One of the questions that pops up again and again: how did ordinary women in the past lace their corsets and stays without lady's maids or footmen to pull them tight?
My sense is that, through a lifetime of daily habit, they managed (and so I've heard from friends who wear stays on a regular basis as re-enactors and as historical interpreters.) Just as most modern women don't trot off to work wearing towering 6" platform pumps, extreme tight-lacing was reserved for the wealthy, fashionable courtiers, and actresses and other performers.
But that's not to say that there weren't women of the middling sort who aspired to fashionable extremes. This print from 1777 is most likely a satire on longing for style beyond one's station - in this case, the cobbler's wife dressing herself in high-heeled shoes, a towering hairstyle, a fancy quilted petticoat, and tightly laced stays. Without a lady's maid, she has inventively used the weight provided by her husband's tools to help pull her lace tight. The cobbler, however, is not amused, and is preparing to beat her with a leather strap (remember, this is the 18th c., where wife-beating, if not exactly condoned, wasn't necessarily considered a crime, either):
The Hoity head & Toighty waist As now there all the ton Ma'm Nell the Cobbler's wife in taste By none will be outdone. But ah! When set aloft her cap Her boddice while she's bracing Jobson comes in, & with his strap Gives her a good tight lacing.
Above: Tight lacing, or, The cobler's wife in the fashion, hand-colored print published 1977 by William Hitchcock, London. Copyright the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.