Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Victorian Corsets: Some Facts & Myths—update

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Loretta reports:

I had the good fortune recently to attend a lecture by historic fashion and textile expert Astrida Schaeffer at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA.  Ms. Schaeffer very kindly gave me permission to take photographs of her lecture.*

As this blog’s regular readers are aware, we periodically point out fashion myths, especially those about corsets.**  However, my research area is the early part of the 19th century, not the Victorian era, so I was interested to distinguish truth from myth regarding later corsets, constructed with materials like steel and metal grommets strong enough to allow more intense tightening.

The changes were not as extreme as we tend to think.  No, the 16”-18” waist wasn’t the norm but the exception.  Ms. Schaeffer presented several images showing the waist we associate with Victorian women, and pointed out that these were not usual, but corset ads or images of actresses whose claim to fame was a teeny tiny waist.  The average woman didn’t go to this extreme.  Her corset was meant to create a smooth line under her clothing, and she came in all shapes and sizes as women do today.

Waist differences illustration source
Ms. Schaeffer also pointed out the way the corset redistributed flesh.  From the front, the waist appears narrow, especially with a great skirt ballooning out below.  But if we look at the lady from the side, she’s rather wider.  The experiment was tried with an actual human being, and the picture shows what happened.


These images, front and side, give you an idea.
 

Another false image is the Victorian woman lying or swooning on her sofa  because her corset prevents activity.  Also not true.  I couldn’t keep up with all the photographic examples, but here’s just one, of women jumping rope.  In other photos from The Happy Valley, they’re climbing fences and jumping down from them, ice skating and roller skating, running, leaping fearlessly from stairs, and so on.  As we’ve pointed out before, when you live in a world where the corset is the norm and not wearing one is abnormal, you are simply accustomed to doing everything wearing a corset.  It doesn’t debilitate you.  If you’re in the last stages of a galloping consumption, that’s another story entirely.

If all goes smoothly, I’ll have something to say at another time soon about Ms. Schaeffer’s book, Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail.

The gold dress, c. 1896, which belonged to Ellen Rodman Motley, is part of the museum’s extensive collection of clothing.  A small but fine selection is on view at present.

Update:  Belated credit to The Pragmatic Costumer, whose illustration above, of the waist differences was included in the lecture, but whose source I was unaware of.  Please check out her post, which is much more informative than I could ever be.

*Not wishing to be obnoxious about it, I limited photo-taking to one or two examples in each  subject she covered.
**Please click on the corsets label for more on the topic.

15 comments:

GSGreatEscaper said...

How does she explain away what actual Victorian women such as Louisa May Alcott (read Rose in Bloom) and the other members of the dress reform movement said about the practice and how it inhibited natural movement and the ability to exercise?

Linda said...

I "inherited" my great aunt's corset, along with the original box. Aunt Fannie continued to wear the corset, even when gardening. She said without it she would have a back ache.

LorettaChase said...

GSGreatEscape, some women resented the strictures of dress, but if these were the average women, we probably wouldn't be talking about corsets at all. Over time there have been efforts for dress reform, more sensible dress, etc. Average women worked, exercised, and so on, wearing what they were used to wearing. Linda, one of the points Astrida made was that while internal organs weren't rearranged, as some claimed (not for the average woman), the back was weakened.

Frances Evesham said...

My mother (born 1920) always insisted on a corset and thought it quite sloppy not to wear one!

Elinor Aspen said...

It is true that wearing a corset makes some movements more awkward. However, it is possible to be quite active while wearing one, assuming it fits your body properly and is not laced too tightly (I have worn several different styles of corsets, so I speak from personal experience). The dress reform movement had some valid points but was also influenced by ideology, much like the bra-burning movement among 1970s feminists.

Deb Salisbury said...

The tiny waist measurements also reflected the smaller size of women. Being under five feet tall wasn't unusual, so a 22" waist wouldn't be out of range. One fashion magazine called a 28" waist "stout."

A good corset can be quite comfortable, and some ladies have told me it can help reduce back pain. All bets are off if you lace it too tightly, though.

I belly danced in a corset once. Well, wiggled my hips a lot and made my bustle cage hop around. Not much movement at the waist. :-)

thepragmaticcostumer said...

That to-scale image of the waist differences was originally from my article "With and Without: how Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes"

The idea of extra-tiny Victorian women is somewhat exaggerated. Yes, in general people were smaller, but not so much so that we have "outgrown" them. After regular corset training or even casual daily wear, modern women can achieve the same shapes as our ancestors, and not just naturally tiny people, either. Most Victorian dress waists average about 22-28, which means that an uncorsetted Victorian waist was about 2-6 inches bigger than that--so 24-34 inches-- quite normal for women today. You might also be interested in "Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL"

LorettaChase said...

Pragmatic Costumer, thank you! I've updated the post to credit your illustration. I'm so sorry I wasn't aware of the source originally. And thank you for explaining further the matter of the allegedly tiny Victorian waist! In a short post, it's hard to get everything in, but our knowledgeable readers help fill the gaps.

Astrida Schaeffer said...

Thank you for the review, Loretta, and yes, Pragmatic Costumer, I want you to know your photo was credited in my presentation! Apologies, I should have asked directly for permission, it's such a perfect example of how the corset works and easily understood by a "lay" audience.

LorettaChase said...

It was my pleasure, Astrida. And boy, is my face red. When I took the picture, I obviously chopped off the credit line. Note to self: Improve camera skills. Mea culpa!

thepragmaticcostumer said...

Lol! Don't worry! I was not mad, just surprised to see my research is functional in a real world setting. It's good to know people are working together to finally replace antiquated myths with modern facts and research.

Peggy Viney said...

I just posted pictures of my experiment with my Civil War Era Victorian. You see, I have lost around 40 lbs over the last 6+ months. It has been a year since I wore the dress last and I could not only fit into it, I did so sans corset. Well, it looked sloppy. I put my corset on and Voila! the dress look wonderful. So, foundation garments are truly needed for the fashions of the time. Oh, and my corset was not tight laced by any standard and was quite comfortable.

Miss Sam said...

I have worked at Renaissance faires and the women wear various corsets, cinchers & bodices. The key is to lace them properly. Thankfully, we have some wonderful experts on hand for that! We spend 10-16 hours per day in garb, so it must be comfy. I have friends who don't understand how one can function dressed like that, but I find it very easy.

Lauriana said...

Good point! To often, you still find texts which refer to the tight corsets of the Victorian era as being extremely restrictive and therefore only worn by the middle and upper class ladies who could afford to live a life of leisure. Even while any photographic evidence from the era shows shop girls and nurses looking 'properly corseted'...

I can recommend this book for its research on both corset wearing itself and the, sometimes quite unexpected, social context of tight lacing: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fashion-Fetishism-Corsets-Lacing-Body-Sculpture-ebook/dp/B00C8X74Q0/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414312512&sr=1-1&keywords=corset%2C+fashion+and+fetishism

MaryB said...

My Grandmother, born in 1879, worked in the 1912-1920 time period, as a corset model for a department store. She was 5'7" tall, weighed about 130 pounds and had "the perfect "36" figure" at 36", 26", 36". She always wore a corset. Even in the 1950's, all the good department stores had sales women who were experts in fitting a woman with the proper foundation garments.

 
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