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Corsets vs Girdles

Corsets and girdles have changed women's fashion history for so long now. Find out more about these two fashion outfits for women here!

Woman wearing a black corset.

Fashion is a cross-section of humanity’s love for ourselves and love to create. Both girdles and corsets are prime examples of those dual loves blending together. The differences between the two are worthy of them each owning a separate place in the fashion arsenal, but the untrained eye might struggle to separate the two apart without a better understanding of their individual characteristics.

What Is a Corset?

Purple corset, rear view.

The modern corset is a clinging torso cover that is clasped together in the front, tightened with strings in the back, and features bone-like support materials throughout. They may extend to the hips or sit at the waist, though at minimum it covers a wide band around the midsection. The vertical rise may cover the chest or come below the bust, often including support for breasts under the label of underbust corsets.

Corsets became a distinct style of clothing somewhere around the middle of the 13th century. The French word referred to a bodice that was similar to a more form-fitting tunic. This was the common usage up until the Victorian era, which is when it took on the meaning that it holds today.

While corsets were traditionally seen as a woman’s garment, they can be worn without regard for any secondary characteristics and have been used that way since their creation. Variations intended for traditionally masculine figures and outfits also have a notable market presence.

Common materials for the body of the corset include leather, latex, linen, and plastic. Modern designers often incorporate mesh materials spread between the boning to keep the overall strength of the corset relatively unchanged while adding more air flow to keep the skin cool. Softer materials like satin also see use as decorative lining to change the appearance without sacrificing durability.

Other accessories and decorations may be added, but they typically do not extend far from the corset to keep the slim shape.

Within corsetry design, there are genres geared towards particular hobbies and interests. Enthusiasts of steampunk, a brand of fantasy that mixes Victorian-era style with advanced steam-powered technology or magic, work corsets into many of their costumes.

What Is a Girdle?

Woman on white background wearing a girdle.

The word girdle traces back to Old English and its parent languages as a word for rope belts. While this usage has fallen out of favor, outfits that date back to this time – like Christian religious garb – still use the term this way. Modern girdles do wrap around the waist, but they spread wide to cover a larger area.

Instead of cinching together a robe, they cinch in the body and provide support to the central torso region. Elastic material is the go-to for girdles to provide support without inhibiting movement.

Girdles vary in their height in both directions from the waist. Some dip below the hips, some rise to just below the chest, and others spread both upwards and downwards. Some extreme variations include shoulder support straps or a full-body covering.

As part of the uniform for American Football, the girdle only extends down to the knees to hold padding for the thigh and waist area. Waist trainers are especially tight girdles that apply more compression to the area. Wearers wrap the waist trainer around their body, and Velcro fasteners secure the stretchable material at the desired tightness.

How Are Girdles and Corsets Different?

A model wearing a corset on pink background.

When comparing modern garments, girdles and corsets differ in their price, construction, purpose, and social perception. Their appearances can be similar, but these key aspects set them apart.

Some girdles have corset-like ties to get a tighter fit, but most will take just a moment to slip into and adjust, relying on the fabric’s inherent elasticity or a stretchable waistband. A corset can be worn without redoing the lacing by using the clasps, but the best fit comes with readjustment. With a mirror and deft hands, it can be done by yourself, but it’s far easier to have a second person help.

Since corsets are usually made of firmer material that’s reinforced with a sturdy frame of bone or metal, they provide potentially greater support and shaping than a girdle. The more giving material of the girdle allows a greater degree of mobility, especially when bending. Both can become tight to the point of constricting breath and causing damage if worn long-term, so do not overly tighten them and take frequent breaks.

Claims about changes to body shape with long-term use of either are anecdotal, unlike the proven risk of harm.

The extra materials and production effort put into corsets also increase their price. Basic girdles will cost anywhere from $10 to $30. Extended models with more features can push to $100 and above.

Corsets start in the $40 range, and quality corsets will easily cost multiple hundreds. At the high end, you could pay more than $1,000 for a well-made corset from a reputable designer.

Most wearers put on a girdle as an undergarment that either shapes their form or provides support. Those who don’t mind the appearance may wear them over other clothing during exercise, but it’s still primarily done for body support and modification rather than for aesthetic appeal. Girdles tend to be flesh-toned or dark in color with little in the way of embellishment.

In contrast, a corset may be worn as either an under or an outer garment. Early adopters wore it under larger pieces of clothing, but it eventually made its way outwards as fashion evolved. Outerwear corsets that are meant as the primary torso cover are normally full-length, and they may feature ample decoration in the form of stitching or accessories.

Even the clasps and lacing can be adjusted to fit the aesthetic desires. Underbust and smaller corsets are treated as accessories themselves when on the exterior.

Corsets also have a strong association with various adult lifestyles, and they have been the target of public decency activists. While the appropriateness of corsets as outerwear is a subjective topic as long as important body parts are covered, adult apparel and accessory shops do sell corsets within their lingerie sections. More ornate corsets in traditional styles or with a high quality of construction are usually acceptable as part of fancy dress, but this will change based on the social circle.