A bit of

Corset History

(based on a chapter in Collector's Guide to Vintage Fashions)

       “One of the highest entertainments in Turkey is having you go to their baths,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote in Godey’s Lady’s Book in the 1850s. “When I was first introduced to one, the lady of the house came to undress me—another high compliment they pay to strangers. After she slipped off my gown and my stays, she was very much struck by the sigh of them and cried out to the ladies in the bath, ‘Come hither, and see how cruelly the poor English ladies are used by their husbands. You need not boat, indeed, or the superior liberties allowed to you when they lock you up in a box.’”
       “The box” in which every Victorian lady came gift–wrapped was the corset. Today, it seems amazing that women went about their daily lives—shopping, keeping house, rearing children, dancing, even
playing sports—while barely able to bend over in their corsets. Did every Victorian woman cry “Tighter!” to her maid, as the fictional Scarlet O’Hara did? Did not one ever suspect that a tightly–cinched waistline and the “vapors” were somehow related? Though Scarlet turned up her nose and pouted, “Pooh! I never fainted in my life!” the truth is that “to lace or not to lace” was a major concern for many women.

A c. 1900 corset ad.


       Some experts did tell Victorian women that corsets caused everything except old age and war: “What a host of evils follows in the steps of tight–lacing,” Victorian author Mrs. Merrifield wrote, “indigestion, hysteria, spinal curvature, liver complaints, disease of the heart, cancer, early death!” At the same time, other sources warned of the dire consequences of not wearing corsets. “We have just received a letter,” wrote the editor of Dress in 1888, “in which the writer declares that a woman’s waist, left to itself, will grow larger and larger every year, until it measures nearly or quite as much as the bust!”
       Actually, 19th century ladies felt fortunate that the corset of their era had evolved into such a comparatively “modern” (and relatively comfortable) contraption. Peterson’s remarked in 1864: “The long, ungainly corset, as unbending as a coat of armor, and filled with whalebone and steel, oppressing the chest and keeping the body in close and painful imprisonment, has now been discarded, much to the benefit of the health and comfort of ladies...No French lady would think of wearing the old ‘instrument of torture,’ as it is now called.”
       Although the new corset was a far cry from the old steel cage, which flattened the entire upper body, as well as whittling the waist, it had a marked effect on women’s everyday lives. Not only were corsets required garments while “in society,” but there were rust–proof corsets for swimming, short corsets for horseback riding, corsets with elastic inserts that made housekeeping chores easier, “electric” corsets that replaced whalebone with magnetic strips and claimed to “ward off and cure diseases...”—a corset for every occasion and for every imaginable costume.
       Corsets even dictated how a lady dressed—not only what she wore, but how she put it on. Her morning routine began by slipping on her stockings and (if her corset did not have attached garters) separate elastic garters to hold them up. Then, she would most likely put on her shoes, since it would be difficult to bend over once her corset was on. Next came her drawers and then her chemise—worn under the corset to protect it from body oils that would otherwise quickly make it necessary to have the corset cleaned by a special laundress. Without a maid (or at least a sister) to help her into her corset, it would take about a quarter of an hour for her just to lace herself up. She would, as one writer described the process in 1837, “pull hard for some minutes, next pausing to breathe, then resume the task with might ‘til after perhaps a third effort, she at last succeeds and sits down, covered with perspiration.” An 1871 issue of The Metropolitan sarcastically described the method that had been used a decade earlier by ladies, “when the size of the waist was of more importance than the size of the brain.” Said the editor, “There were bed–posts in those days, and any young lady who hadn’t fortune sufficient to maintain a strong dressing maid took a little friendly assistance from those posts by looping her corset laces about one of them, and then pulled her body away with all its weight.”
       Even when this process was complete, the lady was still less than half dressed. A corset cover (necessary to help hide the corset’s bones once she was fully dressed), a bustle or crinoline, several layers of petticoats, and then, finally, her dress, was put on.
       It was a lot of work, but in a society where marriage was essentially a woman’s only career, looks were crucial. And, as one Victorian mother put it, while she could not change the color of her daughter’s hair, her height, or her facial features, she could very easily make her waist the fashionable ideal. Young girls of six or seven were often fitted with “training corsets;” though less heavily boned than adult versions, they were made up of stiff cloth that fit snugly from the waist up to the armpits with wide shoulder straps to keep the child from stooping her shoulders.
       By the time their daughters were fourteen, strict mothers graduated them to full–fledged corsets—but the transition was far from easy. “My daughter wore [the stays] the first night after much protestation, but on the second I found she had taken them off after I had returned to rest,” one mother admitted. “I then took the precaution of fastening the lace in a knot at the top of the lace holes, and for a night or two this had the desired effect; but she was not long before she cut the staylace. I have punished her somewhat severely for her disobedience, but she declares she will bear any punishment rather than submit to the discipline of the corset.” But the young woman eventually gave in, after a month of the hated corseting brought her compliments at a party. “[Now] her only objection is that the corsets are uncomfortable and prevent her from romping about...” Which was just the point: corsets altered more than the figure; they also affected the demeanour, and—it was believed—the character, of the women who wore them.
       Although such accounts seem cruel to us, Victorian society insisted that a mother who corseted her unwilling daughter was only showing the proper concern for her future as a marriageable maiden. After all, some gentlemen found a small waist alluring precisely because it signified the capacity for self–sacrifice that they associated with true femininity. “There is something to me extraordinarily fascinating in the thought that a young girl has for many years been subjected to the strictest discipline of the corset,” one man wrote. “If she has suffered, as I have no doubt she has...it must be quite made up to her by the admiration her figure excited.” Another man opined, “I am certain that half the charm in a small waist comes, not in spite of, but on account of, its being tight–laced, and the uneasiness caused by [the corset].”
        Other men disagreed, emphatically. “I believe that this supreme folly is perpetrated by women solely for the admiration of one another,” a gentleman wrote. “I never yet met with a man who admired a small waist. Personally, I cannot conceive [a figure to be] elegant which approximates that of the wasp, an insect I could never bring myself to think handsome.”

       Whatever the opinions of the general public, doctors continually inveighed against the dangers of extreme tight–lacing. “What is most singular is that women are aware of the injuriousness of the corset—they instinctively feel that its action is an unnatural and eminently hurtful one,” a doctor wrote to Godey’s in the 1860s. “Here is the proof. If...a lady falls ill in a crowded assembly of any kind, a general cry is raised by the others, ‘Cut her lace!’ This is done instantly—the compressing machine is opened, air rushes into the lungs, the victim breathes and recovers.”
       Despite these dire warnings, Victorian fashion magazines are full of letters written by women bragging about their tightly corseted waistlines. Some ladies claimed to have 17, 16—even 13—inch waistlines, yet collectors rarely find examples of Victorian women’s dresses with waistlines of less than 20 inches. The reason for the disparity is that writers of such letters assumed readers would understand they were speaking of their corset size—not their actual waist measurement. When worn properly, the back edges of a corset do not meet, leaving a gap of at least two—and sometimes as much as 5 or 6—inches. Therefore, a woman bragging of her 17 inch corset would have had a corseted waist measuring anywhere from 19 to 22 inches.
       One young lady (who signed herself “Common Sense”) pointed out in a letter to a fashion journal that even if a lady cinched her wait in 7 inches or so, she wasn’t really crushing her middle. “Let anyone draw herself up to her full height by trying to touch some imaginary object far above her head,” she wrote. “She will find her waist a good seven inches smaller...[therefore] the corset cannot be said to squeeze the waist.” And The Metropolitan speculated in 1871: “Statistics tell us that the number of women is much more than that of men, the world over. Now, the general use of the corset would very soon, we should imagine, affect this social distribution, were they productive of the fearful physical troubles supposed to be generated by them.”
       Even if the tiny waists portrayed in fashion illustrations were hardly a realistic image of the Victorian figure, corsets remained a lady’s “indispensable.”

       Uncomfortable as they were, their advantages out–weighed their inconveniences. Not only did the corset make a beautifully fashionable figure available to most every woman, but as one period magazine stressed, it gave “evidence of a well–disciplined mind and well–regulated feelings.” In the meantime, corsets, the true “gilded cage” of the Victorian era, brought the Victorian male to his knees, while it safely held the Victorian lady respectably upright.

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(c) Copyright 1999 by Kristina Harris

04/21/2006