Shuttlecocks, stays and corsets

In this post I’m going to look at a painting of a young girl done by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin Chardin  1699 –  1779. He was well known for accurate and lifelike portraits.   Today he would be seen as a skilled portrait photographer.

He painted this portrait in about 1740 of a young girl problably aged 11 or 12.  She probably would not be older, she’s playing with children’s toys, but it is debatable.

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Chardin  “girl with shuttlecock”

Big disclaimer, we will be discussing a girl in tight stiff corset.  Of course, I’m not in favor of this today, and I don’t want to encourage it at all.  However, as we will see, this girl is well corseted, so let’s have a look why and how.

What do we see?
The artistic criticism of this portrait make much of the imagery of the racket, the shuttlecock and the sewing implements hanging from the waist.  However, we will concentrate on the girl and her shape.  We see:

  1. A very conical bodice which is straight from the top of the dress to the waist.  This is not the natural shape of a young girl.
  2. It’s evident that she is very small in the waist.  This is, in my opinion quite tightly restricted, although not really a wasp waist by Victorian standards….she’s 100 years before Victoria!
  3. Her shoulders are held back in a way we would consider very unnatural today.
  4. As with most people (even today) wearing stays her elbows are held well back.  See post on posture..click here

How did she get this shape?
Well,  the only way to get this shape is to wear well boned stays with a rigid busk.  She has probably been in some form of stays since the age of 2 or even earlier, so they are natural for her.

Here are some photos  of adult stays of 1740 and you can see how the stays create the desired look.

In all three pictures you can see that the stays have a narrow back and shoulder straps to pull the shoulders well back. Today that is painful and “unnatural”; at this time it was considered correct and healthy.

Girls today are lucky that they are not trussed up like that from an early age?  Another factor is that she would have be taught to always sit straight, head up, elbows back in the “correct” posture for girls.  I’ll write another post on teaching deportment and ladylike posture.

Could she move  easily?
As tight stays were normal for her she would not see any restriction.  All her elder females, mother, sisters, cousins etc would be like this, so it was “the way things were”.  She could not bend at the waist, but then ladies didn’t do that, so she had no need.  The shoulder straps on her stays would have been fairly tight to encourage chest development and a narrow straight back.  Her stays would have been “highbacked” with rigid bones over the shoulder blades.  The straps just hauled back her shoulders until he mother was satisfied with the look.  See ref 1 .  Here’s a quote from the book.

waugh_p149 One thing that she might notice is that she probably could not play overhand shots with her shoulders restricted, that was unladylike, so she kept to underhand shots.

Please post a comment if you think I’m right, or have it completely wrong.

Ref 1  N Waugh  Corsets and Crinolines pages 45 and 149. Downloaded from http://www.reenactor.ru/ARH/PDF/Waugh.pdf

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Author: corsetpicdiscussion

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

13 thoughts on “Shuttlecocks, stays and corsets”

  1. I applaud that you did some external research and found some extant examples. I agree that stays may conflict with our modern lifestyles, parenting philosophies, body ideals, and medical practices, but I do not condemn our ancestors for wearing them and do not ascribe to the current vilification of the garment. Instead, I see them as iconic relics of the time and an important anthropological stepping stone to understanding our past from all aspects and angles: not just the shockingly bad or the syrupy good, but the disappointingly mundane bits. Basic human behavior has changed very little, though the dominate motivations, values, and philosophies constantly shift. It is often very difficult for us to process this: humans have always struggled with putting ourselves in the shoes of the others around us, so it is even harder for us to put ourselves in the stays of a girl 250 years in the past without some of our own modern opinions about restrictive clothing bleeding over. Remember: this is a clearly statically posed painting (it is unlikely she would play shuttlecock while wearing her equipage/sewing kit because it would swing wildly and risk damage or loss) painted by an artist commissioned by a wealthy individual with which to decorate, meaning she’s an “idealized” figure. It is not the girl herself nor the real clothing she wore. We cannot say whether she is unlucky or in pain without asking her. It would be a shame to judge a 3 dimensional person by their 2 dimensional painting, especially when our own opinions of acceptable norms have shifted so much. Projecting our personal preferences onto someone else does them a great disservice.

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  2. Liz, I thought too about the accuracy of the painting, clearly it was a commercial activity and had to please the parent who paid for it. However, we can assume that either the girl was that shape, or her shape was the fashionable ideal. I say fashionable but I think “well dressed” is a better word than fashion, but it is debatable.

    I have to say that I rather like the shape of women in 18 century portraits, very upright, shoulders back, super wonderbra high breasts, and really protruding chests. It was not healthy (nor were lots of everyday things in the 18 century), but I find it beautiful and gracious. I thank Mintie for discussing this girl in her stays, and showing photos of extant stays that confirm the shape was achieved.

    May I go back to slumping over my keyboard now? I imagine slumping was just not possible for our shuttlecock girl?

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  3. Hello Liz and Dee

    Thank you for your comments, all very useful.

    Liz, yes I agree the painting is stylized and not an accurate photograph (the camera never lies, ha!). However, this female shape is found in many many portraits and sketches. In theater costuming you can go some way towards it, but it is a long term body change.

    Dee, I like your comment about the wonderbra…..nothing is really new? It is not only her stays that give her the upright carriage – there a 2 other factors at at work. First, all the (non servant) women around her would have had this upright posture, as well as her elder sisters, cousins, role models etc..so to a young girl that was the the way to hold yourself.

    Second, corporal punishment of children was thought necessary in the 18 century to make them understand. If you stooped forward a girl would get a sharp smack across the hand with a cane – you would learn very quickly to hold yourself “correctly”.

    Mintie

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  4. It’s funny how your attitudes change. I’ve seen this painting quite a few times in the past and I thought what a lovely young 18 century girl, happy, free and wanting to play with the bat and shuttlecock. I have to say I didn’t give the social context much thought.

    Now this discussion has revealed a darker side. A young body deliberately deformed to meet society’s standards, and forced into an artificial posture by the threat of the pain from a cane on the hand. I suppose the defense for all this is that the parents were doing their best for their daughter and her future. umm….makes you think.

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  5. Maggie, there’s always a darker side to history and our memories. Records of history only record one side of the emotions.

    100% agree that this shape was the desired shape in the 18 century. There’s a website that describes some research work on old skeletons…yes the women had deformed ribs, the men did not.

    Even if you look at 1950 photos you can see women with much better posture than today. Was it their moms “sit up straight” or those tight girdles?

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  6. On the net you can find photos of exhumed skeletons of women deformed by corsets. I suppose this painting of a girl is the contemporary evidence of the desired shape. There are photos on the net of baby and young girl laced and boned bodices, so I suppose we should be surprised. I agree with Maggie, the girl is pretty by today’s standards, but those boned stays must have been tight, and the shoulder straps that pulled her shoulders back so far were not elasticated. We might not be so happy with the girl if we saw her move, walk and sit. She would be stiff, very upright with her head held well up. Not so pretty along side our children today.

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  7. Slightly off-topic, but I though you might be interested in the following extract from an 1893 description of a visit to a leading Paris designer to see the ‘newest modes in corsets’, which suggests a revival of 18th century styles:
    “The latest models, very tapering from the bosom to the waist line, and thence widening abruptly and to an unusual extent, was almost identical in contour with the ‘cruel taper stays’ of the Elizabethan period. ‘Such a corset would give the wearer a true wasp waist,’ explained our guide, adding, when I gave a little shudder at the thought of the lacing thereof, ‘It is so well cut and made that one’s body would conform quite readily.’ . . . The statement made by our guide that ‘we are putting far more and stiffer bones and steels in ‘les corsets des fillettes’ [young girls’ corsets] just recently’ quite prepared us for the unusually stiff and narrow-waisted corset which was shown us as a new model, intended for the wear of girls from 14 to 17.”

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  8. Dee wrote, “May I go back to slumping over my keyboard now?”

    There seem to be 50 brands of shoulder braces / supports for sale on Amazon and even more for viewing on Google Images. (To avoid underarm discomfort, there should be a stay in the center-back, to draw the straps down below the armpits.)

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  9. Elizabeth H wrote, “We might not be so happy with the girl if we saw her move, walk and sit. She would be stiff, very upright with her head held well up.”

    That may be. But here’s an 1896 speed-corrected video containing 40 seconds showing about 20 women boarding a touring boat in Paris. They’re moving along without awkwardness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjDclfAFRB4&list=PLiR176e6XorjtSn4HRGfzuccJru6wH2gi&index=77&t=0s

    And 40 seconds of similar smoothness are apparent in a 1911 film of NY City, at 5:18, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aohXOpKtns0

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  10. Thank you Roger, interesting. I’m not sure I agree…your Paris movie tends to show women walking with their legs only, and men walking with the whole body.

    I’ve hound a Youtube video on a 1905 girls school outing, due to the movements the corsets are more visible than in your two videos. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH-9K2XbGHQ . I will try to write a post about it. I think the movie was produced as soft porn rather than to be informative, but there are some interesting images showing the effectos of corsets.

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    1. “I’m not sure I agree…your Paris movie tends to show women walking with their legs only, and men walking with the whole body.” Yes (good observation), but their movements weren’t “stiff,” but fairly smooth. How about we compromise on “stilted, to a degree.” (?)

      Of course, women’s uncorseted gaits differ from men’s in that their legs swing from the hip, not the knee. (Or is it the reverse? LOL) Their corseted gait and inflexible torso looks artificial, but not unattractive—it looks stately and thus was a “win for women” (in that time) by elevating their status via their apparent greater dignity. They didn’t try to compete with men on the basis of physique but of (presumptive) character, where they had an edge.

      Here’s a thought: At that time, artificiality was considered by many or most to be a good thing. “Art is man’s nature,” said Burke, and many agreed. Not only artificial clothing, but artificial / stilted manners, conventions, forms of address, social organization, etc., were approved of, even if uncomfortable. So women’s artificial gait, posture, and waist size didn’t diminish them socially then—on the contrary. Once moral superiority had been established, a foundation was established to push for more concrete elevations of women’s status. Women weren’t weakened, in the big picture, by their clothing then.

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