the adoption of color in bourgeois underwear.

Bustle (1880)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinolines and bustles: the reign of metallic artifices in the 19th century

Along with the corset, crinolines, bustles, and poufs helped create the silhouettes of the Second Empire and of the two first decades of the Third Republic. First worn by the Imperial Court, and then by the bourgeoisie, the crinoline and the bustle displayed social status. The volume and length of the bustle and pouf were adapted to the events of the day, and the degree to which women changed their clothes corresponded to their social rank. The silhouette between 1845 and 1890 underwent two major evolutions that correspond to the type of underwear worn.

Crinoline SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline (1860)

Between 1845 and 1870 the crinoline helped shape the silhouette....

Bustle SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Bustle (1875-1880)

... before it was re-shaped by the bustle between 1870 and 1890.

Crinoline Crinoline (1867/1868)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The invention of the cage crinoline

Over the course of the 1840s, the volume and weight of skirts augmented due to the superimposition of petticoats, which could reach up to seven layers and were heavy and constraining. The cage crinoline, invented by Auguste Person in 1856, soon replaced these layered petticoats.

Crinoline SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline (1867-1868)

Formed by steel hoops, cage crinolines increase in size from the waist to the calves and are either built directly into a petticoat or are independently linked together with straps. Over time, the volume of skirts augmented due to the use of increasingly solid hoops and heavier fabrics. Lighter to wear than superimposed petticoats, the cage crinoline gave women the impression of "liberating" their legs.

The crinoline was essential component to women’s fashion for over 25 years. Its shape changed over the course of the years, yielding three distinct silhouettes.

Two-piece dress FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress (1855-1858)

Between 1845 and 1860, the crinoline was round and dome-like ; the style pompadour was a revival of the panniers of the 18th century.

Dress BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress (1860)

"Between 1860 and 1866, the crinoline was lighter and more ergonomic. Flat in the front and projecting behind, the crinoline reached its peak size, with a circumference of around 10 meters. The train became one of the most recognizable characteristics of this new silhouette...

Dress FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

... Dresses were still highly ornamental, but the emphasis was on the small of the back. The flattening of the front of the body forces the bodice to change. The bodice is pointed at first, and then transforms to favor the donning of a tunic - an over-skirt tapered towards the back which reveals the under-skirt, often of a contrasting color." - Lina Maria Paz, "Crinolines et tournures. Le règne des artifices métalliques," in Denis Bruna (dir.), La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, catalogue d'exposition (Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2013), 179

Crinoline (1862)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline (1862)

At the end of the 1860s, the silhouette changes : the crinoline becomes conical.

Its volume diminishes at the hips...

... while only a few hoops reinforce the lower part.

Petticoat bustle (1870/1879)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline-bustle (1970-1879)

Hybrid undergarments followed, such as crinolines with bustles.

The skirt is still structured at the bottom with complete hoops...

... while the top is composed of small half-circles.

Bustle Bustle (1882)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The bustle

"The bustle takes over from the crinoline to bear the weight of dresses that have become increasingly heavy, rich with decoration. The structure of the crinoline undergoes minor changes throughout its evolution compared to those of the bustle." - Lina Maria Paz, "Crinolines et tournures. Le règne des artifices métalliques," in Denis Bruna (dir.), La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, catalogue d'exposition (Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2013), 180.

Bustle SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Bustle (1882)

The bustle, while distinct, served the same function as the crinoline: it helped create the effect of volume while supporting the fabric of the skirt. Bustles existed in various forms and women could modify their volume according to the desired affect.

Pouffe SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The pouf

As the fashion turned to volume in the back of the silhouette, a new undergarment was created : the pouf. The pouf could be smaller or larger depending on the ornamentations with which it was trimmed (ruffles, ribbons, frills).

Two piece dress SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The end of an era

Between 1845 and 1890, structuring undergarments contributed to reshaping the female silhouette. The excessiveness of the crinolines and bustles over the course of the years was a reflection of the search for social distinction and contributed to the visibility of women in society.

Dress (1897) by FélixMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress (1898)

At the end of the 19th century, after having attained exaggerated volumes, the female silhouette simplified. Couturiers in the 1890s, inspired by the romantic fashions of the 1830s, revived the gigot sleeves. It was around this time that crinolines and bustles disappeared, but they remain up to today, symbols of an era of decadence.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibition echoes the exhibition "La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette," presented at the Arts Décoratifs from 5 July to 24 November 2013.

Commissariat: Denis Bruna, chief designer of fashion collections before 1800.

Text and choice of images: Denis Bruna, Hélène Renaudin, assistant fashion and textile at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Editorial coordination of the virtual exhibition: Maude Bass-Krueger, assisted by Alexandra Harwood and César Imbert

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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