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

Letters from ladies who have been subjected to tight-lacing.

A great number of ladies who, by the systematic use of the corset, have had their waists reduced to the fashionable standard, are to be constantly met in society. The great majority declare that they have in no way suffered in health from the treatment they had been subjected to. Vide the following letter from the Queen of July 18, 1863:-
“MADAM, As I have for a long time been a constant reader of the Lady’s Journal, I venture to ask you if you, or any of your valuable correspondents, will kindly tell me if it is true that small waists are again coming into fashion generally? I am aware that they cannot be said to have gone out of fashion altogether, for one often sees very slender figures; but I think during the last few years they have been less thought of than formerly. I have heard, however, from several sources, and by the public prints, that they are again to be La Mode. Now I fortunately possess a figure which will, I hope, satisfy the demand of fashion in this respect. What is the smallest-sized waist that one can have ? Mine is sixteen and a-half inches, and, I have heard, is considered small. I do not believe what is said against the corset, though I admit that if a girl is an invalid, or has a very tender constitution, too sudden a reduction of the waist may be injurious. With a waist which is, I believe, considered small, I can truly say I have good health. If all that was said against the corset were true, how is it so many ladies live to an advanced age? A friend of mine has lately died at the age of eighty-six, who has frequently told me anecdotes of how in her young days she was laced cruelly tight, and at the age of seventeen had a waist fifteen inches. Yet she was eighty-six when she died. I know that it has been so long the habit of public journals to take their example from medical men (who, I contend, are not the best judges in the matter) in running down the corset, and the very legitimate, and, if properly employed, harmless mode of giving a graceful slenderness to the figure, that I can hardly expect that at present you will have courage to take the part of the ladies. but I beg you to be so kind as to tell me what you know of the state of the fashion as regards the length and size of the waist, and whether my waist would be considered small. Also what is the smallest sized waist known among ladies of fashion. By doing this in an early number you will very much oblige,

Yours,&c., “CONSTANCE.”

Corset bodice fashion. 19th century bodice and underwear. Victorian fashion period.

Corset in 1878. Victorian fashion period.

The foregoing letter was followed on the 25th of the same month by one from another correspondent to the same paper, fully bearing out the truth of the view therein contained, and at the same time showing the system adopted in many of the French finishing schools:-
“MADAM, As a constant reader of your highly interesting and, valuable paper, I have ventured to reply to a letter under the above heading from your correspondent Constance, contained in your last week’s impression. In reply to her first question, there is little doubt, I think, that slender and long waists will ere long be la mode. Ladies of fashion here who are fortunate enough to possess such enviable and graceful attractions, take most especial care by the arrangement of their toilets to show them off to the very best advantage. A waist of sixteen and a-half inches would, I am of opinion, be considered, for a lady of fair average size and stature, small enough to satisfy even the most exacting of Fashion’s votaries. The question as to how small one’s waist can be is rather hard to answer, and I am not aware that any standard has yet been laid down on the subject, but an application to any of our fashionable corset-makers for the waist measurement of the smallest sizes made would go far to clear the point up. Many of the corsets worn at our late brilliant assemblies were about the size of your correspondent’s, and some few I have been informed, even less. I beg, to testify most fully to the truth of the remarks made by Constance as to the absurdly exaggerated statements (evidently made by persons utterly ignorant of the whole matter) touching the dreadfully injurious effects of the corset on the female constitution. My own, and a wide range of other experiences, leads me to a totally different conclusion, and I fully believe that, except in cases of confirmed disease or bad constitution, a well-made and nicely fitting corset inflicts no more injury than a tight pair of gloves. Up to the age of fifteen I was educated at a small provincial school, was suffered to run as nearly wild as could well be, and grew stout, indifferent and careless as to personal appearance, dress, manners, or any of their belongings. Family circumstances and change of fortune at this time led my relatives to the conclusion that my education required a continental finish. Advantage was therefore taken of the protection offered by some friends about to travel, and I was, with well-filled trunks and a great deal of good advice, packed off to a highly genteel and fashionable establishment for young ladies, situated in the suburbs of Paris. The morning after my arrival I was aroused by the clang of the ‘morning bell. I was in the act of commencing a hurried and by no means an elaborate toilet, when the under-governess, accompanied by a brisk, trim little woman, the bearer of a long cardboard case, made their appearance; corsets of various patterns, as well as silk laces of most portentous length, were at once produced, and a very short time was allowed to elapse before my experiences in the art and mystery of tight-lacing may be fairly said to have commenced. My dresses were all removed, in order that the waists should be taken in and the make altered; a frock was borrowed for me for the day, and from that hour I was subjected to the strict and rigid system of lacing in force through the whole establishment, no relaxation of its discipline being allowed during the day on any pretense whatever. For the period (nearly three years) I remained as a pupil, I may say that my health was excellent, as was that of the great majority of my young companions in ‘bondage,’ and on taking my departure I had grown from a clumsy girl to a very smart young lady, and my waist was exactly seven inches less than on the day of my arrival. From Paris I proceeded at once to join my relatives in the island of Mauritius, and on my arrival in the isle sacred to the memories of Paul and Virginia, I found the reign of ‘Queen Corset’ most arbitrary and absolute, but without in any way that I could discover interfering with either the health or vivacity of her exceedingly attractive and pretty subjects. Before concluding, and whilst on the subject, a few words on the ‘front-fastening corset,’ now so generally worn, may not come amiss. After a thorough trial I have finally abandoned its use, as being imperfect and faulty in every way, excepting the very doubtful advantage of being a little more quickly put on and off. Split up and open at the front as they are, and only fastening here and there, the whole of the compactness and stability so highly important in this part, of all others, of a corset is all but lost, whilst the ordinary steel busk secures these conditions, to the wearing out of the material of which the corset is composed. The long double-looped round lace used is, I consider, by no means either as neat, secure, or durable as a flat plaited silk lace of good quality. Trusting these remarks and replies may prove such as required by Constance, I beg to subscribe myself,

“FANNY.”

Another lady writing to the Queen on the same subject in the month of August has a waist under sixteen inches in circumference, as will be seen by the annexed letter, and yet she declares her health to be uninjured:-
“DEAR MADAM, -I have read with interest the letters of Constance and Fanny on the subject of slender waists. It is so much the fashion among medical men to cry down tight-lacing that advocates are very daring who venture to uphold the practice. It has ever been in vogue among our sex, and will, I maintain, always continue so long as elegant figures are admired, for the wearing of corsets produces a grace and slenderness which nature never gives, and if the corset is discontinued or relaxed, the figure at once becomes stout and loose. The dress fits better over a close-laced corset, and the fullness of the skirts, and ease of its folds, are greatly enhanced by the slenderness of the waist. My own waist is under sixteen inches. I have always enjoyed good health. Why, then, if the practice of tight-lacing is not prejudicial to the constitution of all its votaries should we be debarred from the means of improving, our appearance and attaining an elegant and graceful figure? I quite agree with Fanny respecting the front-fastening corset. I consider it objectionable. The figure can never be so neat or slender as in an ordinary well-laced corset. May I inquire what has become of your correspondent Mary Blackbraid? Her partialities for gloves and wigs brought upon her severe remarks from your numerous correspondents. I agree with her in the glove question, and always wear them as much as possible in the house. I find they keep the hands cooler, and in my opinion there is no such finish to the appearance as a well-gloved hand. Where I am now staying the ladies invariably wear them, and I have heard gentlemen express their admiration of the practice. I have worn them to sleep in for some years, and never found any inconvenience. Pardon me trespassing so much on your space, but your interesting paper is the only one open to our defence from the strictures of the overparticular.

“ELIZA.”

The following letter from the columns of the Queen contains much matter bearing immediately on the subject, and will no doubt be of interest to the reader:-
“MADAM: I am sure your numerous readers will thank you for your kindness in publishing so impartially the correspondence you have received on the subject of the corset, and as the question is one of great importance, and moreover one on which much difference of opinion seems to exist, I trust you will continue to give us the benefit of your correspondents’ remarks.

“When I read the very àpropos letter of Constance, and the excellent letter of Fanny in reply, I was quite prepared to see in your last number some strong expressions of opinion against this most becoming fashion; but I think that they, as well as Eliza, need not be discouraged by the formidable opposition they have met with, and I beg you will afford me space for a few lines, in order. to refute the arguments of the anti-corset party, in your valuable journal.
“Much as I, in common with all your readers, delight in reading Mr. Frank Buckland’s articles, I really cannot agree with him in his view of the subject. In the first place, I really must question his authority in the matter, for I am convinced that it is only those who have experienced the comfortable support afforded by a well-made corset who are entitled to pronounce their opinion. What can Mr. Buckland, or any one not of the corset-wearing sex, know of the practical operation of this indispensable article of female attire? I will not attempt so arduous a task as that of disproving all that Mr. Combe and his professional brethren have written against tight-lacing; I am even willing to admit that there may be persons so constituted that the attainment of a graceful slenderness would be injurious; but these are the exceptions, not the rule. The remarks of the faculty are founded principally on theory, backed up by an occasional case which might very often be referred to some other cause with equal justice. But who does not know that practice often belies theory, or that theory is frequently at fault ? Slender waists have been in fashion for several hundred years, and for the purposes of my argument I will refer to a period thirty or forty years ago. No one then thought of questioning the absolute necessity of attaining a slender figure by the instrumentality of the corset. If, let me ask Mr. Buckland and your other correspondents, theory be true that torture and death are the result, how does it happen not only that there are millions of healthy middle-aged ladies among us now, but that the female population actually exceeds the male? By what wonderful means have they continued to exist and enjoy such perfect health, while such a terrible engine of destruction as the corset was at work upon their frames? If all that theory said against the corset were true, not a thousand women would now be left alive.
“I cannot avoid troubling you a little further while I descend more into details. Spinal curvature, it is said, is caused by wearing stays. But what kind of stays were they which produced this result, and were no other causes discernible? I think that in every instance it would be found that the stays have been badly made, that they have not been properly laced, or that the busk and materials have not been sufficiently firm.
“In addition to this, girls are too often compelled to maintain an erect position on a form or a music-stool for too long a time during school hours. If the corset is properly made, a young lady may be allowed to lean back in her chair without danger of acquiring lounging habits or injuring her figure. It is to this over-tiring of the muscles that all spinal curvature is attributable, and not to the stays, which, if properly employed, would act as a sure preventative. Again, let me ask any one of the opposite sex who, at any rate at the present day, do not wear stays, whether they have never experienced ‘palpitation or flushings’, headaches, and red noses? What right has any one to make these special attendants on small-waisted ladies? There is no more danger of incurring these evils than by a gentleman wearing a hat. Well may the old lady have ‘forgotten’ these little items in her anecdotes. The comparison between the human frame and a watch is correct in some respects, but it is particularly unhappy in relation to the present subject. The works of a watch are hard and unyielding, and not being possessed of life and power of growing, cannot adapt themselves to their outer case. If you squeeze in the case the works will be broken and put out of order; far different is it with the supple and growing frame of a young girl. If the various organs are prevented from taking a certain form or direction, they will accommodate themselves to any other with perfect ease. Nothing is broken or interfered with in its action. I will, of course, allow that if a fully grown woman were to attempt to reduce her waist suddenly, respiration and digestion would be stopped; but it is rarely, if ever, that a lady arrives at maturity before she has imbibed sufficient notions of elegance and propriety to induce her to conform to this becoming fashion to some extent. Happy indeed those who are blessed with mothers who are wise enough to educate their daughters’ figures with an eye to their future comfort. The constant discomfort felt by those whose clumsy waists and exuberant forms are a perpetual bugbear to their happiness and advancement should warn mothers of the necessity of looking to the future, and by directing their figures successfully while young, avoid the unsuccessful attempts to force them at an advanced age. One word more on the question. Is a small waist admired by the gentlemen? Mr, Buckland, it seems has become so imbued with Mr. Combe’s ideas against tight-lacing, that he looks upon a slender waist with feelings evidently far from admiration. But is this any reason or authority for concluding that every gentleman of taste is of a like opinion? On the contrary, I think it goes far to prove that it is other than the younger class of gentlemen (for whom, of course, the ladies lay their attractions) who run down the corset. Many times in fashionable assemblies have I heard gentlemen criticising the young ladies in such terms as these:-‘What a clumsy figure Miss – is! it completely spoils her.’ ‘What a pity Miss has not a neater figure!’ and so on, and I believe there is not one young man in a thousand who does not admire a graceful slenderness of the waist. What young man cares to dance with girls who resemble casks in form? I have invariably noticed that the girls with the smallest waists are the queens of the ball-room. I have not space to enter into the discussion as to whether the artificial waist is more beautiful than that of the Venus de Medici; on such matters every one forms their own opinions: The waist of the Venus is beautiful for the Venus, but would cease to be so if clothed. I maintain that the comparison is not a good one, as the circumstances are not equal. In other respects, let the ladies, then, not be led to make themselves ungraceful and unattractive by listening to theories which are contradicted by practice, promulgated by persons ignorant, as far as their personal experience goes, of the operation and effect of corsets, and taken up by ladies and gentlemen, not of the youngest, who, like your Country Subscriber, are past the age when the pleasantest excitements of life form topics of interest. Is it not natural that a young lady should be anxious to present a sylph-like form instead of appearing matronly? There are some to whom the words ‘tight lacing’ suggest immediately what they are pleased to term ‘torture’, ‘misery’, &etc., but who have never taken the trouble to inquire into the subject, preferring the far easier way of taking for granted that all that has been said against it is true. When such would-be benefactors to the fair sex hear of a sudden death, or see a lady faint at a ball or a theatre, they immediately raise the cry of ‘Tight-lacing!’ An instance occurred not long ago in which, in a public journal, the sudden death of a young lady was ascribed to this cause, but in a few days afterwards was expressly contradicted in a paragraph of the same paper. Do we never hear of men dying suddenly, or fainting away from overheat ? That small waists are the fashion admits of no doubt, for I have myself applied to several fashionable corset-makers in London and the principal fashionable resorts to ascertain whether it be the case. I gather from their information that small waists are most unmistakably the fashion; that there are more corsets made to order under eighteen inches than over that measurement; that the smallest size is usually fifteen inches, though few possess so elegantly small a waist, the majority being about seventeen or eighteen inches; that the ladies are now beginning to see that the front-fastening busk is not so good as the old-fashioned kind, and have their daughters’ corsets well boned. Many also prefer shoulder-straps for the stays of growing girls, which keep the chest expanded, and prevent their leaning too much on the busk. If these are not too tight they are very advantageous to the figure, and the upper part of the corset should just fit, but not be tight. A corset made on these principles will cause no injury to health, unless the girl is naturally of a consumptive constitution, in which case no one would think of lacing at all tightly.

“I must apologise for this long letter, but I felt bound to take advantage of the opportunity you afford to discuss this really important question.

I remain, madam, yours, “ADMIRER.”

Page 1,2,3

Content: The Corset and the Crinoline. A Book of Modes and Costumes from remote Periods to the Present Time by W. B. L. (William Berry Lord). With 54 Full-Page and other Engravings. London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler. Warwick House, Paternoster Row. 1868.

Chapter:

  1. Roman, Greece and Egypt.
  2. The Ladies of Old France.
  3. A golden time for tailors and milliners.
  4. Marie de Medici — The distended dresses of her time.
  5. Fashion during the reign of Louis XV.
  6. Fashion in the reign of Louis XVI., Revolutionary Period, George III. Regency.
  7. The elegant figure, Slender waists, The small size of Corsets.
  8. Fashion and dress of 1865.
  9. The claims of Nature and Art considered.
  • (1) William Buchan 1729–1805 was a Scottish physician
  • (2) Free Ebook: Advice to mothers, on the subject of their own health, and on the means of promoting the health, strength, and beauty, of their offspring by William Buchan, Philadelphia 1804.
  • (3) Joseph Strutt (1749 – 1802) was an English engraver, artist, antiquary and writer. 
  • (4) Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762 was an English writer who became famous through her ​​letters and poems. Free Ebook`s: The letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762. The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in three Volumes: Volume 1., Volume 2., Volume 3.,
  • (5) Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring 1755–1830 was a German physician, anatomist, anthropologist, paleontologist and inventor. 
  • (6) Charles Joseph de Ligne 1735-1814 was a Field marshal and writer, and member of the princely family of Ligne. He corresponded with the intellectual of his time, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, Goethe and Wieland. With Madame de Staël, he was a friend and brought out together with her excerpts from his works. He was very popular because of his intelligence, his elegantly-facing occurrence and wit in the highest circles of his time
  • (7) Count Wenzel Anton Kaunitz-Rietberg, Imperial Prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg 1711-1794, was an Austrian statesman of enlightened despotism, empire Councilor and diplomat.
  • (8) The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was a magazine published by Samuel Orchart Beeton from 1852 to 1879. A Magazine of Her Own?: Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (Amazon Kindle)

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