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

Corset à la Ninon 1810. 19th century bodice. Empire regency fashion underwear.

Corset à la Ninon 1810. Regency fashion period.

Fashion in the reign of George III. General use of Corsets for boys on the Continent.

After the period referred to by Buchan’s son, when tight-lacing was so rigorously revived, we see no diminution of it, and towards the end of George III.’s reign, gentlemen, as well as ladies, availed themselves of the assistance of the corset-maker. Advertising tailors of the time freely advertised their “Codrington corsets” and “Petersham stiffners” for gentlemen of fashion, much as the “Alexandra corset,” or “the Empress’s own stay,” is brought to the notice of the public at the present day. Soemmering (5) informs us that as long ago as 1760, “It was the fashion in Berlin, and also in Holland a few years before, to apply corsets to children, and many families might be named in which parental fondness selected the handsomest of several boys to put in corsets.” In France, Russia, Austria, and Germany, this practice has been decidedly on the increase since that time, and lads intended for the army are treated much after the manner of young ladies, and are almost as tightly laced. It is related of Prince de Ligne (6) and Prince Kaunitz (7) that they were invariably incased in most expensively made satin corsets, the former wearing black and the latter white. Dr. Doran, in writing of the officers of the far-famed “Lion of the North,” Gustavus Adolphus, says, “They were the tightest-laced exquisites of suffering humanity.” The worthy doctor, like many others who have written on the subject, inseparably associates the habitual wearing of corsets with extreme suffering; but the gentlemen who, like the ladies, have been subjected to the full discipline of the corset, not only emphatically deny that it has caused them any injury, and, beyond the inconvenience experienced on adopting any new article of attire, little uneasiness, but, on the contrary, maintain that the sensations associated with the confirmed practice of tight-lacing are so agreeable that those who are once addicted to it rarely abandon the practice.

The use of the Corset for youths: a letter from a gentleman

The following letter to the Englishwoman’s Magazine (8) of November, 1867, from a gentleman who was educated in Vienna, will show this:-
“MADAM:- May I be permitted for once to ask admission to your ‘Conversazione’, and to plead as excuse for my intrusion that I am really anxious to indorse your fair correspondent’s (Belle`s) assertion that it is those who know nothing practically of the corset who are most vociferous in condemning it? Strong-minded women who have never worn a pair of stays, and gentlemen blinded by hastily-formed prejudice, alike anathematise an article of dress of the good qualities of which they are utterly ignorant, and which consequently they cannot appreciate. On a subject of so much importance as regards comfort (to say nothing of the question of elegance, scarcely less important on a point of feminine costume), no amount of theory will ever weigh very heavily when opposed to practical experience.
“The proof of the pudding is a proverb too true not to be acted on in such a case. To put the matter to actual test, can any of the opponents of the corset honestly state that they have given up stays after having fairly tried them, except in compliance with the persuasions or commands of friends or medical advisers, who seek in the much-abused corset a convenient first cause for an ailment that baffles their skill? ‘The Young Lady Herself’ (a former correspondent) does not complain of either illness or pain, even after the first few months; while, on the other hand, Staylace, Nora, and Belle bring ample testimony, both of themselves and their schoolfellows, as to the comfort and pleasure of tight-lacing. To carry out my first statement as to the truth of Belle’s remark, those of the opposite sex who, either from choice or necessity, have adopted this article of attire, are unanimous in its praise; while even among an assemblage of opponents a young lady’s elegant figure is universally admired while the cause is denounced. From personal experience, I beg to express a decided and unqualified approval of corsets. I was early sent to school in Austria, where lacing is not considered ridiculous in a gentleman as in England, and I objected in a thoroughly English way when the doctor’s wife required me to be laced. I was not allowed any choice, however. A sturdy mädchen (german word for girl) was stoically deaf to my remonstrances, and speedily laced me up tightly in a fashionable Viennese corset. I presume my impressions were not very different from those of your lady correspondents. I felt ill at ease and awkward, and the daily lacing tighter and tighter produced inconvenience and absolute pain. In a few months, however, I was as anxious as any of my ten or twelve companions to have my corsets laced as tightly as a pair of strong arms could draw them. It is from no feeling of vanity that I have ever since continued to wear them, for, not caring to incur ridicule, I take good care that my dress shall not betray me, but I am practically convinced of the comfort and pleasantness of tight-lacing, and thoroughly agree with Staylace that the sensation of being tightly laced in an elegant, well-made, tightly fitting pair of corsets is superb. There is no other word for it. I have dared this avowal because I am thoroughly ashamed of the idle nonsense that is being constantly uttered on this subject in England. The terrors of hysteria, neuralgia, and, above all, consumption, are fearlessly promised to our fair sisters if they dare to disregard preconceived opinions, while, on the other hand, some medical men are beginning slowly to admit that they cannot conscientiously support the extravagant assertions of former days. ’Stay torture’, ‘whalebone vices’, and ‘corset screws‘ are very terrible and horrifying things upon paper, but when translated into coutil or satin they wear a different appearance in the eyes of those most competent to give an opinion. That much perfectly unnecessary discomfort and inconvenience is incurred by the purchasers of ready-made corsets is doubtless true. The waist measure being right, the chest, where undue constriction will naturally produce evil effects, is very generally left to chance. If, then, the wearer suffers, who is to blame but herself?
“The remark echoed by nearly all your correspondents, that ladies have the remedy in their own hands by having their stays made to measure, is too self evident for me to wish to enlarge upon it; but I do wish to assert and insist that, if a corset allows sufficient room in the chest, the waist may be laced as tightly as the wearer desires without fear of evil consequences; and, further, that the ladies themselves who have given tight-lacing a fair trial, and myself and schoolfellows converted against our will, are the only jury entitled to pronounce authoritatively on the subject, and that the comfortable support and enjoyment afforded by a well-laced corset quite overbalances the theoretical evils that are so confidently prophesied by outsiders.

“WALTER.”

Since it has become a custom to send lads from England to the Continent for education, many of them adhere to the use of the corset on their return, and of the use of this article of attire among the rising generation of the gentlemen of this country there can be no doubt; we are informed by one of the leading corset-makers in London that it is by no means unusual to receive the orders of gentlemen, not for the manufacture of the belts so commonly used in horse-exercise, but veritable corsets, strongly boned, steeled, and made to lace behind in the usual way-not, as the corset-maker assured us, from any feeling of vanity on the part of the wearers, who so arranged their dresses that no one would even suspect that they wore corsets beneath them, but simply because they had become accustomed to tight-lacing, and were fond of it. So it will be seen that the fair sex are not the only corset-wearers.

Remarks on the changes of fashion. Crinoline among the South Sea Islanders.

Fashionable Dress in 1824. Empire costume. Regency fashion. The corset and the crinoline.

Fashionable Dress in 1824.

Lady of Fashion, 1827. Empire costume. Regency fashion. The corset and the crinoline.

Lady of Fashion, 1827.

During 1824, it will be seen by the accompanying illustration that fashion demanded the contour of the figure should be fully defined, and the absence of any approach to fullness about the skirt below the waist led to the use of very tight stays, in order that there might be some contrast in the outline of the figure. This style of dress, with slight modifications, remained in fashion for several years. In 1827, the dress, as will be seen on reference to the annexed illustration, had changed but little; but three years, or thereabouts, worked a considerable change, and we see, in 1830, sleeves of the most formidable size, hats to match, short skirts, and long slender waists the rage again. A few years later the skirts had assumed a much wider spread; the sleeves of puffed-out pattern were discarded. The waist took its natural position, and was displayed to the best advantage by the expansion of drapery below it, as will be seen on reference to the annexed cut. The term “crinoline” is by no means a new one, and long before the hooped petticoats with which the fashions of the last few years have made us so familiar, the horsehair cloth, so much used for distending the skirts of dresses, was commonly known by that name. It is not our intention here to enter on a description of the almost endless forms which from time to time this adjunct to ladies’ dress has assumed. Whether the idea of its construction was first borrowed from certain savage tribes it is difficult to determine. That a very marked and unmistakable form of it existed amongst the natives of certain of the South Sea Islands at their discovery by the early navigators, the curious cut, representing a native belle, will show, and there is no doubt that although the dress of the savage is somewhat different in its arrangement from that of the European lady of fashion, the object sought by the use of a wide-spread base to the form is the same.

Madame La Sante on Crinoline and slender waists

Madame La Sante, in writing on the subject, says:-
“Every one must allow that the expanding skirts of a dress, springing out immediately below the waist, materially assist by contrast in making the waist look small and slender. It is, therefore, to be hoped that now that crinoline no longer assumes absurd dimensions, it will long continue to hold its ground.”
The same author, in speaking of the prevailing taste for slender waists, thus writes:- “We have seen that for many hundred years a slender figure has been considered a most attractive female charm, and there is nothing to lead us to suppose that a taste which appears to be implanted in man’s very nature will ever cease to render the acquisition of a small waist an object of anxious solicitude with those who have the care of the young.”
For several years this solicitude has been decidedly on the increase, and many expedients which were had recourse to in ancient days for reducing the waist to exceeding slenderness, are, we shall see as we proceed, in full operation.
A very sparing diet has, as we have already seen, from the days of Terentius, been one great aid to the operation of the corset.

Anecdote from the Traditions of Edinburgh

There is a very quaint account to be found in the Traditions of Edinburgh bearing on this dieting system:
An elderly lady of fashion, who appears to have lived in Scotland during the early part of the last century, was engaged on the formation of the figures of her daughters, stinted meals and tight corsets worn day and night being some of the means made use of; but it is related that a certain cunning and evil-minded cook, whose coarse mind only ran on the pleasure of the appetite, used to creep stealthily in the dead of night to the chamber in which the young ladies slept, unlace their stays, and let them feed heartily on the strictly-prohibited dainties of the pantry; grown rash by impunity, she one night ventured to attempt running the blockade with hot roast goose, but three fatal circumstances combined against the success of the dangerous undertaking. In the first place, the savoury perfume arising from hot roast goose was penetrating to an alarming degree; in the second, the old lady, as ill-luck would have it, happened to be awake, and, worse than all, had no snuff, so smelt goose. The scene which followed the capture of the illicit cargo and the detection of the culprit cook can be much more easily imagined than described.

Lady of Fashion, 1830. Empire costume. Regency fashion. The corset and the crinoline.

Lady of Fashion, 1830.

Lady of Fashion, 1837. Victorian Costume. The corset and the crinoline.

Lady of Fashion, 1837.

The custom of wearing Corsets during sleep

The custom of wearing the corset by night as well as by day, above referred to, although partially discontinued for some time, is becoming general again. About the commencement of the last century the custom was much advocated and followed in France, and it is said to reduce and form the figure much more rapidly than any system of lacing by day only could bring about.
A French author of the period referred to says:- “Many mothers who have an eye to the main chance, through an excess of zeal, or rather from a strange fear, condemn their daughters to wear corsets night and day, lest the interruption of their use should hinder their project of procuring for them fine waists.” That ladies are fully aware of the potent influences of the practice, the following letter to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine will show:-
“As several of your correspondents have remarked, the personal experience of those who have for a number of years worn tight-fitting corsets can alone enable a clear and fair judgement to be pronounced upon their use. Happening to have had what I believe you will admit to be an unusual experience of tight-lacing, I trust you will allow me to tell the story of my younger days. Owing to the absence of my parents in India I was allowed to attain the age of fourteen before any care was bestowed upon my figure; but their return home fortunately saved me from growing into a. clumsy, inelegant girl; for my mamma was so shocked at my appearance that she took the unusual plan of making me sleep in my corset. For the first few weeks I occasionally felt considerable discomfort, owing, in a great measure, to not having worn stays before, and also to their extreme tightness and stiffness. Yet, though I was never allowed to slacken them before retiring to rest, they did not in the least interfere with my sleep, nor produce any ill effects whatever. I may mention that my mamma, fearing that, at so late an age, I should have great difficulty in securing a presentable figure, considered ordinary means insufficient, and consequently had my corsets filled with whalebone and furnished with shoulder-straps, to cure the habit of stooping which I had contracted. The busk, which was nearly inflexible, was not front fastening, and the lace being secured in a hard knot behind and at the top, effectually prevented any attempt on my part to unloose my stays. Though I have read lately of this plan having been tried with advantage, I believe it is as yet an unusual one, and as the testimony of one who has undergone it without the least injury to health cannot fail to be of value in proving that the much less severe system usually adopted must be even less likely to do harm, I am sure you will do me and your numerous readers the favor of inserting this letter in your most entertaining and valuable magazine. I am delighted to see the friends of the corset muster so strong at the ‘Englishwoman’s Conversazione.’ What is most required, however, are the personal experiences of the ladies themselves, and not mere treatises on tight-lacing by those who, like your correspondent Brisbane, have never tried it.

“MIGNONETTE.“

The Crinoline of a South Sea Islander. The corset and the crinoline.

The Crinoline of a South Sea Islander

Another correspondent to the same journal (signing herself “Débutante”) writes in the number for November 1867, as follows:-
“Mignonette’s case is not an ‘unusual’ one. She has just finished her education at a ‘West-End school’ where the system was strictly enforced. As she entered as a pupil at the age of thirteen and was very slender, she was fitted on her arrival with a corset, which could be drawn close without the extreme tightness found necessary in Mignonette’s case. They did not open in front, and were fastened by the under-governess in such a manner that any attempt to unlace them during the night would be immediately detected at the morning’s inspection. After the first week or two she felt no discomfort or pain of any kind, though, as she was still growing, her stays became proportionately tighter, but owing to her figure never being allowed to enlarge during the nine or ten hours of sleep, as is usually the case, this was almost imperceptible.”.

The belles of the United States and their “illusion waists”

Madame La Sante also refers to the custom as being much more general than is commonly supposed. She says:- “Several instances of this system in private families have lately come to my own knowledge, and I am acquainted with more than one fashionable school in the neighborhood of London where the practice is made a rule of the establishment. Such a method is doubtlessly resorted to from a sense of duty, and those girls who have been subjected to this discipline, and with whom I have had an opportunity of conversing, say that for the first few months the uneasiness by the continued compression was very considerable, but that after a time they became so accustomed to it that they felt reluctant to discontinue the practice.” In the United States of America the ladies often possess figures of remarkable slenderness and elegance, and the term “illusion” is not unfrequently applied to a waist of more than ordinary taperness. In a great number of instances the custom above referred to would be found to have mainly contributed to its original formation. The way in which doctors disagree on matters relating to the corset question is most remarkable.

Medical evidence in favor of moderately tight lacing.

The older writers, as we have seen, launched out in the most sweeping and condemnatory manner against almost every article of becoming or attractive attire. Corsets were most furiously denounced, and had the qualities which were gravely attributed to them been one thousandth part as deadly as they were represented, the civilised world would long ere this have been utterly depopulated. When we find such diseases and ailments as the following attributed by authors of supposed talent to the use of the corset, we are no longer surprised at remarks and strictures emanating from similar sources meeting with ridicule and derision: “hooping-cough, obliquity of vision, polypus, apoplexy, stoppage of the nose, pains in the eyes, and earache” are all laid at the door of the stays. We are rather surprised that large ears and wooden legs were not added to the category, as they might have been with an equal show of reason. Medical writers of the present day are beginning to take a totally different view of the matter, as the following letter from a surgeon of much experience will show:-
“My attention has just been directed to an interesting and important discussion in your magazine on the subject of corsets, and I have been urged as a medical man to give my opinion regarding them. Under these circumstances I trust you will allow me to attend the ‘Englishwoman’s Conversazione’ for once, as medical men are supposed to be the great opponents of the corset. It is no doubt true that those medical men who studied for their profession some thirty or forty years ago are still prejudiced against this elegant article of female dress, for stays were very different things even then to what they are now. The medical works, too, which they studied were written years before, and spoke against the buckram and iron stays of the last century. The name ‘stays’, however, being still used at the present time, the same odium still attaches to them in the minds of physicians of the old school. But the rising generation of doctors are free from these prejudices, and fairly judge the light and elegant corsets of the present day on their own merits. In short, it is now generally admitted, and I, for one, freely allow, that moderate compression of the waist by well-made corsets is far from being injurious. It is really absurdly illogical for the opponents of the corset to bring forward quotations from medical writers of the last century, for the animadversions of Soemmering are still quoted. Let us, however, merely look at facts as they at present stand; statistics prove that there are several thousand more women than men in the United Kingdom. A statement in the Registrar-General’s Report of a few years since has been brought forward to prove that corsets produce an enormous mortality from consumption, but these would-be benefactors of the fair sex omit to state how many males die from that disease. If there be any preponderance of deaths among women from consumption, the cause may easily be found in the low dress, the thin shoes, and the sedentary occupations in close rooms, without attributing the blame to the corset. Dr. Walshe, in his well-known work on diseases of the lungs, distinctly asserts that corsets cannot be accused of causing consumption. With regard to spinal curvature, a disease which has been connected by some writers with the use of stays, an eminent French physician, speaking of corsets, says They cannot be charged with causing deviations of the vertebral column.’ Let us, then, hear no more nonsense about the terrible consequences of wearing corsets, at all events till the ladies return to the buckram and iron of our great-grandmothers. Your fair readers may rest assured that what is said against stays at the present day is merely the lingering echo of prejudice, and is quite inapplicable now-a-days to the light and elegant production of the scientific ***corsetière. As a medical man (and not one of the old school) I feel perfectly justified in saying that ladies who are content with a moderate application of the corset may secure that most elegant female charm a slender waist, without fear of injury to health.

“MEDICUS”.

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