This is one of several posts I plan on doing focusing on historical costume research resources. Today, I am focusing on a topic that I think is really important and also fairly hard to research: Corsets and Underwear.
It may not come as a surprised that there are a lot of myths about corset history. Fewer about underwear history in general, but corsets weren’t worn in a vacuum, after all.
As some of you know, I collect costume history books, so I might as well embrace that obsession while I’m at it. My goal with these little selected bibligraphys is NOT to list every single book published on a topic. Rather, I want to share the books that I find most useful.
The Selection Critera
1. Have I actually seen it? If I hadn’t actually seen the book, than it doesn’t get to go on this list.
2. Do I actually think its worthwhile? If I don’t, than it doesn’t go on this list. Now, this isn’t a list of what I think are the best, just what I think are decent, so some of these I do criticize.
3. Does it focus specifically on underwear and/or corsetry? There are a lot of good books on Tudor dress that talk about underwear and there are a lot of good Victorian fashion books that talk about corsets, but that’s not the point of this list. This list is for specialized resources. So, the book has to be focused on corset history or underwear history.
4. Is it just a pattern book? I have no issue with books with patterns, but this bibliography isn’t about how to make corsets. There are excellent books on corset construction that don’t touch on the history of the garments. So, those are straight out. Some of these books do include patterns, however.
That’s it. That’s how things ended up on this bibliography. Not exactly the most complicated criteria.
The Bibliography of Books on Corset and Underwear History
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. N.p.: Dover, 1992.
Originally published in London in 1951, it was reprinted by Dover in 1992. It starts in the Medieval period and goes through about 1940. Now, let me make a few things clear here. The first is that this book was written in the 1950s and therefore it has to be recognized as a dated resource. It also lacks extensive illustration, again because it was written in a time when illustrating a book was much more expensive and challenging than it is today. Despite these flaws, this might be one of the best overview books on this topic around. At least, I have yet to find it the equal. Plus, they cite all their illustrations, so yay! Citation!
My only complaint is that the Dover reprint is about the size of a trade paper back. I wish it was larger. As far as complaints go, I think that is pretty minor.
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women’s Underwear. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1978.
Basically, Ewing attempts to do what Cunnington did in an updated fashion. After devoting about maybe a dozen pages to the period between 3000 and 1500, the book then covers the next few hundred years in more detail. I think Ewing’s work is decent but not fantastic. I’m not a big fan of the illustrations, but the text is well written.
Lynn, Eleri, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Underwear: Fashion in Detail. London: V&A, 2010.
This is such a beautiful book. I mean, I love all the Fashion in Detail books by the V&A, but this one is really glorious. For those of you unfamiliar with the Fashion in Detail collection, it is structured so that you get a close up photograph of a garment, two line drawings of the garment and then a description of the garment. Unlike many fashion books, the Fashion in Detail collection focuses on, well, the details. So the books are often structured around specific elements like button holes or lace, rather than around time period. As much as I love this book (and I love it so much I own two copies), I don’t think I would buy it as the only costume history book you own. Still, if you want eye candy… this book as eye candy.
Salen, Jill. Corsets: Historic Patterns and Techniques. Hollywood, CA: Costume & Fashion, 2008.
This is one of those books that has patterns, but I have never made anything from them and I don’t think it’s really a “construction” book, rather it is a detailed study of about 24 corsets. The earliest is from around 1750 and the latest is from 1817. There are also two really cute little doll corsets included which is rather fun. Each corset gets a photo, a hand-drawn pattern and a detailed description. The unique inclusion of maternity stays and children’s corsets makes this a particularly valuable book, but it focuses strictly on corsets, so be aware.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.
Steele takes on 400 years of corset history in this book and looks at both why women wore corsets and what their purpose was. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, however, is the section she devotes to look at the modern obsession with “fit” bodies in relation to the pasts obsession with corsetry. Well illustrated and well written, it’s a great book, but it is strictly about corsets.
Summers, Leigh. Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
If you’re looking for a book of beautiful photos of corsets, this ain’t it. If you are looking for a wonderful study on the sociological implications of the corset and its evolution, than this is totally that book. It’s a fascinating look on the role corsets played in construction Victorian femininity and middle-class culture. I think Summers and Steele are doing similar things in their books and I think both are excellent. Summers is a bit more focused on the Victorians than Steele who delves more into modern and fetish corset aspects.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theatre Arts, 1970.
There are certain works in a field that are seminial and Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines is one of those books. First published in the 1950s, it discusses about 1500 until about 1920. Waugh organizes her work in large historical periods than by type of garments. So, finding stuff can be challenging. However, once you get past the wacky organization and sometimes tiny font, Waugh’s work is one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Along with period patterns and diagrams, she quotes contemporary sources and includes tons of lovely primary source information. Unlike Cunnington’s work (which came out around the same time) Waugh doesn’t spent much time talking about cultural implications of garments, she just gives tons and tons of lovely information. Some of it a trifle disorganized, I grant, but I just don’t care.
Someday, I will own a hard cover addition this book, but that day might be a while off.
So, that’s my list. Did I miss any stellar texts on the subject? Is there something I should track down to check out? Let me know in a comment.
I linked to Amazon in this list mostly, but check your local library first. A lot of these are commonly found in those places and I am big fan of seeing a work before investing. Don’t just invest, look at it first. I mean, you can take my work for it, but I’d rather you make your own choices.