Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras (Abradale Books) by Beatrice Fontanel.
Thoughout the ages, women’s breasts have been subjected to the endless whims of fashion.
From the ancient Greeks to Mae West and Madonna, this light-hearted book charts the changing shapes of female beauty. The elegant and amusing images – including fashion drawings, paintings, photographs, and film stills – illustrate the often surprising history of the garments women have worn for support – and seduction.
Fashion in the reign of Louis XVI., Revolutionary Period, George III.
General use of the word “stays” after 1600 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.
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.
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.“
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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,
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.
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.”
Source: 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.
In this classic book, Norah Waugh explores the changing shapes of women’s dress from the 1500s to the 1920s. Simple laced bodices became corsets of cane, whalebone and steel, while padding at shoulders and hips gave way to the structures of farthingales, hoops and bustles.
Stays and Corsets: Historical Patterns Translated for the Modern Body by Mandy Barrington.
Using her original pattern-drafting system, author Mandy Barrington will show you how to draft a historical pattern for a modern body shape, while still retaining an accurate historical silhouette.