I’ve been thinking for some time about thinking some time about how to get present day people to have “Victorian deportment”. So here we go! I’m sorry not a lot of photographs. I did take some images of a 14 year old girl in Victorian dress doing these exercises. Quite wisely I think, her mother did not want the photos on the web to be used by the weirdos, so sorry, no photos from me. However, quite a few from the web..
First, what do we mean by deportment? Probably the same as what the Victorians meant. A few words of explanation:
Victorian deportment today tends to mean walking, sitting and standing in an (to us) unnaturally upright and stiff manner. The Victorians extended this to how to enter a room, introduce one person to another, table manners and generally “how to be polite”. The Victorians tended to call posture related matters “carriage”. It’s easy to find exceptions to this in books and newspapers of the time, but as a generalisation it is acceptable.
So, quickly, why was posture, deportment and carriage so important to the Victorians? It was important earlier, but another post. And why for girls and less for boys? Nearly all the literature on posture refers to “her”. Well, parents want to do the best for their children! For boys this meant growing up strong, intelligent and suitably qualified for work. For girls it meant preparing them for the essential marriage market. There was no place in middle class society for unmarried females older than 30. So girls were brought up to be a beautiful as possible in order to trap the most handsome or richest man. Posture and figure were among the things that could be changed, faces could not be changed because make was not generally acceptable.
Here’s some help understanding the health aspect of posture. Consumption was what we call tuberculosis.
For your DIY Victorian deportment exercises you will need:
- A good sense of humor.
- Willingness to accept a little discomfort…”no pain, no gain” ha ha!
- An upright chair and a thick book.
- A long piece of string about 10 feet (3 m) long. A buckle strap is better, but difficult to find this long.
- A piece of flexible cardboard about 20 x 3 inches (50 x 8 cm) and scotch tape.
- A short light garden cane about 26 inches (65 cm) long.
For two exercises you do not need any equipment at all. Try to do each exercise for 30 minutes. If you think you can’t manage 30 minutes scroll down to the end of the post and look on how to use the cane in the list above.
I’ve tried these excercises with my 14 year old grandaughter and her friend. They both said that they found the changes to their bodies “bizarre” and they found the exercises uncomfortable.
- The figure of eight strap
This is not the most effective way of straightening shoulders, but it is a good start. Wind the strap round your shoulders in a figure of eight with the ends coming forward under your arms. Then pull tight, then push your shoulders back, then pull tighter. Your shoulders will be right back in a way totally strange to us – and for the Victorians this was “good” and even the “normal” position. Clearly you had to train children to have shoulders in this normal position. I’ve heard an account from around 1900 that the family breakfast all the children were expected to show correct posture – those that didn’t were send to school with an “eight” strap like this and were released at breaktime.
Picture from “Corset et Cyphose – le choix d’un corset chez les enfants” – Dr Charier Found at the French National Library here Plate 8, page 45.
2. Arms behind back
This one is best done standing. Just put your hands together behind your back and push down…..there you are – a wonderful but artificially induced posture. I’ve heard of this exercise being done for 5 minutes at the start of children’s dancing classes in 1914. It makes you stick your bust out, and must have been embarrassing for girls with emerging breasts. Here is an actress doing the same exercise to display her charms. She was born 1880, so this is probably taken around 1900 when straight fronted corsets were à la mode. She is very upright, and a very small waist, but we will discuss that in another post. However this pose was associated with “correct” posture, no matter how uncomfortable.
3 Arms folded behind back
This is a variation of no 2 above. Just sit down and fold your arms BEHIND your back. Like this.
(all copyright acknowledged!)
If you really pull your shoulders back it can really hurt. I interviewed a woman who said in the early 1920 she learnt French verbs at school in this position at the age of 11. She was an early developer and hated the enforced prominence of her emerging breasts.
4. Edge of chair
Here’s another deceptively uncomfortable deportment training position – enjoy the feelings. Take hard chair with a straight back. Avoid low chairs. Put a thick book on the back of the seat so that there is a MAXIMUM of 6 inches (15 cm) for you to sit on. Then sit, and you will be forced into a nice, if uncomfortable good posture. This is “perching on the edge of a chair” and is uncomfortable for more than a little while. I interviewed a lady who had this treatment during family meals – and she said it was uncomfortable. Even worse was that her brothers did not have this “nice ladylike” treatment.
At the end of the 18 century a certain doctor Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841) developed a torture chair for children. Here are some photos. Even in the middle of the 19 century (1850s say) doctors were claiming that these chairs were unnecessary and painful – so they must have been.
On the right you can see the narrow seat of a little chair for a child. On the left you can see it in use. Note the more comfortable chair for the adult.
5 Cardboard collar
This is so simple and so uncomfortable. Take a strip of flexible card about 3 in by 20 in. Join two strips with Scotch tape if you need extra length. I used a strip from an office folder. With Scotch tape fasten the strip of carboard around your oh so beautiful neck. You will now be forced into the “correct” postition for you head. No poking the chin now! The collar should not be tight. You will have to hold your head in proud manner necessary for well brought up young ladies. You will find sewing, reading and eating difficult – you just have to hold you head up and back and learn to look down. When you have improved a little then cut out a strip 3.5 inches wide and enjoy your improved posture.
There are some really sadistic refinements for this type of collar, but a later post.
Men too! The two ladies have collars so high that there natural movements would have been limited – but that is all part of the message sent “I have been well brought up and can wear this without a problem”.
You may have noticed that I specified a garden cane in the list of items required, but I have not used it yet. If 18 century or 19 century did not perform these exercises well, or even complained then the cane would be used on the body as a means of motivation. Often boys were caned on the buttocks, but girls had the more ladylike cane on the back of the calves. So girls were bought up to learn to suffer and not to complain. I don’t want to go into BDSM etc, but it was not unknown for Victorian children, on being told that they were naughty, had to ASK to be beaten. Humility is a wonderful thing!
So, if you want to complain, just think about that garden cane and the back of your calf muscles.
Later posts will continue on deportment devices, and how women today show protruding shoulder blades that would not have ben acceptable in the past.
love to you all….Mintie
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