A couple of days ago, I picked up a book at my local used book store entitled “Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras”. It’s a beautiful book, with lots of lovely illustrations.
But…I’m only into the first chapter, and I’m finding so many false statements! It’s bad enough when fiction promotes the idea that corsets were torture instruments invented by men to demean and “control” women, and that women who wore corsets were unable to do anything but stand about for a short time and then faint in a decorative manner! My friends who follow my book reviews on Goodreads know about my hissy fits whenever I read fiction with corset misinformation like that! But when it comes to non-fiction, one expects a higher level of truth.
But take, for example, this quote from my new corset book: “One wonders why, from the 16th to the 19th century, the corset was never challenged by the women of the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie. The reason may have been that it served first and foremost as a sign of their superiority. Those wearing it were barred from even the slightest useful exertion, thus reinforcing the prestige of the ruling class…..women of the aristocracy felt that to wear a corset was more vital than health itself, so imperative was the need to distinguist oneself from the common people.”
First of all, much like the battle over health vs smoking going on today, wearing a corset was once thought to be the healthy thing. Men wore corsets. Children wore corsets – for their health. Just like there used to be ads saying smoking was good for your throat, there were ads telling you to wear corsets.
Corsts were never worn solely as a method for keeping those pesky poor folks in their place; they were worn by virtually everyone, for a multitude of reasons. And they were worn while working, while riding horses, and while playing sports. I’m sure a lot of it was pure vanity – just look at this vintage ad for male corsets:
Beats having to suck in your gut every time a pretty girl walks by! Also, if you didn’t wear a corset, you couldn’t wear any of the fashionable styles, which positively require the supporting base of a corset. All those layers of undergarments and heavy bustled fabrics – can you wonder why women tended to pass out? Imagine, you’re wearing one of those outfits in the heat of summer, pre-air conditioning, and you’re packed into a ballroom. Even now, sans corset, it’s common for women to faint in places like church. I think the fainting cannot be entirely blamed on corsets.
And how tightly were those corsets laced? We all grew up with images like this:
That, folks, is called ‘tightlacing’, and it’s an entirely different animal than simply wearing a corset.
First off all, throughout most of corset-wearing history, the goal in wearing a corset was not a tiny waist. You wore a corset to form your body into the right shape for your clothes, and to provide a supporting base for those clothes.
The Elizabethans wanted a nice cone shape with no breasts. And to support the weight of those skirts, they needed a corset that would help disperse the weight evenly. The corset didn’t give them a small waist, it gave them a smooth torso.
By the 18th century, they had discovered the appeal of breasts, but they were still using their corsets to support the weight of their skirts, and to provide shaping to the torso. If you look at someone wearing a properly made 18th century corset, you’ll notice the waist appears smaller from the front, but it’s largely an illusion. The torso is actually thicker through the side view – because that’s how the corset shapes it. It doesn’t make your waist smaller, it just reshapes what you have. Plus, ladies of all these corseted eras were big into hip and butt padding, and the Victorians and a few others were big into bust padding as well. If you pad out your hips and bust enough, any waist will look tiny in comparison!
I will tell you, from studying extant 18th century gowns myself, that it’s somewhat rare to find a waist size smaller than about 25″. My natural waist is 25″. And these dress are proportionate in their size. You can tell they aren’t tightlacing.
THIS is what tightlacing looks like:
This is a real photograph, of a real woman. She wears a specially made corset day and night to achieve this. This is a fetish, practiced by a small percentage of the modern day population, and this fetish is not limited to women:
Just like this fetish is only practiced by a small group of people today, I think it was simularly practiced by only a small percentage of people in the Victorian time as well. We have a few photographs of ladies who are clearly tightlacers:
But considering how prevalent photo re-touching was during the Victorian era, many of these pictures may not even be genuine waist sizes. In a survey of 1000 extant Victorian dresses, the smallest waist size was found to be 21 1/2″. The average waist seems to have been againt around 25″ – 28″. Considering the fact that women on average were a lot smaller than today, and the overall size of the dresses are very petite, I would say this shows they were almost certainly not tightlacing. Probably, at most, they were lacing down to a couple of inches smaller than their natural waists – something easily done, without any harm.
But what about the whole Victorian frenzy over corsets and tightlacing? If women weren’t, on average, tightlacing, then what was causing all all the excitement?
I tend to rule with author Bill Bryson on this one: “The tone of anti-corset literature for women was strikingly similar to the tone of anti-masturbation literature for men.” Basically, the Victorian doctors had a grave concern that compressing the body so close to the reproductive organs could not only increase amorous desires, but could possibly cause involuntary “voluptuous spasms”. One wouldn’t want one’s woman spasming, now would one? Gradually, this fear moved on to other tight items of clothing, even tight shoes. I don’t know about you, but when I wear tight shoes, I don’t get any voluptuous spams, involuntary or otherwise!
In any case, what does give me spasms (of a decidedly non-voluptuous kind) is when I constantly read articles and books that make claims such as “thirteen inch waists were common”. It makes me wish it were mandatory for every writer who wishes to write about corsets, to be laced into a properly made and fitted one for a day. I myself frequently wear corsets to various events. I’ve worn them to work. I can eat, I can sit, I can bend over, and I can do basically any thing I can without a corset.
Here is what I cannot do: I can’t slouch, I can’t slump, I can’t over eat (you do get full sooner while wearing corset!), and sometimes a really big sneeze is uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to run a marathon wearing one, but I wouldn’t have to run a marathon at any time. Basically, all wearing a corset means is that I have to carry myself like a lady, which is something our mothers always wanted us to do. (And they do provide nice back support. I know of one lady who got her doctor’s ok to wear her corset daily instead of the brace he was going to prescribe!) I like wearing my corsets. I wouldn’t want to have to wear one all the time, because I’m a blue jeans and sweats kind of girl, but one occasion…it feels really nice. I feel special, in a corset.
So anyway, my first rant of the New Year! I hope 2012 is filled with lots of costuming and yes…corsets!