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