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.
CHAPTER X. The claims of Nature and Art considered. The Corset and the Crinoline.
Remarks on front-fastening stays – Thomson’s glove-fitting Corsets – Plan for adding stability to the front-fastening Corset – De la Garde’s French Corset – System of self measurement – The Redresseur Corset of Vienna and its influence on the figures of young persons – Remarks on the flimsy materials used in the manufacture of Corsets – Hints as to proper materials – The “Minet Back” Corset described – Elastic Corsets condemned – The narrow bands used as substitutes for Corsets injurious to the figure – Remarks on the proper application of the Corset with the view to the production of a graceful figure – Thomson’s Zephyrina Crinoline – Costume of the present season – The claims of Nature and Art considered – The belle of Damara Land (1).
Remarks on front-fastening stays.
It would be difficult to find a much more marked contrast to the style of bodice referred to in our last chapter than is to be found in the ordinary cheap front-fastening corset commonly sold by drapers.
The accompanying illustrations accurately represent it, and those who have written on the subject have much reason on their side when they insist that it neither aids in the formation of a good figure nor helps to maintain the proportions of one when formed. Corsets such as these have neither beauty of contour nor compactness of construction. The two narrow busks through which the holes are drilled for the reception of the studs or catches are too often formed of steel so low in quality that fracture at these weak points is a common occurrence, when some danger
of injury from the broken ends is to be apprehended. It will also be found that when these bars or plates are deficient in width and insufficient in stiffness the corset will no longer support the figure, or form a foundation for the dress to be neatly adjusted over. On the introduction of the front-fastening system it was at once seen that much saving of time and trouble was gained by the great facility with which corsets constructed according to it could be put on and off, but the objections before referred to were soon manifest, and the ingenuity of inventors was called into action to remedy and overcome them, and it was during this transition stage in the history of the corset that the front fastening principle met with much condemnation at the hands of those who made the formation of the figure a study.
Thomson’s glove-fitting Corsets.
From Thomson and Co., of New York, we have received a pattern of their “glove-fitting corset”, the subject of the accompanying illustration, in the formation of which the old evils have been most successfully dealt with. The steels are of the highest class of quality and of the requisite degree of
substance to insure both safety and sustaining power. Accidental unfastening of the front, so common, and, to say the least of it, inconvenient, in the old form of attachment, is rendered impossible by the introduction of a very ingenious but simple spring latch, which is opened or closed in an instant at the pleasure of the wearer. This corset is decidedly the best form on the front-fastening plan we have seen. Its mode of construction is excellent; it is so cut as to admit of its adapting itself to every undulation of the figure with extraordinary facility. We have suggested to the firm the advisability of furnishing to the public corsets
combining their excellent method of cutting, great strength of material, and admirable finish, with the single steel busk and hind-lacing arrangement of the ordinary stay. The requirements of all would be then met, for although numbers of ladies prefer the front-fastening corset, it will be observed that a great number of those who have written on the subject, and make the formation and maintenance of the figure a study, positively declare from experience that the waist never looks so small or neatly proportioned as when evenly and well laced in the hind lacing and close-fronted form of corset. It has of late become the custom to remedy the want of firmness and stability found to exist in many of the common front-fastening corsets by sewing a kind of sheath or case on the inside of the front immediately behind the two steels on which the studs and slots are fixed; into this a rather wide steel busk is passed, so that the division or opening has the centre line of the extra busk immediately behind it. That this plan answers in some measure the desired end there is no doubt, but in such a corset as that of Thomson and Co. no such expedient is needed.
De la Garde’s French Corset.
The accompanying illustrations are from sketches made expressly for this work from a corset made by De La Garde and Co., of Paris, and our readers will form their own opinion as to the contour of the figure from which these drawings were made, which is that of a lady who has for many years worn corsets made by the above-mentioned firm. The waist-measure is eighteen inches. The remarks as to the advisability of having corsets made to measure are scarcely borne out by her experiences. She informs us that it has always been her custom to forward to Messrs. De La Garde and Co.’s agent the measure taken round the chest below the arms, from beneath the arm to the hip, the circumference of the hips, and the waist-measure, when the fit is a matter of certainty. By adopting this system ladies residing in the country can, she assures us, always provide themselves with corsets made by the first manufacturers in Europe without the trouble and inconvenience of being attended for the purpose of measurement. In ordering the “glove-fitting corset”, the waist measure only need be given.
The Redresseur Corset of Vienna.
From M. Weiss, of Vienna, we have received a pattern and photographs from which our other illustrations are taken. Here we have represented the so-called “redresseur” corset, devised mainly with a view to the formation of the figure in young persons, or where careless and awkward habits of posture have been contracted. It will be seen on examination that the front of the chest is left entirely free for expansion, the waist only being confined at the point where restraint is most called for.
The back is supported and kept upright by the system of boning adopted with that view, and the shoulder-straps, after passing completely round the point of the shoulder, are hooked together behind, thus bringing the shoulders in their proper position and keeping them there. As a corrective and improver to the figure there can be no doubt that the redresseur corset is a safe and most efficient contrivance. We have had an opportunity of seeing it worn, and can testify to the marked and obvious improvement which was at once brought about by its application.
Remarks on the flimsy materials used in the manufacture of Corsets.
We have heard many complaints lately of the flimsy manner in which corsets of comparatively high price are turned out by their makers, the stitching being so weak that re-sewing is not unfrequently needed after a few days’ wear. The edges of the whalebones, too, instead of being rounded off and rendered smooth, are often, we find, left as sharp as a knife, causing the coutil or other material to be cut through in a very few days. The eyelet-holes are also made so small and narrow at the flanges that no hold on the material is afforded, and even the most moderate kind of lacing causes them to break from their hold, fall out, and leave a hole in the material of which the corset is made, which if not immediately repaired by working round in the old-fashioned way rapidly enlarges, frays out, and runs into an unsightly hole. Corset-makers should see that the circle of metal beyond the orifice through which the lace passes is sufficiently wide to close down perfectly on the fabric, and retain a firm hold of it; if they do not do so, the old worked eyelet-hole is preferable to the stud, notwithstanding the neat appearance of the stud and the apparent advantage it has over the old plan.
The “Minet Back” Corset described.
A form of corset made without lacing-holes, known as the **“*Minet Back,” with which many of our readers will no doubt be familiar, and which was extensively worn in France some few years ago, is still to be obtained of some few makers in England. This has a row of short strong loops sewn just beyond each back whalebone. Through these pass from top to bottom, on each side of the back, a long round bar of strong whalebone, which is secured in its place by a string passing through a hole made in its top to the upper loop of each row. The lace (a flat silk one) was passed through the spaces between the loops, and was tightened over the smooth round whalebone, thus enabling the wearer not only to lace with extreme tightness without danger to the corset, but admitting of its almost instant removal by slightly slackening the lace and then drawing out one of the bars, which immediately sets the interlacing free from end to end. We are rather surprised that more of these corsets are not worn, as there are numerous advantages attendant on them. Our space will not admit of our more than glancing en passant at the various inventions which have from time to time been brought to the notice of the public.
Elastic Corsets condemned.
By some inventors the use of elastic webbing or woven indiarubber cloth was taken advantage of, and great stress was laid on the resilient qualities of the corsets to which it was applied. But it must never be lost sight of that all materials of an elastic nature, when fitted tightly to the figure, not only have the power of expanding on the application of force, but are unceasingly exercising their own extensive powers of contraction. Thus, no amount of custom could ever adapt the waist to the space allotted to it, as with the elastic corset it is changing every second, and always exercising constriction even when loosely laced. The narrow bands hollowed out over the hips may be, as some writers on the subject have stated, adapted for the possessors of very slight figures who ride much on horseback; but many ladies of great experience in the matter strongly condemn them as being inefficient and calculated to lead to much detriment to the figure. Thus writes a correspondent to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine:-
“As one of your correspondents recommends the waistbands in lieu of corsets, I have during the last three weeks made a trial of them, and shall be glad if you will allow me to express my opinion that they are not only disadvantageous but positively dangerous to the figure. Your correspondent says that ordinary corsets, if drawn in well at the waist, hurt a woman cruelly all the way up. I can only say that if she finds such to be the case the remedy is in her own hands. If ladies would only take the trouble to have their stays made to measure for them, and have plenty of room allowed round the chest, not only would the waist look smaller, but no discomfort would be felt such as H. W. describes. Young girls should always be accurately fitted, but it is, I have found, a mistake to have their corsets too flimsy or elastic. I quite agree that they should be commenced early – indeed, they usually are so, and thus extreme compression being unnecessary, the instances brought forward by the lady who commenced the discussion and by Nora must, I think, be looked upon as exceptional cases.
Another lady writing in the same journal says – “No one will grudge ‘The Young Lady Herself’ any sympathy she may claim for the torture she has submitted to, but so far from her case being condemnatory of stays it is the reverse, for she candidly admits that she does not suffer ill-health. Now such a case as hers is an exception, and the stout young lady spoken of by Nora is also an exception, for it is seldom that girls are allowed to attain the age of fourteen or fifteen before commencing stays. The great secret is to begin their use as early as possible, and no such severe compression will be requisite. It seems absurd to allow the waist to grow large and clumsy, and then to reduce it again to more elegant proportions by means which must at first be more or less productive of inconvenience. There is no article of civilised dress which, when first begun to be worn, does not feel uncomfortable for a time to those who have never worn it before. The barefooted Highland lassie carries her shoes to the town, puts them on on her arrival, and discards them again directly she leaves the centre of civilisation. A hat or a coat would be at first insupportable to the men of many nations, and we all know how soon the African belle threw aside the crinoline she had been induced to purchase. But surely no one would argue against these necessary articles of dress merely on the ground of inconvenience to the wearer, for, however uncomfortable they may be at first, it is astonishing how soon that feeling goes off and how indispensable they become. My opinion is that stays should always be made to order, and not be of too flimsy a construction. I think H. W.’s suggestions regarding the waistbands only applicable to middle-aged ladies or invalids, as they do not give sufficient support to growing girls, and are likely to make the figure look too much like a sack tied round the middle instead of gradually tapering to the waist. Brisbane’s letter shows how those who have never tried tight-lacing are prejudiced against it, and that merely from being shown a print in an old medical work, while Nora’s letter is infinitely more valuable, as showing how even the most extreme lacing can be employed without injury to health.
Such a work as this would be incomplete without some remarks touching the best means to be applied for the achievement of the desired end, and hence a letter from a lady of great experience, who has paid much attention to the subject, contributed to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, enables us to give the very best possible kind of information viz., that gathered by personal observation. Thus she writes:-
“In the numerous communications on the subject of tight-lacing which have appeared in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, but little has been said on the best mode of applying the corset in order to produce elegance of figure. It seems to me that nearly all those who suffer from tight-lacing do so from an injudicious use of the corset, and in such cases the unfortunate corset generally gets all the blame, and not the wearer who makes an improper use of it. I can easily understand that a girl who is full grown, or nearly so, and who has been unaccustomed to wear tight stays, should find it difficult and painful to lace in her waist to a fashionable size; but if the corset be worn at an early age and the figure gradually moulded by it, I know of no terrible consequences that need be apprehended. I would therefore recommend the early use of a corset that fits the figure nicely and no more. Now, simply wearing stays that only fit, will, when a girl is growing, in a great measure prevent the waist from becoming clumsy. If, however, on her reaching the age of fourteen or fifteen, her waist be still considered too large, a smaller corset may be worn with advantage, which should be gradually tightened till the requisite slimness is achieved. I know of so many instances in which, under this system, girls have, when full grown, possessed both a good figure and good health, that I can recommend it with confidence to those parents who wish their children to grow up into elegant and healthy women. As to whether compression of the waist by symmetrical corsets injures the health in any way, opinion seems to be divided. The personal experiences of tight-lacers, as your correspondent Belle has observed, will do more to solve this knotty question than any amount of theory. But whatever conclusion we may come to on this point, there is no denying the fact that very many of the strongest and healthiest women one sees in society habitually practise tight-lacing, and apparently do so with impunity.
“AN OLD SUBSCRIBER.”
The narrow bands used as substitutes for Corsets injurious to the figure
As we have before stated the remarks and observations contained in, the above letter are the result of careful study and a thorough acquaintance with the subject, and not of hasty conclusion, prejudice, or theory. A letter in the earlier portion of this work, from an old Edinburgh correspondent to the Queen, than whom few are more competent to direct and advise on this important subject, will be found precisely to the same end, and we feel sure, in laying before the reader such united experiences, that much will be done towards the establishment of such a system of management as will lead to the almost certain achievement of grace and elegance of figure without the sacrifice of health. That these are most important and desirable objects for attainment few would be puritanical and headstrong enough to deny, and there can be no question that, how ever superb or simple a lady’s costume may be, it is mainly dependent for its elegance of adjustment and distinctiveness of style to the corset and crinoline beneath.
We have seen how Mrs. Selby’s invention influenced the world of fashion in her day, and a glance at the illustration at ***page 114 will be sufficient to prove how inferior, in point of grace and elegance, the costume of that period was to that of our own time. Some idea may be formed of the wide-spread and almost universal attention which Mrs. Selby’s wondrous “crinoline conception” met at the hands of the fashionable world by a perusal of the following lines, which were written at Bath (Author George Davis) concerning it in the year 1711, and are entitled, The Farthingale Reviewed; or, More Work for the Cooper. A paneygerick on the late but most admirable invention of the hooped petticoat.
“There’s scarce a bard that writ in former time
Had e’er so great, so bright a theme for rhyme;
The Mantua swain, if living, would confess
Ours more surprising than his Tyrian dress,
And Ovid’s mistress, in her loose attire,
Would cease to charm his eyes or fan Love’s
fire. Were he at Bath, and had these coats in view,
He’d write his Metamorphosis anew,
“Delia, fresh hooped, would o’er his heart prevail,
To leave Corinna and her tawdry veil.
Hear, great Apollo! and my genius guide,
To sing this glorious miracle of pride,
Nor yet disdain the subject for its name,
Since meaner things have oft been sung to Fame;
Even boots and spurs have graced heroic verse,
Butler his knight’s whole suit did well rehearse,
King Harry’s costume stands upon record,
And every age will precedents afford.
Then on, my Muse, and sing in epic strain
The petticoat-thou shalt not sing in vain,
The petticoat will sure reward thy pain;
With all thy skill its secret virtues tell
A petticoat should still be handled well.
“Oh garment heavenly wide! thy spacious round
Do’s my astonished thoughts almost confound;
My fancy cannot grasp thee at a view,
None at first sight e’er such a picture drew.
The daring artist that describes thee true,
Must change his sides as modern statesmen do,
Or like the painter, when some church he draws,
Following his own, and not the builder’s laws,
At once shows but the prospect to the sight,
For north and south together can’t be right.
Hence, ye profane! nor think I shall reveal
The happy wonders which these vests conceal;
Hence your unhallow’d eyes and ears remove,
‘Tis Cupid’s circle, ’tis the orb of Love.
Let it suffice you see th’ unwieldy fair
Sail through the streets with gales of swelling air;
Nor think (like fools) the ladies, would they try,
Arm’d with their furbelows and these, could fly,
That’s all romantic, for these garments show
Their thoughts are with their petticoats below.
“Nor must we blame them whilst they stretch their art
In rich adornment and being wondrous smart;
For that, perhaps, may stand ’em more in stead
Than loads of ribbons fluttering on the head.
And, let philosophers say what they will,
There’s something surer than their eyes do’s kill;
We tell the nymph that we her face adore,
But plain she sees we glance at something more.
“In vain the ladies spend their morning hours
Erecting on their heads stupendous towers;
A battery from thence might scare the foe,
But certain victory is gained below.
Let Damon then the adverse champion be
Topknots for him, and petticoats for me;
Nor must he urge it spoils the ladies’ shape,
Tho’ (as the multitude at monsters gape),
The world appears all lost in wild amaze,
As on these new, these strange machines they gaze;
For if the Queen the poets tell us of, from Paphos came,
Attired as we are told by antique fame,
Thus would they wonder at the heavenly dame.
“I own the female world is much estranged
From what it was, and top and bottom changed.
The head was once their darling constant care,
But women’s heads can’t heavy burdens bear-
As much, I mean, as they can do elsewhere;
So wisely they transferred the mode of dress,
And furnished t’other end with the excess.
What tho’ like spires or pyramids they show,
Sharp at the top, and vast of bulk below?
It is a sign they stand the more secure:
A maypole will not like a church endure,
And ships at sea, when stormy winds prevail,
Are safer in their ballast than their sail.
“Hail, happy coat! for modern damsels fit,
Product of ladies’ and of taylors’ wit;
Child of Invention rather than of Pride,
What wonders dost thou show, what wonders hide!
Within the shelter of thy useful shade,
Thin Galatea’s shrivelled limbs appear
As plump and charming as they did last year;
Whilst tall Miranda her lank shape improves,
And, graced by thee, in some proportion moves.
Ev’n those who are diminutively short
May please themselves and make their neighbours sport,
When, to their armpits harnessed up in thee,
Nothing but head and petticoats we see.
But, oh! what a figure fat Sempronia makes!
At her gigantic form the pavement quakes;
By thy addition she’s so much enlarged,
Where’er she comes, the sextons now are charged
That all church doors and pews be wider made
A vast advantage to a joiner’s trade.
“Ye airy nymphs, that do these garments wear,
Forgive my want of skill, not want of care;
Forgive me if I have not well displayed
A coat for such important uses made.
If aught I have forgot, it was to prove
How fit they are, how apropos for love,
How in their circles cooling zephyrs play,
Just as a tall ship’s sails are filled on some bright summer day.
But there my Muse must halt- she dares no more
Than hope the pardon which she ask’d before.”
Thomson’s Zephyrina Crinoline
Fashions have altered, times have changed, hooped petticoats have been in turn honoured and banished, just as the fickle goddess of the mirror has decreed. Still, as an arrow shot in the air returns in time to earth, so surely does the hooped jupon return to power after a temporary estrangement from the world of gaiety.
The illustration represents the last new form of crinoline and there can be no doubt that its open form of front is a most important and note worthy improvement. Preceding this engraving, we have an illustration representing two ladies in the costume of the present season arranged over “the glove-fitting corset” and “Zephyrina jupon,” for patterns of both of which we are indebted to the courtesy of Messrs.
Thomson and Co., the inventors and manufacturers. It is the custom with some authors to uphold the claims of nature in matters relating to human elegance, and we admit that nature in her own way is particularly charming, so long as the accessories and surroundings are in unison. But in the human heart everywhere dwells an innate love of adornment, and untaught savages, in their toilet appliances and tastes, closely resemble the belles of highly-civilised communities. We have already referred to the crinoline petticoats worn by the Tahitian girls when they were first seen by the early navigators. The frilled ruff which so long remained a high court favourite during the Elizabethan period (and which, if we mistake not, will again have its day) was as well known to the dusky beauties of the palm-clad, wave-lashed islands of the Pacific, when Cook first sailed forth to discover new lands, as it was to the stately and proud dames of venice. Beneath, we place side by side types of savage elegance and refined taste. Where the one begins and the other ends, who shall say?
(1) Damaraland is still derived from the German colonial era name for the main settlement area of the tribe of the Damara in Namibia, also called Dama or Mountain Damara.
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.
Corsets and Crinolines 1st Edition by Norah Waugh & Judith Dolan.
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.