19th Century

Where are the 1850s corsets?

I’ve been assembling an informal catalogue of extent undergarments for my reference, and I have noticed something odd.

I can’t find a single representation of an 1850s corset in a reputable online collection!

OK, that’s not entirely true.  There is one. At the Met.  But it looks like this:

Corset, 1850s, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What the heck is that!?!?   It doesn’t look like any other corset, anywhere, of any period.  It’s got some 1830s-40s elements (the bust insets), but otherwise it looks like a weird variant of a 1790s corset, with some stuff never seen on any other corset before or after, like the folk embroidery.  It’s interesting, for sure, but definitely a fashion anomaly.

So where are the 1850s corsets?  You know, the ones normal people wore?  The ones advertised in fashion magazines? The ones made by professional corset makers? The ones that (presumably), would transition between the longer, straped, corsets of the 1830s/40s, and the strapless, short corsets of the 1860s.

Is there some odd reason that no 1850s corsets survived?

Or have museum’s dated their corsets by pushing the dates of anything with straps back to the 1840s, and anything without to the 1860s, leaving a decade gap?

Or do I just really suck at finding stuff on the internet?

Any ideas?


  1. I have a feeling, like a lot of antiques, they get pushed to a more identifiable period. If anyone has anything that can pass as “Civil War” they will push it to that.

    From Peterson’s 1855:



    This pattern was reprinted in Arthur’s Home Magazine in 1858 and Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1857.

  2. I suspect you’re right about the museum dating. Wouldn’t the usual transition period between one style and another be a hybrid of the two, i.e. a corset that had straps but was cut shorter than in the past? Or has there been a massive cover up [pun intended] of a brief [again] feminist revolt on the 1850’s, that included corset burning?

  3. jackiead says

    I love the folk embroidery, would love to see what stitches they used up close. It is an odd looking corset.

    • Jackie, if you click on the photo of the corset, it will take you to the object page on the Met’s website, and they have close ups of the embroidery.

  4. I’m picturing Bloomer-clad women circled around a barrel burning their corsets while Whitman cheers them on.

    heh heh heh….

  5. I suspect that the corset you found at the Met was part of a fancy-dress ensemble–perhaps a European “peasant” costume.

    As for finding actual surviving 1850s corsets, let’s see. This page has a picture of a dark blue corset attributed to that decade (scroll to the very bottom); the watermark on the picture attributes it to the Museum of London:

    I have not found any other examples of surviving 1850s corsets so far (have seen a few period fashion sketches of corsets, though). Still, the fact that they may not be on the Internet doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it probably just means that there aren’t enough people interested in the 1850s (as opposed to the 1860s) that somebody bothered to put any on the Internet. 🙂

    • Interesting theory on the ‘fancy dress’ aspect of that corset. I wonder if the Met knows anything else about it?

      Thanks for linking to the corset from the Museum of London. It’s beautiful! I couldn’t find it on their website, but I did find this one, reliably dated to 1851. Their online catalogue is launching in a few days – hopefully it will have more!

      I don’t buy the idea of people not being interested in 1850s corsets on the internet. That isn’t how museums put objects in an online catalogue, and there is such an interest in corsets in general, and so many hundreds of 1840s corsets online, for example, that I suspect something else is going on.

  6. I have looked at the two 1850s corsets at the Museum of London in great detail. The light blue moire and the dark blue are in fact from the early 1850s and are both reputedly the product of the famous London corset maker Roxy Caplain. You can find her book, which is quite a laugh at some points, on google books.


    Also I can give you some detail shots of the two corsets, but they are not for distribution.

  7. I would guess that a lot of it has to do with the general awkwardness of museum dating, especially when massive collections get put online without much apparent going-over of old information. While doing research on late 1830s clothing last year, I spent a lot of time digging around on the Met’s website, and their dating is, overall, absolutely appalling. There were items that were obviously off by a century. There were readily datable high fashion items with a date range of 150 years. There were items dated to the 1930s and 1940s that were obviously 18th and 19th century – I suspect that those had donation dates substituted for origin dates by mistake. There were a variety of other mystifying, obvious mistakes.

    The Met has the single worst track record for costume dating on their website that I’ve ever seen – but I think others also oversimplifiy and guess in similar ways to what you surmise. The 1850s were such a transitional period that it’s not easily to go “Ah, yes, 1850s” at a glance, for a non-specialist. Whereas, like you say, corsets with straps seem safely 1840s or earlier, and corsets without straps seem safely 1860s or later. But really, even some early 1860s corsets had straps and were constructed more along the lines of the use-of-bias-panels-and-gussets-and-straps approach of the early 19th century.

    I will have to keep an eye out for suspiciously 1850s-like-but-not-dated-as-such corsets in collections! This is an excellent point, and now I won’t be able to stop thinking about it! It’s all your fault, Dreamstress….

  8. Jack Chang says

    I am also looking for 1850s corsets from the standpoint of the scrimshaw busks. There are many examples of engraved corset busks with figures of women wearing fashions of the 1830s and 1840s. I only have one example of a woman copied from a Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of 1851. By the mid 1850s as the bodice changed, long frontal busks were no longer needed and thus not made by the whalemn. However, these corsets were not necessarily discarded but likely shorter stays were sewn in. I have not found one of these “transitional corsets”. Perhaps they were more likely to be discarded as they bridge differnt dress styles. I would appreciate knowing any examples which you may find.
    Jack Chang MD
    Advisor, Kendall Institute
    New Bedford Whaling Museum

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