A History of Shaping the Body

Changing women's fashions, from the 18th century to the 1950s.

Victorian Silk Day Dress 180 degreesYork Castle Museum

300 Years of Women's Fashion

For centuries women's clothing has exaggerated body shape to fashionable extremes. This collections shows body-shaping fashions from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, using objects from York Castle Museum's Costume and Textiles collection.

Georgian Stay Georgian Stay (1760-1780)York Castle Museum

Georgian Stay

Stiffened with whalebone, reeds or cord, stays gave women a fashionable formal body shape.

Tabs at the waist allow for movement.

Georgian Dress & Petticoat Georgian Dress & Petticoat (1770-1780)York Castle Museum

Georgian Dress & Petticoat

Women’s fashions were highly adjustable and could be loosened for pregnancy and other changes in shape.

Quilted petticoats added warmth and helped shape an outfit. They were also a sign of wealth. A petticoat like this would have taken many dozens of hours to sew.

Georgian Fashion Doll Georgian Fashion Doll (1750-1810)York Castle Museum

Georgian Fashion Doll

Before fashion magazines, fashions were communicated through fashion dolls. They were dressed in every layer of the latest fashions.

Fashion doll with removable wig and clothes. The doll is made of wood and painted in white European flesh tones. Joints articulate at the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. The arms are wrapped with blue cloth seeves below the elbow, and the doll wears a chemise and petticoat in cotton woven to resemble quilting, a separate pocket hung from a belt at the waist, a gown in pink silk with pink lace overlay, and a pair of knitted white stockings.

The gown laces at the back, and has two lengths of woven pink silk with diamond-shaped pattern hanging from the shoulders. The wig is made of brown hair, and has a white lace and blue ribbon band and a matching choker. The doll has one blue silk garter.

Georgian Fashion Doll 180 degreesYork Castle Museum

Wealthy women would have their dressmaker copy the doll’s clothing in full scale.

Georgian Wedding DressYork Castle Museum

Georgian wedding dress

At its most extreme eighteenth-century womenswear was the widest of any Western fashion. Stays shaped the torso while linen and cane or willow hoops supported the vast skirts.

A Perspective View of the inside of the Grand Assembly Room in Blake Street (1759) by William LindleyYork Castle Museum

A Perspective View of the inside of the Grand Assembly Room in Blake Street, York, England

19th Century Silk Empire Line Dress 19th Century Silk Empire Line Dress (1820-1825)York Castle Museum

19th Century Silk Empire Line Dress

By 1800 women favoured softly shaped corsets and high-busted narrow gowns inspired by ancient Roman women’s clothing.

With dresses so light, dressmakers began to sew quilted bands to the hems to keep them from flying up in the wind.

Victorian Cotton Day Dress 45 degreesYork Castle Museum

Victorian Cotton Day Dress

By the 1840s women's fashions again emphasised the waist. The shape was created with steel boned corsets.

Victorian Cotton Day Dress 180 degreesYork Castle Museum

Skirts were growing larger, supported by multiple petticoats stiffened with starch or horsehair. The petticoats were called crinolines.

Victorian Silk Day Dress Victorian Silk Day Dress (1857-1859)York Castle Museum

Victorian Silk Day Dress

In 1856 the first patent was taken out for a cage crinoline. This bell-shaped support was worn under a skirt to create a large full skirt. Skirts got larger, and many had a circumference of over 3m.

Victorian Corset (1860-1875)York Castle Museum

Victorian Corset

This corset had a 35 inch waist. Corset of black quilted satin lined with red and white striped cotton. There are gussets for the bust. The whole is part boned and stiffened by the quilting.

It has a steel split busk at the front, which makes it easier to put on and remove. There is a steel busk down the centre front. Fastens at the front with steel hoops and studs and laces down the back through metal eyelets. Decorated with black lace, white lace and purple stitching.

It is very lightly boned, and the shape mostly comes from cording. String is sewn into channels to strengthen a garment.

Victorian Bustle Victorian Bustle (1884-1888)York Castle Museum

Victorian Bustle

By the 1870s the weight of a skirt was gathered in drapes at the back and supported by a lobster-tail bustle. It was tied at the waist and worn behind the legs causing its wearer to walk slowly and carefully.

Victorian Corset (1895-1900)York Castle Museum

Victorian Corset

Steel boned corsets created a stiff and erect body. Not all women laced them tightly as this one.

Many people believed that corsets helped support a woman’s body, protect her reproductive organs, and keep her kidneys warm.

Silk Brocade Corset 45 degreesYork Castle Museum

Silk Brocade Corset

Corsets changed shape in the early twentieth century. At the time people thought that the new forward thrust of corsets was healthier, but it was actually more dangerous than corsets before.

Home made 20s Rayon Dress 315 degreesYork Castle Museum

Rayon dress

The waist vanished from fashion in the 1920s. The page-boy look was in, with a dropped waist and very little structure.

This dress was home made. Sewing machines and commercial patterns made home dress making very popular.

50s DressYork Castle Museum


Curves returned after the end of the Second World War. Dior’s New Look inspired a fresh wave of curvaceous fashions, with large skirts and nipped-in waists.

Novelty prints were popular for adult’s as well as children’s clothing.

Victorian Silk Day Dress 180 degreesYork Castle Museum

Victorian silk day dress

Blue and white figured silk two piece day dress with lace trim on bodice.

Credits: Story

Shaping the Body
York Castle Museum

Objects from York Castle Museums Costume & Textile Collection

Collections photography
Robert Wake, M Faye Prior, Martin Fell

M Faye Prior, Alison Bodley

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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