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.

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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.

 

 

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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