At its most basic, the purpose of a corset is to pull in certain parts of the body and enhance others. Corsets were designed to mould a woman's flesh to suit the fashions of the period, though wearing a corset often resulted in fainting and breathlessness for the wearer.

By the turn of the 16th century, stiffened dress bodices that flattened the bust and were constructed of layers of linen sewn or pasted together were becoming fashionable. The emphasis of the figure was focused on the waistline, with exaggerated hips either side to emphasise a woman's childbearing ability.

By the 1590s bodices stiffened with whalebone were popular, and by inserting other organic material, such as wood, into the bodice, the torso could be held rigid. During the 17th century the boned bodice became known as a "stay", and bosoms were thrust upwards and covered with a veil, while the stomach was held flat.

Around 1670 stays became separate undergarments that were laced at the back and generally fastened at the front with ties. By 1820 stays had evolved into what we would now recognise as corsets. The bustline had become more relaxed but the waist was now pinched in by a heavily structured and tightly laced corset. This led to the wasp-waist silhouette in 1828. By the 1840s corsets were covering bosom, abdomen and hips, reinforced with a steel busk, soon to be known simply as a "steel". Corsets for pregnancy were mercifully unboned and for a decade in the mid-19th century men adopted corsets under their clothes.

Waists stayed laced in tiny proportions into the start of the 20th century. Corsets were being worn lower down the body, and by 1913 they rested just 5cm above the waist, paving the way for the invention of the bra.

Girdles appeared in the 1930s, made of woven elastic material, and today's corsets are worn more to satisfy a man or woman's particular fetish, rather than create a fashionable silhouette, with leather and rubber high on the agenda.