Metal corsets (also known as iron corsets) are a type of historical corset or bodice made entirely out of metal, usually iron or steel. The metal corset was popularly claimed to have been introduced to France by Catherine de' Medici in the 16th century, although this is now considered a myth. The idea that such garments were worn for fashionable purposes is debatable, with fashion historians now regarding such claims sceptically. Some of the more decorative and extreme examples of metal corsets that have survived are now generally thought to be later reproductions designed to appeal to fetishists, rather than garments intended for fashionable wear. Since the late 20th century, fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen and Issey Miyake have made contemporary metal bodices and corsets from wire and aluminium coils.
Many of the original metal bodices that have survived are now believed to have been intended for medical purposes as orthopaedic support garments and back braces. Such garments were described by the French army surgeon Ambroise Paré in the sixteenth century as a remedy for the "crookednesse of the Bodie." Metal medical corsets were still being made in the early twentieth century.
Early historians and writers have often attributed the invention of the metal corset to Catherine de' Medici, who is said to have introduced them to fashionable France from Italy. The fashion historian Valerie Steele noted that this mythical royal connection captured public imagination, with fetishistic writers playing up the idea of a "cruel, tortuous fashion" enforced by a dominant queen who demanded unrealistically small waists from her subjects. While fashionable corsets (or stays) did appear in the 16th century, those made by tailors were made of fabric with metal or bone stays, and those made from hinged metal were used for medical purposes. Contemporary accounts referring to stays (or 'bodies') in the 16th and 17th centuries refer only to such garments being stiffened with whalebone. Later sources, while noting the de' Medici claim, note that stays of this period would have been made of cloth boned with metal (or whalebone) strips, rather than full metal garments.
A steel corset in the Stibbert Museum, Florence, Italy, is dated to the mid-16th century, and thought to be similar to the metal stays recorded as having been made by a corazzaio mastro (master armour-maker) for Eleanor of Toledo and delivered to her on 28 February 1549. However, as Eleanor's wardrobe records do not list any boned or stiffened corsets, it is thought that her steel bodice was designed for medical or therapeutic reasons rather than worn as a fashionable garment.
Although surviving metal bodices are usually dated to the late 16th and early 17th century, Steele has stated that some of these are more recent fakes created to cater to fetishistic "fantasies about women imprisoned in metal corsets." At least one early scholar claimed that a misbehaving wife would be locked into a metal corset by her husband until she promised to behave. One such iron corset, with a 14-inch waist, was acquired by the FIT Museum as dating from 1580–1600, but is now considered to be a forgery from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Steele noted suspect similarities between this corset and an illustration first published in 1868 in The Corset and the Crinoline, a "fetishistic" book claiming to offer a historical overview of fashion, and draws parallels between such suspicious corsets and fake medieval chastity belts. Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, states that the excessive regularity of the garment's structure is evidence for its being a 19th-century fabrication. The fashion historians C. Willett Cunnington and his wife Phillis also stated firmly that surviving "iron bodies," when not medical garments, were usually "fanciful 'reproductions'" with no proof of their having genuinely been worn.
David Kunzle, in Fashion and Fetishism, has also noted that there is no literary evidence to indicate that metal corsets were worn. He has suggested that such garments might have served the same purpose as the deliberately uncomfortable, tortuous hair shirt, combining a fashionable silhouette with either penance, or for masochistic gratification, and might have been worn in convents. To support his "pure speculation", Kunzle cites a 1871 newspaper report from The Times reporting that during the Paris Commune, the National Guard found two iron corsets, a rack, and other instruments in the Convent of the White Nuns in Picpus. The claim by the Mother Superior that the instruments were for orthopaedic purposes was dismissed as "a superficial falsehood."
While fashion historians such as Steele and the Cunningtons are sceptical, scholars outside the field of dress history sometimes treat these corsets as legitimate fashion garments. The anthropologist Marianne Thesander concluded that because such bodices fit the fashionable silhouette of their alleged period, they were probably authentic, and served the same purpose as other corsets.
Metal corsets are found in a number of museum collections around the world. Some museums, including the Museo Stibbert, and the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan, present their metal bodices as fashionable late 16th-century garments. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London describes their iron corset (formerly owned by the painter Talbot Hughes) as dating from the 18th century and likely intended for orthopaedic purposes. Others, such as the iron corset in the Fashion Institute of Technology, are presented as fakes.
Since the 20th century, actual metal corsets have occasionally been made for contemporary wear, although such instances are rare. Steele notes that alongside a 1930s metal corset allegedly made for and worn by a fetish corsetiere called Cayne, the early 21st-century tight-lacer Cathie Jung had a silver corset-cover made to wear over her actual laced corset. Between 1933 and 1940 Mrs. Cayne advertised a booklet describing her 14-inch waistline and offered other services in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.
20th and 21st century designers have sometimes offered metal corsets and bodices as part of their presentations, including Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, and Thierry Mugler. One of McQueen's most famous pieces was a 1999 aluminium corset, called the Coiled Corset, created in collaboration with the jeweller Shaun Leane and the artist Kees van der Graaf. Built around a cast of the model Laura Morgan's torso, the garment had a 15-inch waist and was composed of 97 stacked coils, which had to be screwed together onto Morgan's body. The Coiled Corset was inspired by the neck rings worn by Ndebele women, extended to encase the wearer's torso. In 2001, the corset formed part of a live presentation at the Victoria and Albert Museum showcasing McQueen and Leane's collaborations. Corsets and bustiers can also be made using wire, such as a 1983 aluminium wire bustier by Miyake which was cuffed around the torso over a feathered garment, offering a pun on the theme of birdcages.
It is now widely believed that authentic metal corsets were intended as a form of orthopaedic brace to address spinal issues such as scoliosis. Metal corsets also acted as support garments for women who had damaged themselves through habitual tightlacing.
The 16th-century French army surgeon Ambroise Paré described metal corsets as intended "to amend the crookednesse of the Bodie," recommending that the iron should be perforated in order to make the garments lighter, and that they be made to fit and padded for comfort. Paré criticised the concept of corsetry as a waist-training device, warning that such a practice risked deforming the figure.
Kunzle noted that in Peter Rondeau's 1739 French-German dictionary, the French term corps de fer is explained in German as "Schnürburst, mit kleinen eisernen blechen, für übel gewachsenes Frauenzimmer" (A bodice, with small iron plates, for badly-grown (i.e., deformed) girls). He reads this as implying that the iron plates would have been part of a fabric corset, rather than an all-metal garment.
Metal corsets continued to be used in the 18th and early 19th century, although equivalent garments made from canvas were increasingly used in their place. In 1894, A.M. Phelps of the American Orthopaedic Association recommended an aluminium corset coated with waterproof enamel for sufferers of Pott disease or curvature of the spine. Made from a cast of the patient's body, the advantages of such a garment were that aluminium was lightweight, durable, thin enough to be worn beneath clothing, and could be worn while bathing. Such corsets were still being recommended in the early 20th century as cheaper and more durable in the longer run than plaster moulds, although their initial expense was greater.
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was a notable wearer of such medical corsets, following ongoing problems as a result of a serious road crash she experienced as a teenager. By 1944, Kahlo's doctors had recommended that she wear a steel corset instead of the plaster ones she had mainly worn since the accident; and Kahlo, whose paintings were heavily autobiographical, used the new corset as the basis for one of her best known self-portraits, The Broken Column. In the painting, Kahlo portrays herself weeping with agony, her torso split open revealing that her spine is a crumbling Ionic column, and her damaged body held together by the steel corset.
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Tuttavia Eleonora possiede anche due busti di acciaio (62), consegnati il 28 febbraio 1549 dal corazzaio mastro
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I always advise the aluminium corset, for, although the first cost is greater than for the plaster-of-paris support, yet, before treatment is ended, the metal appliance will have proved the cheaper.
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