The simple answer is, they didn’t. But they did wear Swiss waists & corselets outside of their dresses, and these can look a lot like corsets if you don’t look closely. So what are these things, and how are they different from corsets?
A Swiss waist is a boned, pointed underbust garment worn over skirts and blouses or dresses. Unlike a corset, a swiss waist NEVER fastens with a metal front busk. Swiss waists can have a flat front, with no front opening, or can lace up the front with hand worked eyelets (never metal eyelets). The backs fasten with lacing (also with worked eyelets, not metal eyelets) or buttons. Swiss waists were extremely popular in the 1860s, worn by empresses and common women alike. In the 1860s they were more likely to be called corsages (an un-specific term for a bodice), swiss bodices, swiss belts, or swiss waist belts or simply waists, than swiss waists. They returned as an indispensable fashion accessory in the 1880s and 1890s, which is when the name swiss waist became common.
Some Swiss waists from the 1860s included shoulder straps, usually trimmed with decorative pleated ribbon.
Swiss waists are sometimes called Swiss belts, though there was sometimes the differentation that a swiss waist was higher and more corset-y, and a Swiss belt was shorter and might have attached streamers and bows that imitated a sash.
While the 1860s and 1890s Swiss belt was a fitted, shaped, often boned, garment, the term carried into the 20th century as a description for a design detail with a pointed belt/midriff effect, even when it was used on a loosely fitted child’s frock.
What about ‘corselet‘? That one is a bit trickier, as it has been applied to a variety of things. Corselet is a late 19th and early-mid 20th century term for a garment with waist-emphasising midriff section. In the 1890s ‘corselet’ or ‘corselet belt’ was used almost interchangeably with ‘swiss waist’ or ‘swiss belt’ to describe a fitted, shaped belt or sash.
Corselets/Swiss waists of the 1890s were worn with both day and evening wear, and could be liberally decorated with beading and trim, or even diamonds.
From 1905 to 1915 ‘Corselet skirts’, with high waistbands, often with pointed tops or bottoms, were much in vogue.
In the first two decades of the 20th century a corselet might also refer to a softer, less boned corset.
The term returned in the 1930s to describe the pointed-underbust midriff section so common in 1930s fashion, or a pointed belt put over a garment. Elise’s blue velvet gown, blue velvet leaf gown, the floral and organza gown and pretty much every 1930s dress pattern in this post all have the first type of corselet waist.
What about waist cincher? What is a waist cincher? Well, it’s not a phrase that I have ever found in period literature. It may have been used, but it was certainly not in common usage. So from a historical perspective, I can’t tell you what a waist cincher is.
So what makes all of these fitted outer garments different from a corset? It’s all in the details. Corsets (we are speaking of those from the 1860s and onwards for the purpose of this post) usually lace with metal eyelets, and often fasten up the front with a metal busk – things that are never seen on Swiss waists and corselet belts. Corsets also frequently feature outer channels to hold the bones, or stitched in boning channels – details which reveal and highlight their purpose as a constricting undergarments. These details are never seen on garment that were worn as outerwear.
See the busk, boning channels, and inset gussets? It’s a corset:
See the metal eyelets and boning channels? It’s a corset:
Want to see more swiss waists, corselets, and underbust corsets? Check out my pinterest page (though be aware it is a research page, so includes garments in all categories, and I haven’t differentiated between them).
Want to make your own Swiss Waist? Catherine at Koshka the Cat provides a simple pattern based off an extent garment.