Victorian Girls in Corsets – the evidence

Sept 11, 2019

First, a big disclaimer:  I am not in favor of children in corsets, or forcible corseting, or any form of non consensual body modification.  We have to face up to the facts of history that for many centuries right up to the 1930s some form of corset or stays were an essential item of clothing for quite young girls.  Even today we “persuade” pubescent girls into bras – even when as mothers we know bras can be uncomfortable.

First , what is the evidence for young girls wearing corsets?  This falls into the followingcategories:

  1. Photographic portraits. I’m not using drawings or paintings because the artist may well paint or draw the fashionable ideal, or at least what the paying parents wanted!
  2. Advertising.
  3. Museum collections.

First the photographic evidence.  I think these girls are clearly wearing stays and have well defined waistlines.  BUT, as we shall see later, waistlines were not necessarily the most important reason for wearing stays.

It’s difficult to judge their ages, but this little guide on skirt length may help.

childrens-costume-research-8

From this we can guess (ha! and get it wrong!) that the first girl is 12 or 14, the second – don’t know, but she doesn’t look very old.  The third – the elder girl standing is about 12 and the other about 10.  To me all 4 girls look firmly laced, but not painfully so.  We must remember that these are carefully posed (and expensive) portrait photos, so mother would have wanted her daughter looking her best – even if it mean a little tighter lacing before the photo and a sigh of relief when the session was over.  But, they are fairly well laced.

The next photos leave a little doubt, perhaps there is a corset, perhaps not.  What od you think, gentle reader?

Perhaps the first two are wearing corsets?  Difficult to see.

…..and now clearly no corset to be seen, but perhaps one is there?

Look at the 4 girls, the one on the left.  I think her dress is just a little waisted in a way that we would not expect today?  The second girl looks nice and loose under her tent dress – very popular for young Victorian girls.  However, looking at contemporary reports and museum items it is possible that she is wearing stays under this loose dress with no hint of a waist.  Why?  A corset aided posture (read artificially upright), and “held her in” to stop her insides spilling out  – yes really.  While a small waist was not necessarily a requirement for a young girl like this one, some loving mothers want to prepare their daughters both physically and psychologically for a tight corset in her early teens.

So, what do the museums have in their collections to help us ?  Here are a few pictures.

From the Symington Collection at Leicester UK:

 

On the left we have a posture garment rather than a waist controller.  I’ll explain the logic used for child corsetry in another post.  But this garment from around 1900 is not for a wasp waist, it is for “stand up straight” support.  With the crossed straps the lucky wearer would have her shoulders pulled back into the “proper place” by a degree determined by the tightness of the buckled  straps.  And it is well boned.   Details here.

The top right is the famous English “liberty bodice” from the 1920s.  It is not boned but has corded support channels where the earlier corset had whalebones.  It was named “liberty” because it was neither boned nor laced and therefore more comfortable than the 19 century corset.  However, there are several comments from the 1920 right up to the 1950s that the liberty bodice was not loose, and could be a source of discomfort.  It wa not normally worn by boys.  Details here.

The last image bottom right is a baby “binder”…..but a corset in all but name.  The recommended way of putting it on a baby was that it should not be “tight” but “firm”.  Details here.This word firm crops up again and again in corsetry.

The last type of evidence for corsets for girls is in the advertisements.  To be exact this is not real evidence because it is what was marketed and not what was worn.  However, advertisers make their ads for things that will sell, and not rest on the shelves.  Here are a few adverts.  The wording is interesting.

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Look at the extreme right of these beautifully corseted young ladies in the 1920s. Don’t believe the statements that ladies threw away their corsets in the 20s.  Corsets were necessary for them, and therefore also for their growing daughters.  The text reads “good support….only a few well placed stays…..made from strong surgical elastic“.  This was support with a capital S many times over.   For a 13 year old ?  Not only would this garment make long term body changes (a post to come) but would show the girl that she could not easily run, jump or climb trees in this garment – but nice young ladies would not want to do these boyish things, would they?

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We’ll ignore maternity corsets for the moment, but look at the text for the girls…..”don’t use an adult corset, buy a special one for your daughter to have necessary support..shoulders straightened, because your daughter already has a figure problem of drooping shoulders”.  Without hesitation they talk about moulding  young girl’s figure, nonconsensual body modification. A few years ago I saw an ad for a training bra, that gently supported and moulded  emerging breasts.  Have we really progressed?

There we are, enough for one post, please let me have your comments.

Mintie.

 

 

Corsets and Religion

Two interesting images appeared on the  staylace site recently.  In fact many of the images there are interesting because they show how corsets were worn in the past.

Here they are, two ladies in Salvation Army uniform.   They are difficult to date but about 1885.

If you want to know more about the fantastic Salvation Army and its continued good work then look at this.

The images show two women dressed in Salvation Army uniform…for women it was dresses made in a very dark blue serge material. The Salvation Army grew out of the Methodist church.  This meant demanding “plain and sober” clothes with very little ornamentation, and no jewellery.

What is interesting is that while the Salvation Army was against fashion following the two ladies here are very visibly corseted with a non natural waist size.   This indicates that in the 19 century a corset was necessary for respectability.  Going corsetless was not really an option for the 19 century woman.  If you want to think in terms of going bra-less today, then that is how a 19 century woman regared going without a corset.  Many women think going braless sends a message ofsexuaality and social position, exactly the same with a corsetless 19 century woman.

You may also see that the lady (girl? how old is she do you think?) on the right is “poking her head”  by not lifting her head up as she should have done!  This is often found in growing girls who are embarrassed by their height.  In the 18 and 19 century a young teenage girl who “poked her head” would be told to hold her head up in a firm manner.  Various devices were used to persuade girls that poking the head was a bad idea.  These included a whack on the hand with a ruler, or various mechanical devices as described by Heather Bigg in his book on orthopaedics in 1868, here’s one.  It’s a variant of the backboard and collar.  Some women wrte in their autobiographies that these devices were both effective and very uncomfortable.

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There we are…..corsets and the Salvation Army….please let me know your views, post a comment here.

 

 

 

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**davis@gmail.com      (remove asterisks!)