CHAPTER I. The origin of the Corset.
The origin of the Corset – The Indian hunting-belt – Reduction of the figure by the ancient inhabitants of Polenqui – Use of the Corset by the natives of the Eastern Archipelago – Improvements in construction brought about by the advance of civilisation – Slenderness of waist esteemed a great beauty in the East – Earth eating in Java – Figure-training in Ceylon – The beauties of Circassia, their slender waists and Corsets – Elegant princesses of Crim Tartary – Hindoo belles – Hindoo ideas of beauty – Elegance of figure highly esteemed by the Persians – Letter from a Chinese gentleman (Woo-tan-zhin) on slender waists – Researches amongst the antiquities of Egypt – Fashions of the Egyptian ladies – The Corset in use among the Israelitish ladies – The elegance of their costume, bridal dress, etc. – Scriptural references.
The origin of the Corset
For the origin of the corset we must travel back into far antiquity. How far it would be difficult to determine. The unreclaimed savage who, bow in hand, threads the mazes of the primeval forests in pursuit of the game he subsists on, fashions for himself, from the skin of some animal which good fortune may have cast in his way, a belt or girdle from which to suspend his rude knife, quiver, or other hunting gear; and experience teaches him that, to answer the purpose efficiently, it should be moderately broad and sufficiently stiff to prevent creasing when secured round the waist.
A sharpened bone, or fire hardened stick, serves to make a row of small holes at each end; a strip of tendon, or a thong of hide, forms a lace with which the extremities are drawn together, thereby giving support to the figure during the fatigues of the chase. The porcupine’s quill, the sea-shell, the wild beast’s tooth, and the cunningly-dyed root, all help to decorate and ornament the hunting-belt. The well-formed youths and graceful belles of the tribe were not slow in discovering that, when arrayed in all the panoply of forest finery, a belt well drawn in, as shown in the annexed illustration, served to display the figure to much greater advantage than one carelessly or loosely adjusted.
Here, then, we find the first indication of the use of the corset as an article of becoming attire. At the very first dawn of civilisation there are distinct evidences of the use of contrivances for the reduction and formation of the female figure. Researches among the ruins of Polenqui, one of the mysterious forest cities of South America, whose history is lost in remote antiquity, have brought to light most singular evidences of the existence of a now forgotten race. Amongst the works of art discovered there is a bas-relief representing a female figure, which, in addition to a profusion of massive ornaments, wears a complicated and elaborate waist-bandage, which, by a system of circular and transverse folding and looping, confines the waist from just below the ribs to the hips as firmly and compactly as the most unyielding corset of the present day.
Use of the Corset by the natives of the Eastern Archipelago
At the period of the discovery of some of the islands of the Eastern Archipelago, it was found customary for all young females to wear a peculiar kind of corset, formed of spirally-arranged rattan cane, and this, when once put on, was not removed until the celebration of the marriage ceremony.
Such races as were slowly advancing in the march of civilisation, after discovery by the early navigators, became more and more accustomed to the use of clothing, to adjust and retain which, waistbands would become essentially requisite. These, when made sufficiently broad to fit without undue friction, and stiff enough to prevent folding together in the act of stooping, sitting, or moving about, at once became in effect corsets, and suggested to the minds of the ingenious a system of cutting and fitting so as more perfectly to adapt them to the figure of the wearer.
The modes of fastening, as we shall see, have been various, from the simple sewing together with the lace to the costly buckle and jewelled loop and stud. Investigation proves to us that the taste for slender waists prevailed even more in the Eastern nations than in those of Europe, and we find that other means besides that of compression have been extensively taken advantage of.
Humboldt, in his personal narrative, describes the women of Java, and informs us that the reddish clay called “ampo” is eaten by them in order that they may become slim, want of plumpness being a kind of beauty in that country. Though the use of this earth is fatal to health, those desirous of profiting by its reducing qualities persevere in its consumption. Loss of appetite and inability to partake of more than most minute portions of food are not slow in bringing the wished-for consummation about.
Figure-training in Ceylon
The inhabitants of Ceylon make a perfect study of the training of the figure to the most slender proportions. Books on the subject are common in that country, and no young lady is considered the perfection of fashionable elegance unless a great number of qualities and graces are possessed; not the least of these is a waist which can be quite or nearly clasped with the two hands; and, as we proceed with our work, it will be seen that this standard for the perfection of waist-measurement has been almost world-wide.
From the coral-fringed and palm-decked islands of the Pacific and Indian Ocean we have but to travel to the grass-clad Yaila of Crim Tartary and the rock-crowned fastnesses of Circassia, to see the same tastes prevailing, and even more potent means in force for the obtainment of a taper form. Any remarks from us as to the beauty of the ladies of Circassia would be needless, their claim to that enviable endowment being too well established to call for confirmation at our hands, and that no pains are spared in the formation of their figures will be best seen by a quotation from a recent traveller who writes on the subject:
The beauties of Circassia, their slender waists and Corsets.
” What would ” (he says) ” our ladies think of this fashion on the part of the far-famed beauties of Circassia? The women wear a corset made of ‘morocco,’ and furnished with two plates of wood placed on the chest, which, by their strong pressure, prevent the expansion of the chest; this corset also confines the bust from the collar-bones to the waist by means of a cord which passes through leather rings. They even wear it during the night, and only take it off when worn out, to put on another quite as small.” He then speaks of the daughters of Osman Oglow, and says, ”Their figures were tightened in an extraordinary degree, and their anteries were clasped from the throat downwards by silver plates.”
These plates are not only ornamental, but being firmly sewn to the two busks in front of the corset, and being longest at the top and narrowest at the waist, when clasped, as shown in the accompanying illustration, any change in fit or adjustment is rendered impossible. It will be seen on examination that at each side of the bottom of the corsage is a large round plate or boss of ornamental silver.
These serve as clasps for the handsomely-mounted silver waist-belt, and by their size and position serve to contrast with the waist, and make it appear extremely small. That the elegancies of female attire have been deeply studied even among the Tartars of the Crimea will be seen by the following account, written by Madame de Hell, of her visit to Princess Adel Beg, a celebrated Tartar beauty:
Elegant princesses of Crim Tartary
“Admitted into a fairy apartment looking out on a terraced garden, a curtain was suddenly raised at the end of the room, and a woman of striking beauty entered, dressed in rich costume. She advanced to me with an air of remarkable dignity, took both my hands, kissed me on the two cheeks, and sat down beside me, making many demonstrations of friendship.
She wore a great deal of rouge; her eyelids were painted black, and met over the nose, giving her countenance a certain sternness, which, nevertheless, did not destroy its pleasing effect. A furred velvet vest fitted tight to her still elegant figure, and altogether her appearance surpassed what I had conceived of her beauty. After some time, when I offered to go, she checked me with a very graceful gesture, and said eagerly, ‘Pastoi, pastoi,’ which is Russian for ‘Stay, stay,’ and clapped her hands several times.
A young girl entered at the signal, and by her mistress’s orders threw open a folding-door, and immediately I was struck dumb with surprise and admiration by a most brilliant apparition. Imagine, reader, the most exquisite sultanas of whom poetry and painting have ever tried to convey an idea, and still our conception will fall far short of the enchanting models I had then before me.
There were three of them, all equally graceful and beautiful. They were clad in tunics of crimson brocade, adorned in front with broad gold lace. The tunics were open, and disclosed beneath them cashmere robes with very tight sleeves, terminating in gold fringes. The youngest wore a tunic of azure-blue brocade, with silver ornaments, this was the only difference between her dress and that of her sisters. All three had magnificent black hair escaping in countless tresses from a fez of silver filigree, set like a diadem over their ivory foreheads.
They wore gold-embroidered slippers and wide trousers drawn close at the ankle. I had never beheld skins so dazzlingly fair, eyelashes so long, or so delicate a bloom of youth.”
The Hindoo ideas of beauty
The Hindoos subject the figures of their dancing-girls and future belles to a system of very careful training; in all their statues, from those of remote antiquity, to be seen in the great cave temples of Carlee Elanra, and Elephanta, to those of comparatively modern date, the long and slender waist is invariably associated with other attributes of their standard of beauty.
”Thurida,” the daughter of Brahama, is thus described by a Hindoo writer:
“This girl” (he informs us) “was of a yellow colour, and had a nose like the flower of resamum; her legs were taper, like the plantain tree, her eyes large, like the principal leaf of the lotus; her eyebrows extended to her ears; her lips were red, and like the young leaves of the mango tree; her face was like the full moon; her voice was like the sound of the cuckoo; her arms reached to her knees; her throat was like that of a pigeon; her loins narrow, like those of a lion; her hair hung in curls down to her feet; her teeth were like the seeds of the pomegranate; and walk like that of a drunken elephant or a goose.”
Elegance of figure highly esteemed by the Persians
The Persians entertain much the same notions with regard to the necessity for slenderness of form in the belles of their nation, but differ in other matters from the Hindoos. The following illustration represents a dancing-girl of Persia, and it will be seen that her figure bears no indication of neglect of cultivation. It is somewhat curious that the Chinese with all their extraordinary ingenuity, have confined their restrictive efforts to the feet of the ladies, leaving their waists unconfined.
That their doing so is more the result of long-established custom than absence of admiration for elegantly-proportioned figures will be clearly proved by the following extract from a letter published in Chambers’ Journal, written by a genuine inhabitant of the Celestial Empire, named Woo-tan-zhin, who paid a visit to England in 1844-45. Thus he describes the ladies of England:
“Their eyes, having the blue tint of the waters of autumn, are charming beyond description, and their waists are laced as tight and thin as a willow branch.
What, perhaps, caught my fancy most was the sight of elegantly-dressed young ladies, with pearl-like necks and tight-laced waists, nothing can possibly be so enchanting as to see ladies that compress themselves into taper forms of the most exquisite shape, the like of which I have never seen before”.
By many writers it has been urged that the admiration so generally felt for slenderly-proportioned and taper waists results from an artificial taste set up by long custom; but in Woo-tan-zhin’s case it was clearly not so, as the small-waisted young ladies of the ”outer barbarians” were to him much as some new and undescribed flowers or birds would be to the wondering naturalist who first beheld them.
Researches amongst the antiquities of Egypt
Although researches among the antiquities of Egypt and Thebes fail to bring to our notice an article of dress corresponding with the waist-bandage of Polenqui or the strophium of later times, we find elaborately-ornamented waist belts in general use, and by their arrangement it will be seen that they were so worn as to show the waist off to the best advantage. The accompanying illustrations represent Egyptian ladies of distinction.
The dress in the first, it will be observed, is worn long. A sort of transparent mantle covers and gives an appearance of whilst to the shoulders, whilst a coloured sash, after binding the waist, is knotted in front, and the ends allowed to fall freely over the front of the dress, much as we have seen it worn in our own time; and it is most remarkable that, although there is no evidence to show the use of crinoline by the ladies of old Egypt, the lower border of the skirt, in some instances, appears distended as in the prior illustration; whilst in others, as shown in the second engraving, the dress is made to fit the lower portion of the figure closely, barely affording scope for the movement of the legs in walking. How often these arrangements of dress have been in turn adopted and discarded will be seen as our work proceeds.
Fashions of the Egyptian ladies
The following extract from Fullam will show that Fashion within the shadow of the Pyramids, in the days of the Pharaohs, reigned with power as potent and supreme as that which she exercises in the imperial palaces of Paris and Vienna at the present day:
„The women of Egypt early paid considerable attention to their toilet. Their dress, according to Herodotus, consisted usually of but one garment, though a second was often added. Among the upper orders the favourite attire was a petticoat tied round the waist with a gay sash, and worn under a robe of fine linen or a sort of chintz variously coloured, and made large and loose, with wide sleeves, the band being fastened in front just under the bust.
Their feet were incased in sandals, the rudiment of the present Eastern slipper, which they resembled also in their embroidery and design. Their persons and apparel, in conformity with Oriental taste in all ages, were profusely decked with ornaments, ‘jewels of silver and jewels of gold,’ with precious gems of extraordinary size, of which imitations, hardly distinguishable from the real stones, were within the reach of the humblest classes, whose passion for finery could not be surpassed by their superiors.
The richly carved and embroidered sandals, tied over the instep with tassels of gold, were surmounted by gold anklets or bangles, which, as well as the bracelets encircling the wrist, sparkled with rare gems; and necklaces of gold or of beautiful beads, with a pendant of amethysts or pearls, hung from the neck. Almost every finger was jewelled, and the ring finger in particular was usually allotted several rings, while massive earrings shaped like hoops, or sometimes taking the form of a jewelled asp or of a dragon, adorned the ears. Gloves were used at a very early date, and among the other imperishable relics of that olden time the tombs of Egypt have rendered up to us a pair of striped linen mittens, which once covered the hands of a Theban lady.
Women of quality inclosed their hair with a band of gold, from which a flower drooped over the forehead, while the hair fell in long plaits to the bosom, and behind streamed down the back to the waist. The side hair was secured by combs made of polished wood or by a gold pin, and perhaps was sometimes adorned, like the brow, with a favourite flower. The toilet was furnished with a brazen mirror, polished to such a degree as to reflect every lineament of the face, and the belles of Egypt, as ladies of the present day may imagine, spent no small portion of their time with this faithful counsellor.
The boudoirs were not devoid of an air of luxury and refinement particularly congenial to a modern imagination. A stand near the unglazed window supported vases of flowers, which filled the room with delicious odours; a soft carpet overspread the floor; two or three richly-carved chairs and an embroidered fauteuil afforded easy and inviting seats; and the lotus and papyrus were frescoed on the walls. Besides the brazen mirror, other accessories of the toilet were arranged on the ebony table, and boxes and caskets grotesquely carved, some containing jewels, others furnished with oils and ointments, took their place with quaintly-cut smelling bottles, wooden combs, silver or bronze bodkins, and lastly, pins and needles.
Seated at this shrine, the Egyptian beauty, with her dark glance fixed on the brazen mirror, sought to heighten those charms which are always most potent in their native simplicity. A touch of collyrium gave illusive magnitude to her voluptuous eyes; another cosmetic stained their lids; a delicate brush pencilled her brows sometimes, alas! imparted a deceitful bloom to her cheeks; and her taper fingers were coloured with the juice of henna. Precious ointments were poured on her hair, and enveloped her in an atmosphere of perfume, while the jeweller’s and milliner’s arts combined to decorate her person.”
In Sir Gardner Wilkinson’s admirable work on ancient Egypt, to which I am indebted for some valuable information, there is a plate representing a lady in a bath with her attendants, drawn from a sculpture in a tomb at Thebes, whence we may derive some faint idea of the elaborate character of an Egyptian toilet.
The lady is seated in a sort of pan, with her long hair streaming over her shoulders, and is supported by the arm of an attendant, who, with her other hand, holds a flower to her nose, while another damsel pours water over her head, and a third washes and rubs down her delicate arms. A fourth maiden receives her jewels, and deposits them on a stand, where she awaits the moment when they will be again required.
The Corset in use among the Israelitish ladies
There appears little doubt that the ancient Israelitish ladies, amongst their almost endless and most complex articles of adornment, numbered the corset in a tolerably efficient form and of attractive and rich material, for we read in the twenty-fourth verse of the third chapter of Isaiah, referring to Divine displeasure manifested against the people of Jerusalem and Judah, and the taking away of matters of personal adornment from the women that “instead of a girdle there should be a rent, and instead of well-set hair baldness, and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth, and burning instead of beauty.”
Here we have the coarse, repulsive, unattractive sackcloth held up in marked contrast to the stomacher, which was without question a garment on which much attention was bestowed; and the following extract from Fullam’s History of Woman shows how costly and magnificent was the costume of the period:
The elegance of their costume, bridal dress of a princess or Jewish lady .
“The bridal dress of a princess or Jewish lady of rank, whose parents possessed sufficient means, was of the most sumptuous description, as may be seen from the account given of that worn by the bride of Solomon in the Canticles, and the various articles enumerated show the additions which feminine taste had already made to the toilet.
The body was now clothed in a bodice ascending to the network which inclosed, rather than concealed, the swelling bust; and jeweled clasps and earrings, with strings of pearls and chains of gold, gave a dazzling effect to Oriental beauty. In Solomon’s reign silk is said to have been added to the resources of the toilet, and the sex owe to a sister, Pamphyla, the daughter of Patous, the discovery of this exquisite material, in which woman wrested from Nature a dress worthy of her charms.
The ordinary attire of Jewish women was made of linen, usually white, without any intermixture of colors, though, in accordance with the injunction in Numbers XV. 38, they made ‘fringes in the borders of their garments,’ and ‘put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue.’ Judith, when she sought to captivate Holofernes, ‘put on her garments of gladness, wherewith she was clad during the life of Manasses her husband; and she took sandals upon her feet, and put about her bracelets, and her chains, and her rings, and her earrings, and all her ornaments, and decked herself bravely to allure the eyes of all men that should see her.’
Gemmed bangles encircled her ankles, attracting the glance to her delicate white feet; and Holofernes, by an Oriental figure of speech, is said to have been ‘ravished by the beauty of her sandals.’ Like the belles of Egypt she did not disdain, in setting off her charms, to have recourse to perfumes and cosmetics, and previously to setting out she ‘anointed herself with precious ointment.’ In another place Jezebel is said to ‘paint her eyelids; ‘ and Solomon, in the Proverbs, in describing the deceitful woman, adjures his son not to be ‘taken with her eyelids,’ evidently alluding to the use of collyrium (Collyrium is an antique term for a lotion or liquid wash used as a cleanser for the eyes, particularly in diseases of the eye.).
The Jewish beauty owed no slight obligation to her luxuriant tresses, which were decorated with waving plumes and strings of pearls; and in allusion to this custom, followed among the tribes from time immemorial, St. Paul affirms that ‘a woman’s ornament is her hair.’ Judith ‘braided the hair of her head and put a tire upon it;’ and the headdress of Pharaoh’s daughter, in the Canticles, is compared by Solomon to Carmel. No mention is made of Judith’s mirror, but it was undoubtedly made of brass, like those described in Exodus XXXVII. 8 as ‘the looking-glasses of the women which assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation”.