This post is not strictly about interpreting corset images, but what the heck, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want to do!
This blog has started a discussion (argument?) amongst some of my family and some costume orientated friends, so I thought I would lay out some of the ideas involved.
First, let me say that I’m really against causing pain and anguish to young girls with female genital mutilation, foot binding, tight corsets or anything else. There’s not place in the world for that. However, we encourage early adolescent girls into training bras, is that a form of deformation? Dentists will tell you that some mothers want dental braces for their daughters for “cosmetic reasons” ie a pretty smile rather than strictly dental /medical reasons.
First, lets have a brief description of each particular horror story, and then we can look at the common factors.
1. Foot Binding
The Chinese custom of binding the feet of young girls at the age of 7 or so started about 1000 years ago and continued until the early 1900s. It involved tying cloth bandages around the feet so tightly that the foot did not grow. In addition the feet were forced into small shoes. According to reports it was excruciatingly painful while the bones were still growing. Girls had to be taught to walk again. More details here. The reasons – well a mixture of “beauty” and “to ensure marriage to a rich man” . Western men don’t find small feet beautiful or erotic, clearly Chinese men did. Who, I wonder, tells these men what is beautiful or not? As in many societies, unmarried adult women are social and financial problem to be avoided at all costs. Here are some rather gruesome pictures.
For our purposes there are several interesting points to note. First it was done by mothers to their daughters – men were not involved, it was considered “necessary” in terms of the marriage market, and if not done at an early age it the feet would have grown too large. One site comments that Chinese mothers would tell their daughter crying with the pain of newly bound feet ” you will thank me when you are older, men will not marry a girl with big feet”. We will meet this comment again later.
2. Girls in Corsets
There are plenty of references to young girls in corsets in the 18, 19 and early 20 centuries. I’ve already written about a 11-year-old girl of 1740 in stiff stays here. In the 19 century the idea continued….here’s a comment from the autobiography of Gwen Raverat, born 1885, so she was talking about 1898 or so.
We did rebel against stays. Margaret says that the first time she was put into them – when she was about thirteen – she ran round and round the nursery, screaming with rage. I did not do that. I simply went and took them off; endured sullenly the row which ensued. When my soft-shelled condition was discovered, l was forcibly re-corseted; and, as soon as possible, went away and took them off again. I had a bad figure, and to me they were real instruments of torture; they prevented me from breathing, and dug deep holes into my softer parts on every side, I am sure no hair-shirt could have been worse to me. ref 1
Here’s a French mail order catalogue from around 1901 for corset for girls aged 13 to 16.
It might not have been very stiff to wear – ONLY 34 whalebones (!!)placed on the bias to prevent unladylike bending. Ref 2
If you thought the 1920s brought freedom from corsetry for young girls I’ve news for you. Here’s the Canadian Eatons mail order catalogue of 1939/40….boned girdles for10 year olds.
It’s here . Let me translate for you..the corselette is practical for young girls aged 8 to 14. Horizontal boning across the abdomen. (We don’t want 10 year old girls with bulges do we?) The Gaine (girdle) is for girls aged 10 to 14, elastic and is comfortable but fairly firm to mould the waist. Probably not as firm as a Chinese girl’s foot bandages, but Gwen Raverat’s mother would certainly understand the need for firm control of early teen flesh?
I think I can conclude that these three examples show it was common to put girls into corsets for the best of reasons. Even in 1939 I doubt if a 12 year old girl would have challenged her mother on being asked to wear a corset for the first time. As above this corseting was done “woman to girl”, no men involved, and refusal to wear it was not an option.
3. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
Fgm is found in the Saharan areas of Africa. It involves the non consensual removal of some or all of the external genitals (private parts if you are shocked). I was horrified to find that by movement of the people to the West it is also practiced in London and New York….sometimes in modern clinics, rather than with a rusty razor blade in the African bush.
I find it all so horrible I’m not posting pictures here …..just Google Fgm and be prepared to be appalled. Here’s a video here , with blood and screams and multiple helpers holding the “lucky” girl down.
But why? So that the girl is easier to marry off. There’s a health aspect too, FGM reduces unhealthy sexual desire. Again, from what I understand men were forbidden to be present at the “cutting”.
So, why is FGM in this post? Like the other horrors in this post it is done with the mother’s approval on a girl unable to refuse. The reasons include being more eligible for marriage and some references to “health”
4. Training Bras….and just Bras too?
Of course, today in the West we have left the above uncivilised ideas behind us……or have we? Just look at the internet advice to mothers buying their daughter her first bra. “Essential for modesty”, and you will look better, and stop you sagging in later life. Why are little girls persuaded into training bras, or why do mothers encourage their daughters into them?
Again, the idea of a support garment of being “necessary” for a growing girl is still with us. A different degree than in the 18 and 19 centuries but the theme rests unchanged.
To my knowledge 2 years ago a 12 year old was finding it hard to wear a bra for the first time (umm, we all have those memories?). She said it chafed, her mother told he to smile and get used to it. “You can’t go out without a bra”. Perhaps not too far from the 1740 mother who insisted her daughter wore rigid, tight stays?
5. Dental Braces
No need to describe these things. But dentists are saying that some mothers insist on dental braces for their girls for reasons of beauty and not dental health. You can find 19 century adverts for shoulder braces to stop / cure girls from stooping. Are dental braces using the same thinking? Try searcing the web for photographs of children wearing braces – most are girls.
The Common Factors
I’ve listed below the common factors in these 5 ways of deforming the body. “What” I hear you say, a modern bra deforms the body?” Well if you are a different shape with and without a bra then it is deforming you? Yes, we would add “comfort” and “respectability”…..but a Victorian woman would say the same about here tight corset?
Here’s a summary of what I’ve said above. Y = yes N = No
I’ve added a column to indicate if men were involved in the process, interesting to note a general “no” except for today’s dental braces.
Putting this WORD table here took all the skills and laughter of my 15 year old grandson!
So, I’m sorry for the horrors and descriptions of pain on children, but it’s the reasons that I’m looking at. What do you think?
ref1 Gwen Raveratt “Period Piece” Page 259 Google Books here
Ref 2 Wiki media here