Where have all the corsets gone?
By Cathy Taylor
Costume purists insist on accurate corseting for 19th century-style
women’s costume. They make reproduction corsets for re-enactments
and historic events.
Okay, purists: when collecting original garments as opposed to
reproductions, try to find a real Victorian or Edwardian corset.
Advertising implied that the
corset, a mechanical device, was somehow a
“natural”feature of beauty, and no figure without one was
attractive or acceptable.
Corseting partially explains many of
those tiny-looking antique clothes in shops and museums.
Nineteenth-century people were probably no more slender than people
of today, but fashionable women depended on their corsets, rather
than diet or exercise, to endow them with the ideal figure. And the
ideal figure was not anorexically lean: it was rounded and ample,
with an unnaturally small waist.
On the vintage market today, you can find some bodices with
normal-width busts, hips and shoulders and absurdly low waist
measurements, but you’ll look a long way for the stays that created
this surreal shape. Latter-day corsets with modern boning, zippers
and elastic have been worn into recent years. But the legendary,
breath-choking, rib-wrenching Victorian corset pulled a disappearing
act, surprising for a garment that supposedly held fashion (and
women) in its grip for a century.
A riding corset, shown in
Harper’s Bazar in 1888, probably had a small waist
measurement, but was meant to be left open two or three
inches in back.
Research on corset history and psychology abounds. Joan McTeer, a
Minneapolis freelance costume consultant who has studied and built
period corsets, helps steer through the high points. Hard bodices,
often stiffened with metal, had been upper-class affectations before
the French Revolution brought simpler styles. When the fashionable
waist began to constrict again in the 1820s, the corset was a humble
cotton band, shaped mainly with seams, cording and sometimes little
pieces of cane and reed. At mid-century came more extreme
constructions of whalebone. This was not bone but baleen, the
food-straining substance that lines the mouth of a whale. If wearing
this sounds weird to us, it was at least considered more flexible
and comfortable than metal, which reappeared in the 19th century in
new and vicious forms.
Joan Severa, fashion history expert at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, says a corset could reduce a fashionable young
woman’s rib cage area by three to seven inches, with the most
restricting styles reserved for evening wear. The most extreme rib
reductions occurred in the early to mid-1890s, she adds.
wonder why women bothered with the discomfort and stress of corsets.
Time travelers from the mid-19th century might wonder why
we don’t, since we can afford to. After the Industrial Revolution,
when the rising middle classes gained some excess income and
leisure, their first thought was not to relax on the beach; it was
to live and dress with all the grandeur and all the limitations of
aristocrats of former centuries. As agrarian society became
industrial, “the woman’s role changed from accessory breadwinner to
guardian of the home,” according to McTeer.
As average women became “ladies,” and countrywomen became more
citified, they exchanged functional dress for a heavy ensemble of
chemise, drawers, corset, corset cover and several petticoats. C.
Willett Cunnington wrote in Englishwomen’s Clothing In The
Nineteenth Century: “... there was no pretence that the
underclothing worn was comfortable.. . . The burden of so much
unprepossessing ballast was designed to check those hasty impulses
which may assail the feminine mind; in that sense Victorian
underclothing was admirably adapted for the purpose in view.”
was not a motive in 19th century dressing; genteel
respectability was. To be genteel was to be somehow removed from the
gritty facts of the farm and the factory. For women, it was to keep
a respectable home, fill it with fancy-work, and sanctify it with
their own piety and refined accomplishments. The tight corset, once
an aristocratic symbol, became part of the middle-class mythos of
privilege and aspiration to higher things. The allure of an
artificially hobbled female reaches across cultures, McTeer points
out. The corset rendered a woman obviously unfit for work, and that
was one of its attractions.
As the century wore on, the yen for corsets reached even into the
working and farming populations of Middle America. In the 1890s,
Severa says, it was written that “only a bawdywoman goes uncorseted.”
Even when working in the fields or the kitchen, the self-respecting
average woman wore a daytime corset, more as a matter of decency
So corsets were bound up with morality. Corsets inhibited free
motion, including any that might excite ungenteel sensations in the
woman herself or the men watching her. The corset at once froze the
female form and exaggerated its femaleness in a way Victorians, on
the run from earthy realities, found attractive.
If corsets carried all that cultural baggage, why have they
disappeared? “They were worn till they wore out, unless a corset
was special for some reason, part of a wedding trousseau or special
ball gown,” McTeer says. According to the 19th-century custom of
using up and recycling garments instead of saving them, “older
corsets were worn around the house, newer ones for evening.”
and maintaining corsets was a problem without a good solution.
Cording could shrink, metal rusted, corsets boned with almost any
material could suffer under normal laundry procedures, so that
washing them was not really practical. Meanwhile, “a corset that had
molded over time to a particular person was not comfortable for
anybody else.” Finally, falling apart and not nice to be near, the
corset was typically discarded. Severa goes further, asserting that
many out-of-style and irrelevant corsets were routinely thrown away
without being worn out first.
While a few Victorian outer garments were saved sentimentally,
almost nobody seems to have felt that way about underwear. The
occasional small corset that is found in good condition “could have
belonged to a very young person who outgrew it,” McTeer theorizes.
When a woman died, “the daughters would say the corset was too
personal to save and destroy it.”
most 19th-century corsets vanished, and in our time they have been
dimly remembered with horror, derision and inaccuracy. Every reader
of Gone With The Wind blanches at the mention of Scarlett
O’Hara’s 17-inch waist — but was it really possible? Some major
fashion historians have trouble believing that any human skeleton
ever fit in a circle of 16 or 17 inches. Corsets with those
measurements were sold; that’s in the records of corset
manufacturers. That doesn’t indicate the real waist measurements of
the wearers, however.
Said an 1886 booklet on The Dress Reform Problem: “A
distinction should be made between actual and corset measurements,
because stays, as ordinarily worn, do not meet at the back ...Young
girls, especially, derive intense satisfaction from proclaiming the
diminutive size of their corset [sic]. Many purchase eighteen and
nineteen inch stays, who must leave them open two, three and four
we should also make a distinction between the average woman’s real
way of wearing corsets and the bizarre practice of “tight-lacing.”
The dress reform movement, campaigning against tight-lacing in its
publications, tended to cite freakish examples of 16 inches and
under. Many figures on the actual size of 19th-century people come
from overzealous dress reform publications, and that’s one reason
accurate measurements are hard to find today.
McTeer says the measurement that really matters is that of the
waistband on the dress, not the corset. She cites a famous study by
fashion historian Doris Langley Moore, who measured the waistbands
of 1,000 19th-century dresses in museum collections and found none
under 20 inches.
So we may never know how much of the supposed tininess of Victorian
ladies was natural, and how much was distortion caused by the
corset. If wedding dresses with “hand-span” waists are found, they
may have been worn briefly by teenage brides, “the same girls who
would be anorexic today,” says McTeer.
The women who actually wore Victorian-style corsets for decades are
no longer here, so we can hardly see how their bodies were altered
over time. McTeer has heard that when Minnesota Renaissance Festival
performers go corseted for eight weekends in a row, strange things
start to happen to their torsos.
Some accounts claim that 19th-century corsets rearranged internal
organs in ways that could cause illness and even death, and McTeer
sees some basis for this. From personal try-on experience, she says
even a good-sized 1880s corset inflicts pain on lower ribs. “The
stomach and intestines sink, the bottom ribs compress, you can’t
work your diaphragm, so you breathe from the top half of the lungs.”
When women corseted as a norm, “their lung capacity was probably
never what it should have been.”
About those bottom ribs: the legend persists that some women had
them surgically removed to let the corset achieve the perfect
hourglass figure. McTeer doesn’t believe many women submitted to
contemporary surgical conditions just for cosmetic reasons. She says
this rumor, still often repeated in popular histories, is probably
This story appears in a biography of Florenz Ziegfeld: Anna Held,
his first wife and star of the Follies, was ill after a pregnancy.
To cover for her absence from the stage, he planted the story that
she had undergone the dreadful rib operation. Whether any women
believed it and actually went under the knife, we may never know.
Straight and narrow
We want to slouch and relax today, but Victorians made a goal of
standing straight, and it seemed logical to them that clothes should
enforce a dignified posture from childhood on.
Parents of earlier centuries had swaddled infants to make their
bodies grow straight. Victorians gave up swaddling, but still
swathed children of both sexes in various stay-bands, heavy
underwaists and rudimentary corsets during formative years.
Throughout life, people were sold corsets under the banner of
If we wonder why physicians allowed corset-imposed deformity, many
did rail against it in print — and others defended it. Bernard
Rudofsky, in The Unfashionable Human Body, writes:
“...doctors’ knowledge of the female anatomy was less than perfect
mainly because they based their observations on the deformed body.”
By century’s end, after about 75 years of corseting, many physicians
believed women’s skeletons and breathing apparatus were naturally
different from men’s. It took more years to reveal that women never
had needed special support, and that much of their supposed weakness
was a self-fulfilling prophecy created by corsets.
Just before World War I, Paris couturiers introduced a simple,
almost tubular silhouette. Exaggerated curves were no longer
engineered into the female figure, and more Victorian corsets met
their end. Still, the corset in some form did not lose its hold in
the ’20s, ’30s or even the ’40s. Too many women were physically or
psychologically dependent on it, and too many still believed that
all nice ladies corseted. Cinched waists returned to fashion after
World War II, and the ins and outs of waistlines have gone on until
today. Claudia Kidwell, in the book Men and Women: Dressing the
Part, asserts that corsets never really went out of fashion;
they just evolved into other garments.
Women today expect the perfect figure to come from inside, with
dieting and exercise, not from restraint on the outside. While the
lean, athletic figure is now seen as a function of freedom and
feminism, says McTeer, “the goal still is to look smooth and under
control. The ideal is the same, the means to achieve it have
Copyright © 1994,2000,2001,Cathy Taylor, all
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Taylor, owner of Victori Limited,
is a writer, editor and lecturer on antique and vintage
clothing, and on Victorian style and material culture. She is the national newsletter editor for the Costume Society of America.
This article first appeared in
The Old Times, a regional antiques newspaper based in Minnesota, and is used here with permission. You can find more articles by Cathy and others, plus subscription information at