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It is the lesser blot, modesty finds, Women to change their shapes, than men their minds.
—William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona
"One of the highest entertainments in Turkey is having you go to their baths," aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote in an 1850s edition of Godey's Lady's Book. "When I was first introduced to one, the lady of the house came to undress me—another high compliment they pay to strangers. After she slipped off my gown and my stays, she was very much struck by the sight of them and cried out to the ladies in the bath, 'Come hither, and see how cruelly the poor English ladies are used by their husbands. You need not boast, indeed, of the superior liberties allowed to you when they lock you up in a box.'"
The "box," which every American woman from colonial days through the 1950s came gift wrapped in, was the corset. To modern women, the idea of keeping house, shopping, rearing children, dancing, and even swimming and playing sports— all while barely able to bend over in a corset— seems impossible and even ridiculous. Why did women do that to themselves? we wonder.
The answer heard most often is vanity. Then, as now, few women were satisfied with their natural figure. Corsets were the only means of obtaining the currently-popular shape, whether it was the rigidly flat torso and raised bosom of the seventeenth century, the flat-stomached, high-busted, shoulders-back look of the eighteenth century, or the hourglass figure of the nineteenth century. In the early- and mid-twentieth century, corsets worked something like a rigid diet and hours in the gym do today, flattening the stomach and hips, and often trimming the waistline, too.
While many women did wear corsets for vanity, there were other reasons for putting on a corset. Bras didn't become popular until the 1930s, so corsets acted as a bosom support. Also, during many eras, women's clothes were skin tight; without a corset, bodices would have constantly wrinkled and ridden up.
Corsets also affected a woman's demeanor. As one Victorian mother wrote to a fashion magazine, at first her daughter rejected "the discipline of the corset" but now "her only objection is that the corsets are uncomfortable and prevent her from romping about ..." Which was exactly the point. Corsets altered more than the figure; they also affected the behavior and, it was believed, the character of the women who wore them.
Dress reformer Helen Gilbert Ecob, in her 1892 book The Well Dressed Woman, mentions this argument. She wrote: "Those who uphold the corset argue its morality because 'the only period in which its general use appears to have been discontinued are the few years which immediately followed the French Revolution, when the general licentiousness of manners and morals was accompanied by a corresponding indecency in dress.'"
And to a great many women, not wearing a corset did seem indecent. Corsets in one form or another had been around since biblical times, and were adopted by nearly all women by the sixteenth century. Ecob claimed that by 1892 American women bought 60,000,000 corsets each year. After generations of dedicated corset wearing, many women were uncomfortable going without—as if they were walking around naked.
Corsets always had their detractors. In the early days of corset wearing, many people condemned them as the artifice they were. Pastors and priests considered them a rejection of the naturally beautiful figure God gave woman, in addition to a device meant to snare men by calling attention to female sexuality.
Havelock Ellis, an early sexologist (who was himself sexually dysfunctional), wrote in 1923 that one of the main attractions of the corset was that it caused women to breathe in a shallow manner. This, in turn drew greater attention to the breasts, because they moved up and down in a more conspicuous manner. He also claimed he knew women who said they were in a constant state of arousal when they were tight laced.
Letters to the editor from the 1800s also show that some people found corsets sexual. One Victorian man wrote to a fashion magazine: "There is something to me extraordinarily fascinating in the thought that a young girl has for many years been subjected to the strictest discipline of the corset. If she has suffered, as I have no doubt she has...it must be quite made up to her by the admiration her figure excited."
During the nineteenth century, doctors and laymen began suspecting a connection between women's notoriously delicate health and corset wearing. "What a host of evils follows in the steps of tight-lacing," Victorian author Mary P. Merrifield wrote, "indigestion, hysteria, spinal curvature, liver complaints, disease of the heart, cancer, early death!" The further the century progressed, the more the evils of the corset were accepted as fact. Yet women continued corseting!
Some persistence in wearing corsets was due to ignorance. "We have just received a letter," wrote the editor of Dress in 1888, "in which the writer declares that a woman's waist, left to itself, will grow larger and larger every year, until it measures nearly or quite as much as the bust!"
But there's little doubt corset wearing also continued due to a desire for a new style undergarment that could both support the figure and make women feel less naked than they would sans corset. Corsets were so firmly entrenched in feminine life, it seemed impossible to live without them.
Babies and young children wore felt "bands" or "waists" to keep their chests warm. Girls as young as four wore training corsets, usually stiffened with cording. By the time a girl was twelve to fourteen, she could expect to graduate to a full-ledged corset. There were rust-proof corsets for swimming, short corsets for horseback riding, corsets with elastic inserts to make housekeeping chores easier, "electric" corsets that replaced whalebone with magnetic strips and claimed to "ward off and cure diseases," nursing corsets, maternity corsets—a corset for every occasion. No wonder it seemed impossible to live without them!
"What is most singular is that women are aware of the injuriousness of the corset—they instinctively feel that its action is an unnatural and eminently hurtful one," a medical doctor wrote to Godey's Lady's Book in the 1860s. "Here is the proof. If ... a lady falls ill in a crowded assembly of any kind, a general cry is raised by the others, 'Cut her lace!' This is done instantly—the compressing machine is opened, air rushes into the lungs, the victim breathes and recovers."
Yet the discomfort of the corset wasn't just due to restrictiveness. According to author Helen Gilbert Ecob, Dr. Robert L. Dickinson of Brooklyn conducted scientific studies showing just how much pressure corsets put on women's bodies, publishing his findings in an 1887 issue of the New York Medical Journal. The most physical pressure the doctor measured from a corset was eighty-eight pounds. "The pressure of a loose corset," Ecob reported, "is about thirty-five pounds." As she then points out, few women could lift a common sack of flour, yet "a sack of flour weighs twenty-five pounds—ten pounds less than the pressure of the loosest corset."
Ecob also reported that corsets caused the floating ribs to squeeze inward "until they nearly meet in the centre." In corset wearers, Ecob wrote, the upper ribs were raised and expanded wider than in a person who didn't wear corsets.
Because of pressure on the diaphragm and changes to the rib cage, Dr. Dickinson estimated a corseted woman's lung power was reduced by one fifth. He was forward-thinking, because it wasn't until the turn of the century that doctors agreed that women and men actually breathed in the same fashion. Before this time, many physicians believed female breathing changed naturally at puberty—apparently not realizing the onset of puberty also brought about snug corsets for girls.
Dr. J. H. Kellogg, best known for creating Corn Flakes cereal but also an influential doctor at the turn of the century, was famous for condemning the corset. In his 1895 book Ladies' Guide, he retells several extreme stories about tight lacing. For example, he mentions reading in a newspaper "of a young woman who actually broke a rib in the attempt to gain another half-inch on her corset string," and says that "more than one case is on record of young ladies who have applied the belt or corset so tightly that a blood-vessel has been ruptured and almost instant death has occurred."
Despite these famous and dire stories, Victorian fashion magazines are full of letters written by women bragging about their tightly corseted waistlines. Some women claimed waists as small as 13 inches, yet Doris Langely Moore, costume expert and founder of Bath's Museum of Costume, proclaimed it rare to find 19th-century women's dresses with waistlines less than 20 inches. Most likely, she said, Victorian women were referring to their corset size, not their actual waist measurement. When properly worn, the back edges of a corset did not meet, leaving a gap of at least two—and sometimes as much as 5 or 6—inches. Therefore, a woman bragging of her 17 inch corset would have had a corseted waist measuring anywhere from 19 to 22 inches. Even so, some period photographs reveal extreme cases where women's waists are clearly much smaller than this.
Nonetheless, by the early 1900s, women were concerned enough about corsets to adopt the "health corset." Originally designed by a corsetiere with a degree in medicine, this new-style corset was designed to put less pressure on vital organs. When snugly laced, however, the corset threw the hips back and the bust forward, creating the odd but fashionable S-shape figure of the era.
When clothes began growing snug in the 1910s, the corset grew longer and more ungainly, making movement more difficult than ever, until corsets were abandoned altogether in the 1920s. Or so fashion designers led women to believe. The introduction of elastic in 1911 and the shortage of both whalebone and metal at this time didn't, in fact, banish the corset—but both instances did allow designers to give the corset a much overdue remake.
The new corsets were not made of unbending whalebone, steel, and stiff cloth; they were more flexible and made with plenty of elastic and feather boning. They were also given a new name: Girdles.
No longer was fashion's emphasis on curving figures. Now a leaner look was desirable. "You can't have any bulges in your figure," the editors of a 1933 issue of Vogue warned. This was a look corsets couldn't create, but which girdles were ideal for.
Some wonder why women of the 1920s through 1960s didn't just eat better and exercise more, thereby avoiding the discomfort and complexity of the girdle. A 1932 issue of Vogue gives the answer: "A women's abdominal muscles are notoriously weak, and even hard exercise doesn't keep your figure from spreading if you don't give it some support." In other words, even diet and exercise couldn't give most women the smooth, lean look demanded by fashion during this period.
Now and then, true corsets reappeared. The 1940s saw fashions inspired by the late Victorians, and with them some "waist-whittlers" were sold. After WWII, English designer Christian Dior famously introduced his "New Look," and with it came the "waspie." A short corset about 5 or 6 inches long, made of stiff fabric with elastic inserts, boning, and back laces, the waspie was truly a mini version of a Victorian corset.
During the 1950s, when designers reintroduced feminine curves and girdles, corsets and long line bras worked to whittle the waist and make the bust and hips look more rounded. Girdle makers also created designs just for mature or stout women; these looked more like traditional corsets but were given more innocuous names, like "corslets."
And while the hourglass figure hasn't been in fashion since that time, corsets still appear in fashion now and then—usually as outwear for evening and bridal gowns, but also as sexy underwear. In fact, what was once an underground movement of closet tight-lacers has grown into a trend that's made corset-making a profitable business again. Thousands of catalogs feature modern corsets of nearly any description.
As for girdles—they never really went out of style. Support top pantyhose were the girdles of choice in the 1970s, but from the 1980s forward, girdles in the form of "support wear" became fashionable. True, few modern women wear girdles every day, but department stores still carry racks of them for special occasions. Although women have "come a long way, baby," it seems our figures still disappoint us.
Rigid boning, complicated seams, all those eyelets ... many people find corset- making intimidating. But the truth is, most corsets aren't all that difficult to sew. For a first attempt, it's a good idea to stick with a fairly simple pattern, like a short Victorian corset in a size that's about 3 inches smaller than the wearer's actual bust, waist, and hip measurements.
Although the exterior of the corset can be any type of fabric, the layer of fabric closest to the skin should be quite strong. Coutil is generally the fabric of choice; it's readily available online from costume and corset-making websites.
The type of ultra-flexible, light plastic boning sold in the average fabric store chain won't work well for corseting. An online costume supply store selling corset making supplies is a better source. Flat steel boning is the most rigid type, but it's still flexible enough for comfort. It comes in a wide variety of lengths—and usually several lengths are required for making a single corset. Spiral steel boning is another good choice; it's more flexible still, but can still shape the body. It's also possible to cut spiral bones with wire cutters, making them exactly the length required. Special caps are then placed over the cut edges.
Most corsets close in front with a stomach-flattening steel busk. These feature special hook closures that make getting in and out of the corset easier. Costuming stores carry many styles of busks, in addition to metal eyelets (grommets) and tools for attaching them to fabric. (Eyelets can also be sewn by hand, and many sewing machines feature a special setting for sewing eyelets.)
Here's how the average corset is created: Each side of the corset is constructed by taking two layers of fabric (for example, strong coutil and decorative brocade) and sewing them together, wrong sides together, along the front opening. One half of the busk is slipped into place along each side of this front opening, with holes cut out so the special busk clasps can protrude from the fabric.
Channels for inserting the bones are sewn next, often by stitching lines down the length of the corset, through both layers of fabric. (Alternatively, binding is sewn to the lining fabric.) Eyelets or grommets are added to the back edges of the corset. The bottom and top edges of the corset are finished with binding. Finally, a single, long piece of cording is used to lace up the corset in the back. Two large loops of cording are left at the waist, to make waist nipping easy.
Excerpted from BOUND & DETERMINED by Kristina Seleshanko. Copyright © 2012 Kristina Seleshanko. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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