The Designer Who Unlaced Women From Corsets

Cristen Conger

French designer Paul Poiret helped liberate women from corsets.
French designer Paul Poiret helped liberate women from corsets.
© CORBIS

A few weeks ago, the Internet was atwitter with a preliminary study finding out of France that bras correlate to sagging breasts over time (and meanwhile, we've apparently all forgotten about the the most powerful culprit of sagging breasts: gravity). Ever since the 14th century, people have experimented with various kinds of brassiere designs to rein in pesky female breasts, help clothes lay smooth and, yes, supply some extra perk to the chest region. But it wasn't until the 20th century that women began to don bras en masse, thanks in part to the couture contributions of French designer Paul Poiret, whom I bet would be scandalized at the thought of fashionable women eschewing undergarments ever.

In the 1910s during the heyday of his design career, Poiret was known as "The King of Fashion", or even more impressively in Paris as Le Magnifique. Innovating beyond the corseted silhouette that horizontally slices the female figure in two, Poiret sought to move fashion beyond the restrictive undergarment that had clung to women's torsos for centuries. His looser, more draped (as opposed to tailored) dress designs helped usher in the new, unlaced chapter in women's fashion. As described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "In freeing women from corsets and dissolving the fortified grandeur of the obdurate, hyperbolic silhouette, Poiret effected a concomitant revolution in dressmaking, one that shifted the emphasis away from the skills of tailoring to those based on the skills of draping."

Poiret was no feminist crusader though. He wrote in his autobiography, "The King of Fashion," that he endeavored for beauty's sake alone. In fact, though his long, close-fitting dresses didn't demand corsetry, Poiret reportedly was glad that they nevertheless restricted movement.

The significance of Poiret's corsetless aesthetic, highly influenced by contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian elements, wasn't lost on him. As noted by Los Angeles' FIDM Museum, Poiret believed that he -- and his cylindrical (as opposed to hourglass) women's designs -- was largely responsible for convincing fashion-forward ladies to transition from the corset to the brassiere in the early 1900s. More likely, as noted in How Corsets Work, the combination of World War I, mass industrialization, evolving roles for women in society -- along with fashion -- ultimately unlaced women from the corset.

Ironically, though Poiret's modern sensibility steered him away from the corset, he failed to hop aboard the modernization of fashion designed after WWI. Oh, and he also tried to make harem pants happen. By the late 1920s, Poiret had been dethroned as "The King of Fashion," although thankfully his corsetless design has enjoyed enduring staying power.