The use of the Corset. Fashion in the reign of Louis XVI.

Marie Therese of Savoy, French Ancien Régime fashion. French Rococo costumes. Hoop skirt, Farthingale. Le Pouf.

Marie Therese of Savoy, Countess of Artois 1780

CHAPTER VII. Fashion in the reign of Louis XVI., Revolutionary Period, George III.


General use of the word “stays” after l600 in England – Costume of the court of Louis XVI. – Dress in 1776 – The formidable stays and severe constriction then had recourse to – The stays drawn by Hogarth – Dress during the French revolutionary period – Short waists and long trains-Writings of Buchan – Jumper and “Garibaldis” – Return to the old practice of tight-lacing – Training of figures: backboards and stocks – Medical evidence in favour of stays – Fashion in the reign of George III. – Stays worn habitually by gentlemen – General use of Corsets for boys on the Continent – The officers of Gustavus Adolphus – The use of the Corset for youths: a letter from a gentleman on the subject of Evidence regarding the wearing of Corsets by gentlemen of the present day – Remarks on the changes of fashion – ‘the term “Crinoline” not new – Crinoline among the South Sea Islanders – Remarks of Madame La Sante on Crinoline and slender waists – Abstinence from food as an assistance to the Corset – Anecdote from the Traditions of Edinburgh – The custom of wearing Corsets during sleep, it`s growing prevalence in schools and private families: letters relating to – The belles of the United States and their “illusion waists” – Medical evidence in favor of moderately tight lacing – Letters from ladies who have been subjected to tight-lacing.

Costume of the court of Louis XVI. Dress in 1776.

For some considerable period of time we find stays much more frequently spoken of than corsets in the writings of English authors, but their use continued to be as general and their form of construction just as unyielding as ever, both at home and abroad. The costume worn at the court of Louis XVI., of which the following illustration will give an idea, depended mainly for its completeness on the form of the stays, over which the elaboratly-finished body of the dress was made to fit without fold or crease, forming a sort of bodice, which in many instances was sewn on to the figure of the wearer after the stays had been laced to their extreme limit. The towering headdress and immensely wide and distended skirt gave to the figure an additional appearance of tenuity, as we have seen when describing similar contrivances in former times.

Robe à la Circassienne. Rococo fashion 18th century. Reign Louis XVI.

Jeune Dame vêtue d’une Robe à la Circassienne 1775

Costume Déshabillé du matin appelé pierrot. 18th century rococo costumes

Costume Déshabillé du matin appelé pierrot en 1787.

Court Dress. Louis XVI fashion. Rococo Crinoline. 18th century costume.

Court Dress of the Reign of Louis XVI.

French Revolution costume. France Merveilleuse Fashion clothing

Classic Costume of the French Revolutionary Period.

Most costly laces were used for the sleeves, and the dress itself was often sumptuously brocaded and ornamented with worked wreaths and flowers. High-heeled shoes were not wanting to complete the rather astounding toilet of 1776. For many years before this time, and, in fact, from the commencement of the eighteenth century, it had been the custom for staymakers, in the absence of any other material strong and unyielding enough to stand the wear and tension brought to bear on their wares, to employ a species of leather known as “bend,“ which was not unlike that used for shoe-soles and measured very nearly a quarter of an inch in thickness. The stays made from this were very long-waisted, forming a narrow conical case, in the most circumscribed portion of which the waist was closely laced, so that the figure was made upright to a degree. Many of Hogarth’s figures, who wear the stays of his time (1730), are erect and remarkably slender-waisted. Such stays as he has drawn are perfectly straight in cut, and are filled with stiffening and bone.

Dress during the French revolutionary period.

In 1760 we find a strong disposition manifested to adopt the so-called classic style of costume. During the French revolutionary movement and in the reign of the First Napoleon, the ladies endeavored to copy the costume of Ancient Greece, and in 1787 were about as successful in their endeavors as young ladies at fancy dress balls usually are in personating mermaids or fairy queens. The annexed illustration represents the classic style of that period. For several years the ladies of England adopted much the same style of costume, and resorted to loose bodies if bodies they might be called-long trains, and waists so short that they began and ended immediately under the armpits. The following illustration represents a lady of 1806.

Writings of William Buchan (1). Jumper and „Garibaldis“.

Buchan, in writing during this short-waisted, long-trained period, congratulates himself and society at large on the fact of “the old strait waistcoats of whalebone”, as he styles them, falling into disuse. Not long after this, the laws of fashion became unsettled, as they periodically have done for ages, and the lines written by an author who wrote not long after might have been justly applied to the changeable tastes of this transition period: “Now a shape in neat stays, Now a slattern in jumps,” these “jumps” being merely loose short jackets; very much like those worn under the name of  “jumpers“ at the present day by shipwrights and some other artificers. The form of the modern “Garibaldi” appears to have been borrowed from this. The reign of relaxation seems to have been of a comparatively short duration indeed, as we see by the remark made by Buchan’s son, who edited a new edition of his father’s work, Advice to Mothers (2), and an appendix to it: “Small” (says he) “is the confidence to be placed in the permanent effects of fashion. Had the author lived till the present year (1810), he would have witnessed the fashion of tight lacing revived with a degree of fury and prevailing to an extent which he could form no conception of, and which posterity will not credit. Stays are now composed, not of whalebone, indeed, or hardened leather, but of bars of iron and steel from three to four inches broad, and many of them not less than eighteen in length.” The same author informs us that it was by no means uncommon to see “A mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and, placing her foot on her back, break half-dozen laces in tightening her stays.” Those who advocate the use of the corset as being indispensable to the female toilet have much reason on their side when they insist that these temporary freaks of fancy for loose and careless attire only call for infinitely more rigid and severe constriction after they (as they invariably have done) pass away, than if the regular training of the figure had been systematically carried out by the aid of corsets of ordinary power. In a period certainly not much over thirty years, the old-established standard of elegance, “the span,” was again established for waist measurement.

Lady of Fashion, 1806. French empire costume. France regency fashion.

Lady of Fashion, 1806.

Strutt (3), whose work was published in 1796, informs us that in his own time he remembers it to have been said of young women, in proof of the excellence of their shape, that you might span their waists, and he also speaks of having seen a singing girl at the Italian Opera whose waist was laced to such an excessive degree of smallness that it was painful to look at her.
Pope, in the Challenge, in speaking of the improved charms of a beauty of the court of George II., clearly shows in what high esteem a slender figure was held. As a bit of acceptable news, he says:
“Tell Pickenbourg how slim she’s grown.”

Training of figures: backboards and stocks

There is abundant evidence to show that no ordinary amount of management and training was had recourse to then, as now, for reducing the waists of those whose figures had been neglected to the required standard of fashionable perfection, and that those who understood the art were somewhat chary in conferring the benefit of it. In a poem entitled the Bassit Table, attributed to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (4), Similinda, in exposing the ingratitude of a rival beauty, exclaims:
“She owes to me the very charms she wears –
An awkward thing when first she came to town,
Her shape unfashioned and her face unknown;
I introduced her to the park and plays,
And by my interest Cozens made her stays.“
A favor in those days no doubt well worthy of gratitude and due consideration.

About this time it was the custom of some fashionable staymakers to sew a narrow, stiff, curved bar of steel along the upper edge of the stays, which, extending back to the shoulders on each side, effectually kept them back, and rendered the use of shoulder-straps superfluous. The slightest tendency to stoop was at once corrected by the use of the backboard, which was strapped flat against the back of the waist and shoulders extending up the back of the neck, where a steel ring covered with leather projected to the front and encircled the throat. The young lady of fashion undergoing the then system of boarding-school training enjoyed no bed of roses, especially if unblessed on the score of slenderness. A hard time indeed must an awkward, careless girl have had of it, incased in stiff, tightly-laced stays, backboard on back, and feet in stocks. She simply had to improve or suffer, and probably did both. It is singular and noteworthy that although so many of the older authors give stays the credit of constantly producing spinal curvature, an able writer on the subject of the present day should make this unqualified assertion:- “To some, stays may have been injurious; fewer evils, so far as my experience goes, have arisen from them than from other causes.”
It is well known that ladies of the eighteenth century did not suffer from spinal disease in the proportion of those of the nineteenth, which might arise in some degree from the system of education; but some highly-educated women of that period were elegant and graceful figures, and it is well known they generally wore stiff stays, though their make, it must be admitted, was less calculated to injure the figure than many of those of the present day.

The author we have just quoted goes on to say- “Mr. Walker, in ridiculing the practice of wearing stays, has chosen a very homely and not very correct illustration of the human figure. ‘The uppermost pair of ribs,‘ says he, ‘which lie just at the bottom of the neck, are very short. The next pair are rather longer, the third longer still, and thus they go on increasing in length to the seventh pair, or last true ribs, after which the length diminishes, but without materially contracting the size of the cavity, because the false ribs only go round a part of the body. Hence the chest has a sort of conical shape, or it may be compared to a common beehive, the narrow pointed end being next the neck, and the broad end undermost, the natural form of the chest, in short, is just the reverse of the fashionable shape of the waist; the latter is narrow below and wide above the former is narrow above and wide below.’
Surely, when the idea struck him, he must have been gazing on a living skeleton, uncovered with muscle. After reading his observations, I took the measure of a well-formed little girl, seven years of age, who had never worn stays, and found the circumference of the bust just below the shoulders one inch and a-half larger than at the lower part of the waist.” The views of the author just quoted seem to be borne out by the researches of a French physician of high standing who has paid much attention to the subject. He positively asserts “that Corsets cannot be charged with causing deviation of the vertebral column.“

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Content: The Corset and the Crinoline. A Book of Modes and Costumes from remote Periods to the Present Time

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