In Fashion, what is Boning?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In fashion, boning refers to rigid strips of material used to maintain the shape of a corset or bodice. Each strip of boning material is called a bone or a stay. The bones are sewn vertically into the fabric of a corset or bodice. Bones may also contribute to the cinching properties of a corset, depending upon its strength. Stays were historically made of whalebone, ivory, other types of bone, and wood, but today they are made primarily of steel or plastic.

Modern corsets often use plastic boning.
Modern corsets often use plastic boning.

The earliest types of corsets, worn from the 16th to 18th century, were designed to transform the upper torso into a very stiff, inverted cone shape. For this reason, very tough materials were used as boning, and there was little room between bones. In addition to whalebone, great cane was a popular support material in early corsets.

In the 20th century, spiral boning was used in corsets making them less complex and restrictive.
In the 20th century, spiral boning was used in corsets making them less complex and restrictive.

In the 19th century, corsets became less restrictive, and stays were often used only on the front of the corset. The first steel boning dates from around this time, and when whalebone became scarce and expensive in the latter 19th century, people looked to different materials for corsetry. Bones were sometimes made of cork, a plant fiber called Coraline, or Featherbone, made from the quills of feathers.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, corsets became less and less complex and restrictive, and more emphasis was placed on comfort than on molding the body into a desired shape. Bones became used more to keep the fabric taut than to shape and support the torso. In the early 20th century, spiral boning was used for the first time. This type of boning is made of steel arranged in a flat spiral. It is more flexible than traditional stays, as it is able to bend in both directions, and therefore provides more gentle support.

Nowadays, it is very common to find plastic boning, as it much cheaper than the steel variety. However, steel remains the material of choice for high quality corsets. Plastic is often too flexible and can warp unattractively. It is also not suitable for tightlacing, a practice in which people use corsets to significantly modify the figure, as was common in earlier centuries. As a substitute for steel stays, cable ties may sometimes be used.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - Personally, I think it's just important to make sure you have a decent quality corset. Modern makers know their stuff, and the good ones will make a corset to your measure, using decent, hard wearing boning (preferably steel) that will support you properly.

If you buy a cheap, off the shelf corset, that's when you'll end up in pain, or not looking your best. Better to just shell up the money in the first place.


@umbra21 - That seems to me like an argument of why a corset isn't completely bad rather than why it is good. I mean, we do know that it would put pressure on the lungs and that's why women were always fainting back then.

And the baby is only big enough to push the organs out of the way for a few months at a time. Most women don't get pregnant while breastfeeding, so it would have been a few months every few years that they would have experienced the organs being shifted even if they were getting pregnant over and over.

I think people should be able to do whatever they like with their bodies, as long as they don't hurt anyone else, but I also think they should have the right information in order to do that. Steel boned corsets can be gorgeous and might even reduce your waist a bit, but they can also do you serious harm, so don't take them lightly.


@anon125121 - I've actually heard the argument that wearing a tight corset is very good for modern women. There are a lot of people who protest against them, feeling that they are a return to the old days of institutionalized misogyny, since women were often looked down on if they didn't wear a tight corset. A corset could give them trouble breathing, or eventually even alter their shape permanently.

And it's true that corsets shouldn't be taken lightly. But, the argument in their favor is that they mimic the placement of the organs during pregnancy. Women were once pregnant all the time, just because there was no reliable birth control. So their organs were designed to move out of the way of the developing child and it's more unnatural for them to not be displaced, than for them to be displaced by the corset.

I don't know if there's any evidence backing this up though, but it seems to make sense for it to feel quite comfortable wearing a tight corset.


When a corsetier fit me in a girdle the girdle was heavily boned and zippered. What I found is the boning over a period of time molds and forms around your body and gives you additional needed support. the boning also helps hold the girdle in place so the girdle doesn't slip around.

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