Show gets to grips with the female form

An exhibition celebrating the corset opens today, proving beoynd doubt that dieting was once for wimps.

"Unlaced Grace" at Banbury Museum, Oxfordshire, takes a look at corsetry through the ages, showing examples of every style from the torture chambers of the 19th century to the outrageous extravaganzas being created today by designers like Vivienne Westwood.

The earliest corset on show dates from the 18th century, when the style was to make the breasts a cone shape and push them sharply upwards with whale bone. In the 19th century, steel was employed for the same purpose, but by the 1920s the fashion was forcorsets that ruthlessly flattened breasts and hips to create a boyish, tubular shape.

Examples from the latter period come from the Spencer factory which opened in Banbury in 1927 and employed 2,000 corsetieres in its heyday. It also designed the tailor-made corsets on display from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when corsets fell intodecline.

Alison Carter, a costume historian, who helped set up the exhibition, admitted: "It's a dying breed. Now the only people who buy lace-up corsets are older women."

The exhibition continues until 29 April.