Material Culture Analysis of the Post-WWII Women's Corselet

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Material Culture Analysis of the Post-WWII Women's Corselet

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Dress through body modification is a primary way we construct our appearance, and convey our identity and gender. Modifying the body occurs through various means of compressing, lifting, combining and separating. Foundation garments are influential in creating one’s appearance and have been used by men and women for generations to construct their appearances and convey their identities. Previous research from various fields has focused heavily on the corset - one of the most controversial aspects of women’s dress - but has recently expanded to other periods and other products. Many view foundation garments as literal and symbolic forms of feminine oppression. However, some dress historians argue they can signify various levels of freedom within cultural constraints. In particular, Steele’s (2001) and Farrell-Beck and Gau’s (2002) research on the corset and brassiere, respectively, offer more diverse perspectives on the use of foundations to construct appearances. Post-World War II (WWII) foundation garments like the corselet, a descendent of the corset and bra, are generally interpreted as a material means of forcing women back into the domestic sphere after the war and containing them within traditional feminine ideals. This reflects some researchers’ second-wave feminist viewpoints and general assumptions that femininity has largely negative connotations. This fails to acknowledge the period’s feminine fashions were very quickly adopted and, thus, likely had positive connotations. Previous research often interrogates the same sources and rarely examines extant artifacts. This study focused on the corselet, a foundation garment popularized during the post-WWII era, and examined the design using material culture methods. Given the basic premise of material culture - objects are shaped by and reflect their culture - this research also considered the culture through these designed-objects. This research built on the exemplary work of the dress historians cited and was influenced by their approaches, which involved carefully examining extant artifacts in relation to other sources of data. A variety of sources were used, including the Minnesota Historical Society’s large Munsingwear Archive and collection of Hollywood Vassarette foundation garments. This research sought to explore and better articulate the functions and meanings of the corselet within the context of the post-World War II era. It provides a “history of [the corselet]” in order to “re-think wider narratives” from the post-WWII era (Riello, 2009, p. 36). Careful observation and analysis of the objects and external sources was used to establish the typical corselet design and its functions in relation to the wearer’s body: modifying and supporting the breasts while exposing the upper body, molding the torso while allowing it to move, creating a smooth line from breasts to hips, holding up stockings, and sexualizing the wearer’s body. Analysis of the objects and external sources also revealed the ways the corselet was intended to be used within postwar culture. I examined who wore the corselet, as well as how and why it was worn. By analyzing the corselet’s design, functions and use, I was able to interpret its meanings within the culture. Some have focused on singular interpretations of foundation garments, arguing the designs reflect literal and abstract instances of either freedom or control. However, I found that both binaries were simultaneously embodied by the corselet. Through my analysis and then interpretation, I identified several dualities: freedom and control, modesty and sexuality, natural and unnatural, seen and unseen. By considering how the corselet reflected each of these seemingly-opposing qualities I was able to position it within its postwar cultural context, as well as within the larger, ongoing practice of body modification.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2019. Major: Design. Advisor: Marilyn DeLong. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 247 pages.

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Gibson, Laureen. (2019). Material Culture Analysis of the Post-WWII Women's Corselet. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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