Interpreting a wasp waist v2

Here we go with my first real post in “corset pictures”.   Please add your comments and opinions, I’m hoping to see how other people interpret corset images and their reactions to them.

These photos are all late 19 century or early 20 century.  They are, I assume, real photos of real people…..not people dressing up, or modelling historical costume.

A few images to start the debate…..


…and 2 more



Lets number the photos, going clockwise from top left

  1.  Straight front corset professional model.
  2.  Aristocratic lady.
  3. Mother and daughter….1870s?
  4. Telephone exchange operators.

First of all, all 4 photos will have been carefully posed…there weren’t any “quick snaps” in those days.  Therefore we can assume that the people photographed took care to look as they wanted to be photographed.

Photo no 1…..1900 straight front corset, a very good and carefully taken image?  Quite a small waist, but not really wasp waisted as she would have been 20 years before.  Note how she gets the Gibson girl posture by putting her arms above her head and also BEHIND her.  This enlarges the bust line, pulls the shoulders back and tilts the spine forward.  I think the hair brush is just an excuse for the artificial pose (and perhaps to gvie a hint of respectability).

Photo no 2  Aristocratic lady around 1880?  Really quite an exaggerated wasp waist.  Her ribs also taper in a straight line from her shoulders to her waist – what was called a “refined figure”.   Probably the result of wearing a tight corset from quite young (how young….aha, a later post to come)

Photo No  Like lady no 2 the standing lady here has quite a tapering bodice and a very small waist.

Photo no 4  Working girls, but all heavily corseted, you can see the ledge across the top of the back.  You can also see how the corset keeps the body straight and the arms, not the body, reach forward.

Interpretation.  It’s likely all four subjects regarded their corset as we regard our bras today…..we would not be seen dead without it!  These photographs help confirm that corsets were always worn and that a waist was not only fashionable but also added respectability and morality (rather like our bras today?)

Here are some questions for a light discussion

1.   Could you achieve the wasp waist shown in these photos over 100 years old? Yes, you have to wear a tight corset, but there are limits to what we will put up with? These ladies thought it “natural” to wear a tight corset all day everyday?

My comment…I’ve worn this style of corset on stage and for reenactment.  At first a  tight corset is IMPOSSIBLE, but you do get used to it?  I found that I had to judge it not by today’s standards, but by the principles of life at the time?

2.  Would you want to be seen out today with a waist like that? (except of course, for reenacting, theater etc).  What would your friends say…would they say “weird”, “deformed”, “uncomfortable”?  Just think that if someone  in 2117 (100 years on) saw a photograph of you today.  If you are wearing 2017 clothing….. underwire lift bra, high heels and makeup they might say the same things!

My comment…Well…no, I wouldn’t want to go the supermarket with  a waist like that, but perhaps for special occasions I might……

Well, that’s my first post, please add your comment….I’d love to hear your opinions.  If you can’t see the comments box click on “Interpreting a wasp waist v2”

Update…I can’t get the comments box to show, so please email me at

mintie**      (remove asterisks!)


Author: corsetpicdiscussion

I've always been interested in social history and clothing, so why not a discussion on corsets?

7 thoughts on “Interpreting a wasp waist v2”

  1. Hello….your blog has got me thinking…….I think it is difficult for us to interpret Victorian corsets today. I studied drama and I remember the class of “wearing a crown”. Today the idea of wearing a big heavy crown with jewels is ridiculous….it limits the way you move your head and walk. However, if you think yourself to be a 18 century princess, then it becomes part the role, especially if the rest of the class bow and curtsey to you…..”yes, I AM a princess”.

    Corsets are the same….they work in context and need not be uncomfortable in context. There is always a temptation to lace a little tighter, another inch and this can be uncomfortable. I like the photo of the aristocratic lady, that’s really serious tightlacing. But the photo of telephone girls shows how essential they were to working girls.

    What’s the next post about, I can’t wait?


  2. Hello Daisy, thank you for your post.

    Yes, it’s very easy to see the past through our bias of today. We tend to forget the discomforts or impracticalities of dress, we want to look “right” don’t we?

    I met an actress who had a series of roles in Victorian dress, and did a lot of research to help get her thinking as a Victorian woman. In her earlier life she had some nude modelling and was used to photos of all her body. However, in Victorian dress she was careful not to show her ankles…just like a modest 19 century lady.

    Yes, the photos in this post do show some pretty tight waist, only achievable with tightlacing and a lotof commitment!

    Future posts? I’m thinking about short articles that will interest people and start some discussions. I’ve got some ideas on children’s corsets, the factors in common from the 18 century to the present day, we must include Spanx? Let me know what you might want?


  3. Well said! Corsets can be extremely comfortable, and also eye wateringly uncomfortable. Please don’t think this only applies to corsets of the past, it applies to clothing today, for example high heels, some bras and tight jeans. Who is prepared to say that they haven’t been uncomfortable in some I’ll look good in this piece of clothing? I bet everyone here has suffered?

    To answer Minties questions

    1 <> Some people on the web say yes, but it’s not easy. I’ve tried on some 1890 original dresses (naughty , bad for conservation, but heaven to try). It’s not the waist that’s difficult, it’s the lower ribs, you really need to pull in the corset all the way up. I find that people today are prepared to accept waist compression, but not the rib compression to get that beautiful taper waist.

    2. <> No, honestly , really no. You get looks and people make comments about health, deformity and all. Ok in a renfaire, but not in the street.

    You asked about future posts. I’d like to see something on 18 century stays, and also deportment. Perhaps something on the psychology for both the women and men? A good corset makes a woman feel feminine and men will always look at you when you enter a room in a corset. But why?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Super photos! I’ve tried on a corset from time to time and I’m thinking of buying one. I do get a wonderful figure, but nothing like the ladies in the photos here. They must have been very tightly pulled in? I don’t think I wold like to be seen with such a defined waist, but I suppose it was the fashion then?


  5. To know how people — women/men — regarding corsets in the 19th century, you might want to read some of the contemporary popular literature of the 19th century — I recommend Godey’s Lady’s Book. Louisa May Alcott also wrote about lacing in her novels — notably Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. Some women back in those times had lower ribs removed so they could lace more tightly. The corset displaced some of their internal organs and made breathing difficult — one reason they were also reaching for their smelling salts. Some anthropologists argue (reasonably, IMO) that the tapered waist is a subliminal advertisement to the male animal that the female animal he is eyeing is not pregnant with some other guy’s young and is ready for him.


    1. Hi Martha

      Thank you for your comments, all very useful.

      I think that the myth of rib removal has been thoroughly busted. In the 19 century surgical operations were simply too dangerous, no antibiotics, risk of infection etc. That’s not to say that perhaps it did happen, but was by no means common. I’ve interviewed many old people about their memories and some said “my mother had an 18 inch waist”, but none mentioned rib removal. I think it’s a late 20 century idea! However, I read that some models are having it done today….and that I’m prepared to believe.

      If you want to have a real tapering waist you need to start young -a tight corset long term. That will get you a taper waist without rib removal.

      I welcome your comments on my other posts….more to come soon.



    2. Regarding the rib removal myth, here is a quote from a 1906 newspaper article that may explain how it originated:
      “The four short ribs, two on each side, are the “free” ribs . . . A man could manage to struggle through life without his free ribs, and I have no doubt that ere long some corset manufacturer will require woman to have hers removed in order to lengthen her waist and reduce its girth.”
      Only a few years later (1910) another newspaper article reported that the actress Polaire had denied rumours that she had had her own bottom two ribs removed to obtain her famous wasp waist.


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