Iron corsets began to appear from the 16th century onwards, and historians still dispute the purpose and function of these rare and curious garments. There are approximately 15 iron corsets in museum collections around the world, including two in Wellcome Collection and as Elizabeth McFadden discovered, these intriguing objects still hold clues about who would have worn them and for what purpose.
This iron corset from Wellcome Collection probably dates from the 15th to 17th centuries. It is constructed from perforated iron with leather shoulder straps and is hinged at both sides. Notches at the straps and front locks allowed its wearer to adjust its fit. It was designed for a lean adult or adolescent male. Iron corsets like this weigh around 1kg and the piercings and ornamental cutouts seen in all of them help to reduce the weight. There are two main theories about the purpose of an iron corset. Several historians of dress believe that it would have been worn for aesthetic reasons with other support garments, such as stays. A more widely held view is that the iron corset was primarily intended as a device for remedial or surgical correction.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was perhaps the first in Western medicine to suggest treatment of orthopaedic conditions with corrective braces and bandaging. Mention of iron corsets for orthopaedic purposes first appearedin 1575 in the writings of French military surgeon Ambroise Paré (c.1510–90). Paré designed a perforated metal brace in two pieces that joined at the sides to correct and stop the advancement of spinal deformities. His corsets were to have “holes all over them, whereby they may be lighter to wear; and they must be so lined with bombaste, that they may hurt no place of the body”. He postulated that young girls were more susceptible to spinal deformity than boys, especially if they were taught to curtsy, sew or write at an early age. This may explain why the majority of iron corsets held in museum collections were made for women's bodies.
The second iron corset in Wellcome Collection dates from the 18th to 19th centuries and is small enough to fit a child. Its design applied pressure to the right shoulder to support a displaced shoulder blade due to curvature of the spine. It is similar in form to the orthopaedic device illustrated in Paré’s surgical treatise over a hundred years earlier. This orthopaedic design contrasts with the other Wellcome corset, in which the back is stabilised by a wide metal band that would have applied pressure on the wearer’s spine. A straight back was especially valued in early modern Europe because an upright appearance was seen as a physical manifestation of good character, for men and women alike. This suggests that the two corsets may have had different uses.
Some iron corsets were clearly made for women’s bodies, as indicated by their proportions. This iron corset, now at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, for example, is constructed with a series of notches that permit reduction of the waist, echoing the functions of fashion bodices and stays (fully boned, lace-up bodices worn as undergarments). Several 17th-century sources specifically refer to “iron bodies” as garments that helped adult women (and sometimes men) to make their torsos more beautiful. Many of these writings are also moralising in tone. A sermon from 1632 states that “when men and womens bodies be crooked and deformed, they weare iron bodies, and will endure any thing to make them straight again...”
In 1549, at the age of 27, Eleanor of Toledo (1522–62), a Spanish noblewoman and wife of Cosimo I de Medici, ordered two iron corsets from her armourer, Master Lorenzo. But there is no record that she had any spinal deformities, so her corsets were unlikely to be for orthopaedic purposes. French historian Daniel Roche notes that the nobility “valorised the norms of stiffness and self-control” in contrast to the bodies of lower-class people, who “were bent by hardship and toil, or enjoyed a freedom unrestricted by etiquette”. Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanor depicts a noblewoman who appears to be as morally upright and steadfast as her impeccably straight posture. Can we assume that Eleanor’s posture is being reinforced by a metal corset underneath her gown?
In his history of the corset, the 19th-century French historian Ernest Léoty claims that iron corsets were worn over a regular bodice and covered with a thick cloth, probably velvet. They acted as a double layer of stiffening for the body. Close analysis of iron corsets held in museum collections has shown that several bear traces of velvet edging where their sharp edges cut into the fabric. There are no pictures of people wearing such corsets, but this may be because they were worn underneath outer clothing to support and shape the body.
In medieval and Renaissance Italy, armour and fashion were closely intertwined as industries and forms of dress. Artisans in silk and armour shared the same neighbourhood in Milan, and elite women were likely to order iron corsets from an armourer or blacksmith. The Italian noblewoman Caterina Sforza (1463–1509) had iron armour (now preserved in Forlì) made for her, which she wore under her dress during military campaigns. In medieval French the word ‘corset’ referred to doublets and gowns, as well as body armour. The link between iron corsets and armour is reinforced by their presence in armoury collections at the Museo Stibbert, Florence and the Wallace Collection, London.
The social importance of both corsetry and body armour in the early modern period was linked to beliefs that both the body and mind could be pressed into shape. Good posture had to be impressed upon the body from the outside, starting with swaddling, when newborns and infants were tightly wrapped in lengths of fabric to ensure their bodies and limbs would grow straight. The use of metal to reinforce and enhance the tailoring of fashion garments such as corsets also highlights the period’s emphasis on clothing that moulded the body. The fashion for highly structured clothing and the development of orthopaedics as a field of surgery in the 16th century both reflect a shift in medicine to include restorative and cosmetic interventions to maintain health. In this sense the iron corset strengthened, corrected, protected and aestheticised the elite body.
The Times newspaper from 1871 reports on the discovery at a French convent of “two iron corsets, an iron skullcap, and a species of rack... The Superior explained that these were orthopaedic instruments – a superficial falsehood.” The author's scepticism about the purpose of these objects reflects a more fetishistic interest in iron corsets in the 19th century. The demand from Victorian collectors resulted in the production of 19th-century copies of early modern iron corsets. This illustration of an iron corset from ‘The Corset and the Crinoline’, claims to be from the time of Catherine de’ Medici (1519–89). A remarkably similar corset held by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York has been acknowledged as a forgery from the late 19th or early 20th century.
Could other early modern iron corsets in museums be 19th-century copies? Historians of dress Denis Bruna and Sophie Vesin examined their shape and decoration to find out more. They believe that most of the iron corsets in museum collections today are older than the 19th century and that some can be positively dated to the16th and 17th centuries. Whether it be an orthopaedic corrective, an instrument of moral and physical restraint, a fashionable garment, or a sexual fetish, the iron corset and its history continues to fascinate and intrigue both scholars and museum visitors. And who knows what other secrets it may yet reveal.
About the author
Dr Elizabeth McFadden earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote her dissertation on the iconographic and cultural history of fur dress in English and Dutch portraiture. She was a Kress Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art and has interned at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.