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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. Just try.

 
Corseting

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.

We 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.” 

Comfort 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 than fashion.

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.”

Cleaning 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.” 

So 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 inches ...”

Apparently, 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 stage publicity.

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 health. 

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 changed.”

Copyright © 1994,2000,2001,Cathy Taylor, all rights reserved.


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 www.theoldtimes.com.

 
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