CHAPTER VIII. The elegant figure, Slender waists, The small size of Corsets.
The elegant figure of the Empress of Austria – Slender waists the fashion in Vienna – The small size of Corsets frequently made in London – Letter from the Queen on small waists – Remarks on the portrait of the Empress of Austria in the Exhibition – Diminutive waist of Lady Morton – General remarks on the figure – Remarks on figure-training by the use of stays – Mode of constructing Corsets for growing girls – Tight-lacing abolished by the early use of well-constructed Corsets – Boarding school discipline and extreme tight-lacing – Letter in praise of tight Corsets – Letter in praise of Crinoline and Corsets – Another letter on boarding-school discipline and figure-training – The waist of fashion contrasted with that of the Venus de Medici – A fashionably dressed statue – Clumsy figures a serious drawback to young ladies – Letter from a lady, who habitually laces with extreme tightness, in praise of the Corset – Opinions of a young baronet on slender waists; letter from a family man on the same subject.
Slender waists the fashion in Vienna
As most of our readers will be aware, the much-admired Empress of Austria has been long celebrated for possessing a waist of sixteen inches in circumference, and a friend of ours who has recently had unusual, opportunities afforded for judging of the fashionable world of Vienna, assures us that waists of equal slenderness are by no means uncommon. We are also informed by one of the first West-End corset-makers that sixteen inches is a size not unfrequently made in London. Much valuable and interesting information can be gathered from the following letter from a talented correspondent of the Queen a few months ago:
“CORSETS AND SMALL WAISTS”
“I am a constant reader of the Queen, and look forward with anxiety for more of the very interesting letters on the corset question which you are so obliging as to insert in your paper. I know many who take as much pleasure in reading them as myself, for the subject is one on which both health and beauty greatly depend. All who visited the picture-gallery in the Exhibition of 1862 must have seen an exquisitely painted portrait of the beautiful Empress of Austria, and though it did not show the waist in the most favorable position, some idea may be formed of its elegant slenderness and easy grace.
Many were the remarks made upon it by all classes of critics while I seated myself opposite the picture for a few minutes. I should like any one who maintains that small waists are not generally admired to have taken up the position which I did for half an-hour, and I am sure she would soon find her opinion unsupported by facts; your correspondents, however, are at fault in supposing that sixteen inches is the smallest waist that the world has almost ever known. Lady Babbage, in her Collection of Curiosities, tells us that in a portrait of Lady Morton, in the possession of Lord Dillon, the waist cannot exceed ten or twelve inches in circumference, and at the largest part immediately beneath the armpits not more than twenty-four, and the immense length of the figure seems to give it the appearance of even greater slenderness. Catherine de Medici considered the standard of perfection to be thirteen inches. It is scarcely to be supposed that any lady of the present day possesses such an absurdly small waist as thirteen inches, but I am certain that not a few could be found whose waistband does not exceed fifteen inches and three-quarters or sixteen inches. Much depends on the height and width of the shoulders; narrow shoulders generally admit of a small waist, and many tall women are naturally so slender as to be able to show a small waist with very little lacing. It is needless to remark how much depends on the corset. Your correspondent, A. H. Turnour, says that the long corsets, if well pulled in at the waist, compress one cruelly all the way up, and cause the shoulders to deport themselves awkwardly and stiffly. Now, no corset will be able to do this if constructed as it should be. I believe the great fault to be that when the corset is laced on it is very generally open an inch or so from top to bottom. The consequence of this is, that when the wearer is sitting down, and the pressure on the waist the greatest, the tendency is to pull the less tightly drawn lace at the top of the corset tighter; on changing the posture this does not right itself, and consequently an unnecessary and injurious compression round the chest is experienced. Now, if the corset, when fitted, were so made that it should meet all the way, or at any rate above and below the waist, when laced on, this evil would be entirely avoided, and absence of compression round the upper part of the chest would give an increased appearance of slenderness to the waist and allow the lungs as much play as the waistbands. There seems to be an idea that when the corset is made to meet it gives a stiffness to the figure. In the days of buckram this might be the case, but no such effect need be feared from the light and flexible stays of the present day, and the fault which frequently leads to the fear of wearing corsets which do not meet is, that the formation of the waist is not begun early enough. The consequence of this is, that the waist has to be compressed into a slender shape after it has been allowed to swell, and the stays are therefore made so as to allow of being laced tighter and tighter. Now I am persuaded that much inconvenience is caused by this practice, which might be entirely avoided by the following simple plan, which I have myself tried with my own daughters, and have found to answer admirably. At the age of seven I had them fitted with stays without much bone and a flexible busk, and these were made to meet from top to bottom when laced, and so as not to exercise the least pressure round the chest and beneath the waist, and only a very slight pressure at the waist, just enough to show off the figure and give it a roundness. To prevent the stays from slipping, easy shoulder-straps were added. In front, extending from the top more than half way to the waist, were two sets of lace-holes, by which the stays could be enlarged round the upper part. As my daughters grew, these permitted of my always preventing any undue pressure, but I always laced the stays so as to meet behind. When new ones were required they were made exactly the same size at the waist, but as large round the upper part as the gradual enlargement had made the former pair. They were also of course made a little longer, and the position of the shoulder-straps slightly altered; by these means their figures were directed instead of forced into a slender shape; no inconvenience was felt, and my daughters, I am happy to say, are straight, and enjoy perfect health, while the waist of the eldest is eighteen inches, and that of the youngest seventeen. I am convinced that my plan is the most reasonable one that can be adopted. By this means ’tight-lacing’ will be abolished, for no tight-lacing or compression is required, and the child, being accustomed to the stays from an early age, does not experience any of the inconveniences which are sometimes felt by those who do not adopt them till twelve or fourteen.
“A FORMER CORRESPONDENT (Edinburgh).”
Boarding school discipline and extreme tight-lacing
The advisability of training instead of forcing the figure into slenderness is now becoming almost universally admitted by those who have paid any attention to the subject; yet it appears from the following letters, which appeared in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of January and February, 1868, that the corset, even when employed at a comparatively late period of life, is capable of reducing the size of the waist in an extraordinary manner, without causing the serious consequences which it has so long been the custom to associate with the practice of tight-lacing.
A Tight-Lacer expresses herself to the following effect:- “Most of your correspondents advocate the early use of the corset as the best means to secure a slender waist. No doubt this is the best and most easy mode, but still I think there are many young ladies who have never worn tight stays who might have small waists even now if they would only give themselves the trouble. I did not commence to lace tightly until I was married, nor should I have done so then had not my husband been so particularly fond of a small waist; but I was determined not to lose one atom of his affection for the sake of a little trouble. I could not bear to think of him liking any one else’s figure better than mine, consequently, although my waist measured twenty-three inches, I went and ordered a pair of stays, made very strong and filled with stiff bone, measuring only fourteen inches round the waist. These, with the assistance of my maid, I put on, and managed the first day to lace my waist in to eighteen inches. At night I slept in my corset without loosing the lace in the least. The next day my maid got my waist to seventeen inches, and so on, an inch smaller every day, until she got them to meet. I wore them regularly without ever taking them off, having them tightened afresh every day, as the laces might stretch a little. They did not open in front, so that I could not undo them if I had wanted. For the first few days the pain was very great, but as soon as the stays were laced close, and I had worn them so for a few days, I began to care nothing about it, and in a month or so I would not have taken them off on any account, for I quite enjoyed the sensation, and when I let my husband see me with a dress to fit I was amply repaid for my trouble; and although I am now grown older, and the fresh bloom of youth is gone from my cheek, still my figure remains the same, which is a charm age will not rob me of. I have never had cause to regret the step I took.”
Another lady says:- “A correspondent in the October number of your magazine states that her waist is only thirteen inches round, but she does not state her height. My waist is only twelve inches round; but then, although I am eighteen years old, I am only four feet five inches in height, so that my waist is never noticed as small; while my elder sister (whose height is five feet eight inches) is considered to have a very nice figure, though her waist is twenty-three inches round. I am glad to have an opportunity of expressing my opinions on the subject of tight-lacing. I quite agree with those who think it perfectly necessary with the present style of dress (which style I hope is likely to continue). I believe every one admires the effect of tight-lacing, though they may not approve in theory. My father always used to declaim loudly against stays of any kind, so my sister and I were suffered to grow up without any attention being paid to our figures, and with all our clothes made perfectly loose, till my sister was eighteen and I fifteen years old, when papa, after accompanying us to some party, made some remarks on the clumsiness of our figures, and the ill-fitting make of our dresses. Fortunately, it was not too late. Mamma immediately had well-fitting corsets made for us, and as we were both anxious to have small waists we tightened each other’s laces four and five times a day for more than a year; now we only tighten them (after the morning) when we are going to a party.”
Letter on boarding-school discipline and figure-training
As it has been most justly remarked, no description of evidence can be so conclusive as that of those whose daily and hourly experience brings them in contact with the matter under discussion, and we append here a letter from a correspondent to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of May, 1867, giving her boarding-school experience in the matter of extreme tight-lacing:- Nora says- “I venture to trouble you with a few particulars on the subject of ‘tight-lacing’, having seen a letter in your March number inviting correspondence on the matter. I was placed at the age of fifteen at a fashionable school in London and there it was the custom for the waists of the pupils to be reduced one inch per month until they were what the lady principal considered small enough. When I left school at seventeen, my waist measured only thirteen inches, it having been formerly twenty-three inches in circumference. Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to dress, and a governess superintended to see that our corsets were drawn as tight as possible. After the first few minutes every morning I felt no pain, and the only ill effects apparently were occasional headaches and loss of appetite. I should be glad if you will inform me if it is possible for girls to have a waist of fashionable size and yet preserve their health. Very few of my fellow pupils appeared to suffer, except the pain caused by the extreme tightness of the stays. In one case where the girl was stout and largely built, two strong maids were obliged to use their utmost force to make her waist the size ordered by the lady principal viz., seventeen inches and though she fainted twice while the stays were being made to meet, she wore them without seeming injury to her health, and before she left school she had a waist measuring only fourteen inches, yet she never suffered a day’s illness. Generally all the blame is laid by parents on the principal of the school, but it is often a subject of the greatest rivalry among the girls to see which can get the smallest waist, and often while the servant was drawing in the waist of my friend to the utmost of her strength, the young lady, though being tightened till she had hardly breath to speak, would urge the maid to pull the stays yet closer, and tell her not to let the lace slip in the least. I think this is a subject which is not sufficiently understood. Though I have always heard tight-lacing condemned, I have never suffered any ill effects myself, and, as a rule, our school was singularly free from illness. By publishing this side of the question in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine you will greatly oblige.”
Cases like the foregoing are most important and remarkable, as they show most indisputably that loss of health is not so inseparably associated with even the most unflinching application of the corset as the world has been led to suppose. It rather appears that although a very considerable amount of inconvenience and uneasiness is experienced by those who are unaccustomed to the reducing and restraining influences of the corset, when adopted at rather a late period of growth, they not only in a short time cease to suffer, but of their own free will continue the practice and become partial to it. Thus writes an Edinburgh lady, who incloses her card, to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of March 1867:-
“I have been abroad for the last four years, during which I left my daughter at a large and fashionable boarding-school near London. I sent for her home directly I arrived, and, having had no bad accounts of her health during my absence, I expected to see a fresh rosy girl of seventeen come bounding to welcome me. What, then, was my surprise to see a tall, pale young lady glide slowly in with measured gait and languidly embrace me; when she had removed her mantle I understood at once what had been mainly instrumental in metamorphosing my merry romping girl to a pale fashionable belle. Her waist had, during the four years she had been at school, been reduced to such absurdly small dimensions that I could easily have clasped it with my two hands. ‘How could you be so foolish,’ I exclaimed, ‘as to sacrifice your health for the sake of a fashionable figure?’ ‘Please don’t blame me, mamma’, she replied, ‘I assure you I would not have voluntarily submitted to the torture I have suffered for all the admiration in the world.’ She then told me how the most merciless system of tight-lacing was the rule of the establishment, and how she and her forty or fifty fellow-pupils had been daily imprisoned in vices of whalebone drawn tight by the muscular arms of sturdy waiting-maids, till the fashionable standard of tenuity was attained. The torture at first was, she declared, often intolerable; but all entreaties were vain, as no relaxation of the cruel laces was allowed during the day under any pretext except decided illness. ‘But why did you not complain to me at first?’ I inquired. ‘As soon as I found to what a system of torture I was condemned,’ she replied, ‘I wrote a long letter to you describing my sufferings, and praying you to take me away. But the lady principal made it a rule to revise all letters sent by, or received by, the pupils, and when she saw mine she not only refused to let it pass, but punished me severely for rebelling against the discipline of the school.’ ‘At least you will now obtain relief from your sufferings’, I exclaimed, ‘for you shall not go back to that school any more.’ On attempting to discontinue the tight-lacing however, my daughter found that she had been so weakened by the severe pressure of the last four years that her muscles were powerless to support her, and she has therefore been compelled to lace as tight as ever, or nearly so. She says, however, that she does not suffer much inconvenience now, or, indeed, after the first two years so wonderful is the power of Nature to accommodate herself to circumstances. The mischief is done; her muscles have been, so to speak, murdered, and she must submit for life to be incased in a stiff panoply of whalebone and steel, and all this torture and misery for what? -merely to attract admiration for her small waist. I called on the lady principal of the establishment the next day, and was told that very few ladies objected to their daughters having their figures improved, that small waists were just now as fashionable as ever, and that no young lady could go into good society with a coarse, clumsy waist like a rustic, that she had always given great satisfaction by her system, which she assured me required unremitting perseverance and strictness, owing to the obstinacy of young girls, and the difficulty of making them understand the importance of a good figure. Finding that I could not touch the heart of this female inquisitor, who was so blinded by fashion, I determined to write to you and inform your readers of the system adopted in fashionable boarding-schools, so that if they do not wish their daughters tortured into wasp-waisted invalids they may avoid sending them to schools where the corset-screw is an institution of the establishment.”
And on the appearance of her letter it was replied to by another lady, who writes as follows:-
“In reply to the invitation from the lady from Edinburgh to a discussion on the popular system amongst our sex of compression of the waist, when requisite to attain elegance of figure, I beg to say that I am inclined, from the tone of her letter, to consider her an advocate of the system she at first sight appears to condemn. This conviction of mine many arise from my own partiality to the practice of tight-lacing, but the manner in which she puts the question almost inclines me to believe that she is, as a corset-maker, financially interested in the general adoption of the corset-screw. Her account of the whole affair seems so artificial, so made up for a purpose, so to speak, that I, for one, am inclined to totally discredit it.
A waist ‘easily clasped with two hands’ Ye powers! what perfection! how delightful! I declare that ever since I read that I have worn a pair of stays that I had rejected for being too small for me, as they did not quite meet behind (and I can’t bear a pair that I cannot closely lace), and have submitted to an extra amount of muscular exertion from my maid in order to approach, if ever so distantly, the delightful dimensions of two handfuls. Then, again, how charmingly she insinuates that if we will only persevere, only submit to a short probationary period of torture, the hated compression (but desired attenuation) will have become a second nature to us, that not only will it not inconvenience us, but possibly we shall be obliged, for comfort’s sake itself, to continue the practice. Now, madam, as a part of the present whole of modern dress, every one must admit that a slender waist is a great acquisition, and from my own experience and the experience of several young lady friends similarly addicted to guide me, I beg to pronounce the so-called evils of tight-lacing to be a mere bugbear and so much cant. Every woman has the remedy in her own hands. If she feels the practice to be an injury to her, she can but discontinue it at any time. To me the sensation of being tightly laced in a pair of elegant, well-made, tightly-fitting corsets is superb, and I have never felt any evil to arise therefrom. I rejoice in quite a collection of these much-abused objects-in silk, satin, and coutil of every style and colour – and never feel prouder or happier, so far as matters of the toilette are concerned, than when I survey in myself the fascinating undulations of outline.