Praise of Crinoline and Corsets. The elegant figure. Slender waists.

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 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

Empress, Elisabeth, Austria,
Empress Elisabeth of Austria 1837-1898

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:


“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.

Petticoats, corsets and skirt fashion. Victorian Crinoline. Les Modes Parisiennes
Petticoats, corsets and skirt fashion 1862

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. Our 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.


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.

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.

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.


Letter in praise of Crinoline and Corsets

Then follows a letter rather calculated to cast doubt on the subject of the sufferings of the young lady whose case has been described, from a lady who, although possessing a small waist, knows nothing of them. Thus she writes:-

“Please let me join in the all-absorbing discussion you have introduced at the Englishwoman’s monthly Conversazione, and let me first thank Staylace for her capital letter. I quite agree with her in suspecting the story of the young lady at the boarding-school to be overdrawn a little.

Would the young lady herself oblige us with a description of her ‘tortures’, as I and several of my friends who follow the present fashion of small waists are curious to know something of them, having never experienced these terrible sufferings, though my waistband measures only eighteen inches? The truth is, there are always a number of fussy middle-aged people who (with the best intentions, no doubt) are always abusing some article of female dress. The best of it is, these benevolent individuals are usually of that sex whose costume precludes them from making a personal trial of the articles they condemn.

Now it is the crinoline which draws forth their indignant outcries, now the corset, and now the chignon. They know not from their own experience how the crinoline relieves us from the weight of many under-skirts, and prevents them from clinging to us while walking, and they have never felt the comfortable support of a well-made corset. Yet they decry the use of the first as unaccountable, and of the second as suicidal. Let me tell them, however, that the ladies themselves judge from practice and not from theory, and if the opponents of the corset require proof of this, let me remind them that compression of the waist has been more or less universal throughout the civilised world for three or four centuries, in spite of reams of paper and gallons of printing-ink. I may add that, for my own part, I have always laced tightly, and have always enjoyed good health.

Allow me to recommend ladies to have their corsets made to measure, and if they do not feel they suffer any inconvenience, they may certainly take the example of your clever correspondent Staylace, and look upon the outcry as a ‘bugbear and so much cant.’


Thus called on, the young lady herself writes and confirms, as it will be seen, the statements of others, that the late use of the corset is the main source of pain on its first adoption; and the statement she makes that her waist is so much admired that she sometimes forgets the pain passed through in attaining it, coupled with the confession that she is not in ill-health, gives her letter strong significance. Here it is in its integrity:-

“In last month’s number of your valuable magazine you were kind enough to publish a letter from my mamma on the subject of tight-lacing, and as your correspondent Staylace says she is inclined to think the whole story made up for a purpose, mamma has requested me to write and confirm what she stated in her letter. It seems wonderful to me how your correspondent can lace so tightly and never feel any inconvenience. It may be, very likely, owing to her having begun very young.

In my case I can only say I suffered sometimes perfect torture from my stays, especially after dinner, not that I ate heartily, for that I found impossible, even if we had been allowed to do so by our schoolmistress, who considered it unladylike. The great difference between your correspondent Staylace and myself seems to be that she was incased in corsets at an early age, and thus became gradually accustomed to tight-lacing, while I did not wear them till I went to school at fourteen, and I did not wear them voluntarily. Of course it is impossible to say whether I underwent greater pressure than she has.

I think I must have done so, for my waist had grown large before it was subjected to the lacing, and had to be reduced to its present tenuity, whereas, if she began stays earlier, that would have prevented her figure from growing so large. Perhaps Staylace will be so kind as to say whether she began stays early, or at any rate before fourteen, and what is the size of her waist and her height?

One reason why she does not feel any inconvenience from tight corsets may be that, when she feels disposed, she may loosen them, and thus prevent any pain from coming on. But when I was at school I was not allowed to loosen them in the least, however much they distressed me, so that what was in the morning merely a feeling of irksome pressure, became towards the end of the day a regular torture. I quite admit that slender waists are beautiful- in fact, my own waist is so much admired that I sometimes forget the pain I underwent in attaining it.

I am also quite ready to confess I am not in ill-health, though I often feel languid and disinclined for walking out. Nor do I think a girl whose constitution is sound would suffer any injury to her health from moderate lacing, but I must beg that you will allow me to declare that when stays are not worn till fourteen years of age, very tight lacing causes absolute torture for the first few months, and it was principally to deter ladies from subjecting their daughters to this pain in similar cases that mamma wrote to you. I am sure any young lady who has (like myself) begun tight-lacing rather late will corroborate what I have said, and I hope some will come forward and do so, now you so kindly give the opportunity.”

Letter on boarding-school discipline and figure-training

Much ill-deserved blame has been from time to time cast on the lady principals of fashionable schools for insisting on the strict use of the corset by the young ladies in their charge. The following letter from a schoolmistress of great experience, and another from a young lady who has finished her education at a fashionable boarding-school, will at once serve to show that the measures adopted by the heads of these establishments for the obtainment of elegant figures are in the end fully appreciated by those who have been fortunate enough to profit by them. A Schoolmistress Correspondent says:-

“As a regular subscriber to your valuable magazine, I see you have invited your numerous readers to discuss the subject brought forward by a correspondent in Edinburgh, and as the principal of a large ladies’ school in that city, I feel sure you will kindly allow me space to say a few words in reply to her letter. In the first place it must be apparent that your correspondent committed a great mistake in placing her daughter at a fashionable school if she did not wish her to become a fashionable belle, or she should at least have given instructions that her daughter should not have her figure trained in what every one knows is the fashionable style. For my own part I have always paid particular attention to the figures of the young ladies intrusted to my care, and being fully convinced that if the general health is properly attended to, corsets are far from being the dreadfully hurtful things some people imagine, I have never hesitated to employ this most important and elegant article of dress, except in one case where the pupil was of a consumptive tendency, and I was specially requested not to allow her to dress at all tightly.

All my pupils enjoy good health, my great secret being regular exercise, a point which is almost always disregarded. It appears from your correspondent’s letter that the young lady did not experience any inconvenience after the first two years she was at the school, nor does her mother say her health was affected. She only complains that she is no longer a ‘romping girl.’

Now, no young lady of eighteen who expects to move in fashionable society would wish to be thought a romping schoolgirl. With regard to the slight pain in the muscles which the young lady described as ‘torture’, this was no doubt caused by her not having been accustomed by degrees to a close-fitting dress before she went to the school. I find that girls who have commenced the use of stays at an early age, and become gradually used to them, do not experience any uneasiness when they are worn tighter at fourteen or fifteen. There can be no doubt that a slender figure is as much admired as ever, and always will be so.

The present fashion of short waists is admitted on all hands to be very ugly, and will soon go out. Those girls, then, who have not had their figures properly attended to while growing will be unable to reduce their waists when the fashion changes, whereas, by proper care now, they will be able to adopt the fashion of longer waists without any inconvenience. I trust you will allow us schoolmistresses fair play in this important matter, and insert this, or part of it, in your magazine”.

The waist of fashion contrasted with that of the Venus de Medici

Mignon says:-
“DEAR MRS. ENGLISHWOMAN,- I beg- I pray- that you will not close your delightful Conversazione to the tight-lacing question: it is an absorbing one; hundreds, thousands of your young lady readers are deeply interested in this matter, and the subscribers to your excellent magazine are increasing daily, to my own knowledge, by reason of this interesting controversy; pray wait a little, and you will see how the tight-lacers and their gentlemen admirers will rally round the banner that has been unfurled.

There is an attempt being made to introduce the hideous fashion of the’Empire,’ as it is called. Why should we who have been disciplined at home and at school, and laced tighter and tighter month after month, until our waists have become ‘small by degrees and beautifully less’, be expected to hide our figures (which we know are admired) under such atrocious drapery?

My stay and dress maker both tell me that it is only the ill-formed and waistless ones that have taken to the fashion; such, of course, are well pleased, and will have no objection to have their waistbands as high as their armpits. Angular and rigid figures have always pretended to sneer at tightlacers, but any one of them would give half, nay, their whole fortune to attain to such small dimensions as some of your correspondents describe. I shall keep my waist where nature has placed it, and where art has improved it, for my own comfort, and because a certain friend has said that he never could survive if it were any larger or shorter. My waist remains just as it was a year and a-half ago, when I left school, where in the course of three years it was by imperceptible degrees laced from twenty to fifteen inches, not only without injury to health but with great satisfaction and comfort to myself.”

It has been much the fashion amongst those who have written in condemnation of the use of the corset to contrast the figure of the Venus de Medici with that of a fashionably-dressed lady of the present day; but the comparison is anything but a happy one, as it would be quite as reasonable to insist that because the sandalled and stockingless foot of the lady of Ancient Greece was statuesque in contour when forming a portion of a statue, it should be substituted for the fashionable boot or slipper and silk stocking of the present day. That perfection itself in the sculptor’s art when draped in fashionable attire would become supremely grotesque and ridiculous was not long since fully proved by actual experiment.

A former contributor to the columns of the Queen, who at one time followed the medical profession, felt so convinced of the claims to admiration possessed by the classic order of form, that he obtained a copy of the Greek Slave, and had it draped by a first-rate milliner, who made use of all the modern appliances of the toilet, corset and crinoline included. The result was that dress made a perfect fright of her, and the disappointed experimentalist candidly confessed that he did not like her half as well as he had done. The waist was disproportionately thick, and the whole tout ensemble dowdy in the extreme.

A fashionably dressed statue

No fallacy can be greater than to apply the rules of ancient art to modern costume. Thus writes an artist in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of September, 1867:-

“I do not for a moment deny the truth of your artist correspondent’s assertions, for I consider, as every one must, that the proportions of the human body are the most beautiful in creation (where all is beautiful and correct), but the great mistake which so many make is this. In civilised countries the body is always clothed; and that clothing, especially of the ladies of European nations, completely hides the contour of the body.

The effect of this is to give great clumsiness to the waist when that part of the person is of its natural size. Let any one make a fair and unprejudiced trial, such as this: let him get a statuette of some celebrated antique, the Venus de Medici or the Greek Slave, and have it dressed in an ordinary dress of the present day, and see what the effect really is.

Until fashion, in its ever-changing round, returns to the costume of Ancient Greece or Rome, we can never expect to persuade ladies not to compress their waists merely on the score of beauty; and as several of your correspondents have shown that a moderate compression is not so injurious as some supposed, there is no chance of the corset becoming an obsolete article of female dress. It has been in use for seven or eight hundred years, and now that its form and construction are so much modified and improved, there need be no longer an outcry against it; indeed, outcry has for centuries failed to affect it, though other articles of dress have become in their turn obsolete, a clear proof that there is something more than mere arbitrary fashion in its hold upon the fair sex.”

Clumsy figures a serious drawback to young ladies

Another gentleman, not an artist, but whose sisters now suffer from all the annoyances consequent on clumsy, ill-trained figures, thus writes to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of September, 1867:-

“Though the subject on which I propose to address to you a few observations hardly concerns a man, I hope you will allow me a little space in your excellent journal to express my views upon it. I have been much interested by reading the correspondence on the subject of slender waists, and the means used for attaining them. Now, there can be no doubt that gentlemen admire those figures the most which have attained the greatest slenderness.

I think there is no more deplorable sight than a large and clumsy waist; and as nature, without assistance from art, seldom produces a really small waist, I think those mothers and schoolmistresses who insist upon their daughters or pupils between the ages of ten and seventeen wearing well-made corsets, and having them tightly laced, confer upon the young ladies a great benefit, which, though they may not appreciate at the time, they will when they go out into society.

Certainly some of your correspondents seem to have fallen into the hands of schoolmistresses thoroughly aware of the advantages of a good figure-a waist that two hands can easily clasp is certainly a marvel. I never had the good fortune to see such a one, yet one of your correspondents assures us that her daughter’s was no larger than that. Nora, too, says that her waist only measured thirteen inches when she left school; this seems to me to be miraculously small.

Most gentlemen do not think much about the means used for attaining a fashionable figure, and I should not have done so either if I had not heard it a good deal discussed in my family, where my sisters were never allowed to lace at all tightly, the consequence of which is, that now that they are grown up they have very clumsy figures, much to their regret; but it is too late to alter them now.

As doctors seem to think that the dangers of tight-lacing have been much exaggerated, and as I know many ladies with very slender waists enjoying quite as good health as their more strongly built sisters, I would urge upon all who wish to have good figures not to be deterred by alarmists from endeavouring gradually to attain an elegant shape.”

It is most remarkable that, notwithstanding the number of letters which have been published casting condemnation and ridicule on those who wear corsets, not one can we discover containing the personal experiences of those who have been anything but temporary sufferers from even their extreme use, whilst such letters as the following, which appeared in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of August, 1867, are of a nature to lead to the conclusion that unless the germs of disease of some kind are rooted in the system, a well-made and perfectly-fitting corset may be worn with impunity, even when habitually laced with considerable tightness.

The lady thus gives her own experiences and those of her daughters:-
“From the absence of any correspondence on the all-important topic of tight-lacing in your August number, I very much fear that the subject has come to an end. If so, many other subscribers besides myself will be very sorry for it. I cannot tell you what pleasure it gave me to see the sentiments that were expressed by so many who, like myself, are addicted to the practice of tight-lacing, and as for many years I have been in the habit of lacing extremely tight, I trust that you will allow me, by inserting this or part of it, to make known that I have never suffered any pain or illness from it.

In the days when I was a schoolgirl, stays were worn much stiffer and higher than the flimsy things now used, and were, besides, provided with shoulder-straps, so that to be very tightly incased in them was a much more serious affair than at the present day.*

But, nevertheless, I remember our governess would insist on the greatest possible amount of constriction being used, and always twice a day our stays were tightened still more. A great amount of exercise was inculcated, which perhaps did away with any ill effects this extreme tight-lacing might have occasioned, but while at school I imbibed a liking for the practice, and have ever since insisted on my maid lacing me as tightly as she possibly can. I quite agree with Staylace in saying that to be tightly laced in a pair of tight-fitting stays is a most superb sensation.

My two daughters, aged respectively sixteen and eighteen, are brought up in the same way, and would not consider themselves properly dressed unless their stays were drawn together. They can bear me out in my favourable opinion of tight-lacing, and their good health speaks volumes in its praise. I hope, madam, you will kindly insert this letter in your valuable and largely-circulated magazine.”

Many opponents to the use of the corset have strongly urged the somewhat weak argument, that ladies with slender waists are not generally admired by the gentlemen. That question has been ably dealt with in one or two of the preceding letters from ladies, and it is but fair to them that the opinions of both the young and old of the male sex (candidly communicated to the columns of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine should be added to the weight of evidence in favour of almost universal admiration for a slender and well-rounded waist.

Letter from a lady …in praise of the Corset

Thus writes a young baronet in the number for October, 1867:-
“As you have given your readers the benefit of Another Correspondent’s excellent letter will you kindly allow another member of the sterner sex to give his opinion on the subject of small waists? Those who have endeavoured to abolish this most becoming fashion have not hesitated to declare that gentlemen do not care for a slender figure, but that, on the contrary, their only feeling on beholding a waist of eighteen inches is one of pity and contempt.

Now so far from this being the case, there is not one gentleman in a thousand who is not charmed with the sight. Elderly gentlemen, no doubt, may be found who look upon such things as ‘vanity and vexation of spirit;‘ but is it for these that young ladies usually cultivate their charms? There is one suggestion I should be glad to make if you will permit me, and that is that all those ladies who possess that most elegant attraction, a slender waist, should not hide it so completely by shawls or loose paletots when on the promenade or in the street.

When by good-luck I chance to meet a lady who has the good taste, I may say the kindness, to show her tapering waist by wearing a close-fitting paletot, I not unfrequently turn to admire, and so far from thinking of the means used to obtain the result, I am held spellbound by the beauty of the figure.”

Letter from a family man

That elderly gentlemen are by no means as indifferent to the attractions of elegant slenderness as our young correspondent supposes, will be best shown by a letter from a family man on the subject, communicated to the above journal, November, 1867. He says:-

“I have read with much interest the correspondence on the above subject in the Englishwoman’s Conversazione for several months past, having accidentally met with one of the numbers of your magazine in a friend’s house and have since regularly taken it, although not previously, a subscriber.

As an ardent admirer of small waists in ladies, I wish to record for the satisfaction of those who possess them the fact, which is sometimes disputed, that the pains bestowed in attaining a slender figure are not in vain so far as we gentlemen are concerned, and some of us are positively absurd in our excessive admiration of this particular female beauty.

Poets and novelists are perpetually introducing heroines with tiny waists and impossible feet, and if they are to portray female loveliness in all its attributes, they could not well omit two such essential points, and I take it their ideal is not an unfair criterion of the taste of the public at large.

I am delighted to learn from very clear evidence put forward by your many correspondents that ‘small waists’ are attainable by most ladies at little or no inconvenience, and that those of the clumsier build are willing to suffer a certain amount of pain if necessary in reducing their bulky figures to graceful proportions, and, above all, that this can be done without injury to health, for after all it would be a dearly-purchased charm if health were sacrificed.

Some fifteen or twenty years ago, I recollect the word ’stays’ was uttered as though a certain amount of disgrace attached to the wearer, and ’tightlacing’ was looked on as a crime; but I am glad to see that a reaction is setting in, and that ladies are not afraid to state openly that ‘they lace very tightly’, and many of them declare the sensation of being laced as tightly as possible as positively a pleasurable one. I may say that personally I feel that every lady of my acquaintance, or with whom I may come in contact, who does so places me under a direct obligation.

I will go further than your correspondent, A Young Baronet, and say that whenever I meet a young lady who possesses the charm of a small waist, and has the good taste to wear the tight-fitting dress now fashionable for the promenade, I make it a point to see her pretty figure more than once, and have often gone considerably out of my way to do so. Although married years and years ago, I am still a slave to a ‘little waist‘, and I am proud to say my wife humours my whim, and her waist is decidedly a small one.

I will, therefore, add my experience to that of others (more competent to give an opinion, having experienced tight-lacing in their own proper persons), and state that she never enjoyed better health than when her waist was the smallest, and I shall be much disappointed if her daughters, when they ‘come out‘, do not emulate their mother’s slender figure.

By keeping your Conversazione open to the advocates of tight-lacing, and thoroughly ventilating the subject, you will, in my opinion, confer a benefit on the rising generation of young ladies, whose mammas, in too many instances, are so prejudiced against the use of the corset that they permit their daughters to grow up into clumsy, awkward young women, to their own disgust and great detriment in the matrimonial market.

I am, madam, your obedient servant, BENEDICT.”

*) Fairholt remarks, in speaking of the discipline observed in schools during the reign of George III.- “It was the fashion to educate girls in stiffness of manner at all public schools, and particularly to cultivate a fall of the shoulders and an upright set of the bust. The top of the steel stay busk had a long stocking-needle attached to it to prevent girls from spoiling their shape by stooping too much over their needlework. This I have heard from a lady since dead who had often felt these gentle hints and lamented their disuse.”

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.

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.

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