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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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!)