Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tight Lacing for Ordinary Women, c. 1777

Thursday, August 11, 2011
Susan reporting:

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.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Gosh I had to leave you a comment to say how much I enjoy your blog! I read every post voraciously and have learnt heaps. Thank you for the nerdy history :)

Jane O said...

For a modern version of tight lacing, consider the contortions young women go into to get themselves into really tight jeans.

Anonymous said...

So that's where 'hoity toighty' came from. You guys are so much fun!

Molly M. said...

As a person who does a lot of historical reenacting (mostly 16th century and WWII), I have done a lot of research on clothing. Not all corsets were back laced. That was usually left to the rich or middle class who could afford to have someone dress them. There were front lacing corsets for the lower class. That's not to say that the lower classes didn't have back lacing corsets and upper class ladies didn't have front lacing corsets (eg. Queen Elizabeth I's effigy corset), that's just what I've been able to glean from research and such.

Rowenna said...

One other point to keep in mind with lacing--seldom did women live alone! A poor woman with no servant would probably live with family--and sisters, mothers, husbands, daughters all make excellent substitute ladies' maids :) And Molly is right--front-lacing corsets existed, too. Though I know one can lace one's back-lacing stays alone (a friend of mine laces hers in two cords to the middle of her back, then wraps the cords to the front of her waist), in years of reenacting I've never had to :)

Isobel Carr said...

I get asked this every time I teach a costume class. You don’t need a maid or a man to lace an 18th century corset as tightly as possible (cause they really don’t get all that tight before you start ripping fabric). The maids did for each other. The poor did for each other. Husbands helped wives. Mothers and daughters helped each other. Sisters helped each other. No one lived alone, so it was never really an issue.

There is no such thing as “tight lacing” (in the Victorian, rearrange-your-organs-sense that most of us understand by the term) before the invention of the metal grommet in 1828, and its use doesn’t really become prevalent until later. On extant corsets I start seeing them frequently in the late 1830s and they’re ubiquitous by the 1850s.

Isobel Carr said...

a friend of mine laces hers in two cords to the middle of her back, then wraps the cords to the front of her waist

This is speed lacing, and it's how most Victorian corsets should be laced. I can get myself into my Vickies because of the 2-part busk in the front and the speed lacing in the back. This doesn't work for earlier periods though, as corsets were spiral rather than cross laced (and 18th century stays only go to the waist so the physics don’t work).

Diane Costanza Studio said...

Ahhh, I often wondered that myself. I would imagine that is why the front closure stays were invented.

Lauren Hairston said...

Not only an informative post, but informative comments! I just learned so much (and that makes today a good day!). I've never worn one, but I have squeezed myself into a few merry widows (and tight jeans!). I should add, not at the same time, though.

Rowenna said...

Isobel--it actually can work for spiral-laced stays (not to get nitpicky--I've just seen it done by fellow 18th century living history folks). And though not to the extent that the Victorians did, some 18th century ladies did indulge in lacing their stays in the "fashion before ease" mentality, which was referred to at the time as tight-lacing (as in this satirical cartoon: . One can lace too tight even with spiral-lacing and no grommetts--been there, whoops! It is thoroughly impossible to enjoy dinner if your stays are too tight! I think the most important point I try to reinforce when explaining 18th century corsetry is that tight-lacing was not the norm.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many excellent comments! My own two cents about "tight lacing": no, 18th c/ earlier stays could not be laced as tightly as 19th c stays because of the difference in worked vs. metal eyelets. But the perception at the time was that ultra-fashionable women did do it - there are many cartoons (beyond the one above) that show women resorting to all sorts of tugging and pulling to make those stays tight. Most women did not do this - the purpose of earlier stays is to create a certain body shape, not so much to reduce it.
FYI - I'm in Colonial Williamsburg at present, with related posts to follow next week. :)

Isobel Carr said...

Yes, but there's a WORLD of difference between Georgian "tight" lacing and Victorian tight lacing. I’d be curious to see how someone can close back-lacking 18th century stays without assistance. I grew up as a reenactor and have never seen such an attempt.

Rowenna said...

Isobel--agreed, for sure! I just find it fascinating that the term "tight lacing" is one that they used in the 18th century--not one made up later to apply to them, and that has clear differences between the 18th and 19th centuries! I'll have to ask my friend to show me how she manages the self-laced stays--I find it easier to go about camp begging for help with lacing my stays, personally. :) Nice to meet another "lifer" reenactor, Isobel!

Kristin said...

Isobel, I found this post from Diary of a Mantua Maker that shows how she laces up her back-lacing stays alone:

Anonymous said...

Isobel, I am an 18th century re-enactor who wears back-lacing stays. I have never had help lacing mine. I keep them loosely laced at all times. I slip them up over my hips and begin with them turned so that the back is in the front. I begin tightening them, but only partially. Then I spin them around, reach behind my back, and starting from the top, I loop my fingers into each "rung" of the lacing and pull it. I work my way down until it is tightened to the degree that I feel comfortable. Then I do a series of half-hitches to secure it at the bottom and tuck the tail of the lacing up underneath the stays. Voila! It is possible.

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