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.

 

 

Corsets and Sofas – rigid seduction?

I’ve been away for a very long time, I’m sorry.

I’ve seen several photographs of Victorian ladies lying on sofas, some nude, some without corsets, and some very clearly tightly and rigidly corseted.  So, I did a little searching for photographs (I’m avoiding drawings because the drawer draws what people want to see) and made a few unscientific opinion surveys to find out what people think about these poses today.

First, a few images to set the scene!

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It does appear that being photographed on a sofa was popular in the Victorian age!  Why?  Well, I believe there are several complex reasons interwoven with the current social values.  Try these:

First, lying on a sofa gave the impression of informality, try to change the former “stand straight and look at the camera” style of photo. The first two photo show a wasp waist. As Anna Held was an actress and this was a publicity photo I assume that this was the smallest waist that she was prepared to wear.

Second, I think the first two photos would be considered soft porn at the time.  The message is complex, “I am ready for you to seduce me (come and get me!), but I am safe in my armor plated, rigid corset”.   This view is supported when I asked non historically minded men in the family to comment.  One 19 year old nephew commented on Anna Held “she looks sexy but I would need a can opener to undress her”.

The first two photos offer a combination of the rigid upright pose required in the  19 century and gentle relaxation.  Yes, the two ladies are relaxing on a sofa, but their bodies are held rigid by their corset.  See the photo below to see what that means.

The third photo is not like the first two.  She is relaxing, and there is no sexual invittion at all.  She is probably wearing a corset, but she is not showing it off as the first two ladies do.

So, what shape do you have if you lie on a sofa without a rigid corset.  Here are some examples.

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The first modern lady in a pink corset goes half way, but the corset is not totally rigid and she bends in the middle.  Probably more comfortable, but not the Victorian ideal.

Much the same for the second cigarette smoking lady.  My current day male regarded this photo as less sexy than the rigid corseted ladies in the first two photos in this post.

The third photo show the same, a modern body, modern corset and no rigidity.

The last and fourth photo shows a lady perhaps 20 years after the “rigid body” photos at the start of this post.   However, she probably is wearing a corset, but less rigid and no wasp waist.

And finally, the ultimate corsetless woman on a sofa.

fainting-paolina_borghese

She was the sister of Napoléon, born 1780 and became an Italian princess. This statue was made in 1805 at the height of the “corsetless” regency period.   As a well born girl in the 1780 and 90s she would have been used to tight stays, not that you can tell from the statue!

Well, a quick post on corsets and sofas;.  Please comment, or even send me your own corset and sofa image, I’ll add it here.

Love to all, Mintie.
Continue reading “Corsets and Sofas – rigid seduction?”

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.

 

 

 

Corsets and posture

In history women have worn corsets for a number of reasons – I’ll explore some of them in a later post.  One reason for wearing a corset is that it encourages the socially acceptable posture.  Note that  I do not say “fashionable posture” !  Certainly in the 18, 19 and 20 centuries posture had all sorts of implications – being ladylike, well brought up, social class.

Here are some photos which show the effects on posture when seated.

 

This show the before and after for a corset of around 1910.

 

and here a corset of about 1890.

I didn’t take these photos, but they are interesting.  I’ve more of the same models with  and without corset from the front and the side – a later post.

What can we see from  the photos.  Yes, a straight back with a corset – that’s well-known.  But also look at the arms and elbows, they are “naturally” held further back.  This was considered more lady like in the 19 century.  Holding the elbows back promotes a good bust line…what every woman wants!  I’ve seen early 19 century advice to young ladies that they should always keep their elbows well back.

I’ll look at deportment training of children in another post.

The changes in posture might be more pronounced if they were laced tighter?  Not sure.

Do these photos reflect your experience with corsets?  Please post your thoughts and ideas.

If you can’t see where to post  your comments please click on the title Corsets and posture.

Love to you all, Mintie

Horrors – Corsets, Foot binding, FGM, Training Bras and Dental Braces.

This post is not strictly about interpreting corset images, but what the heck, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want to do!

This blog has started a discussion (argument?) amongst some of my family and some costume orientated friends, so I thought I would lay out some of the ideas involved.

First, let me say that I’m really against causing pain and anguish to young girls with female genital mutilation, foot binding, tight corsets or anything else.  There’s not place in the world for that.  However, we encourage early adolescent girls into training bras, is that a form of deformation?  Dentists will tell you that some mothers want dental braces for their daughters for “cosmetic reasons” ie a pretty smile rather than strictly dental /medical reasons.

First, lets have a brief description of each particular horror story, and then we can look at the common factors.

1.  Foot Binding

The Chinese custom of binding the feet of young girls at the age of 7 or so started about 1000 years ago and continued until the early 1900s.  It involved tying cloth bandages around the feet so tightly that the foot did not grow.  In addition the feet were forced into small shoes.  According to reports it was excruciatingly painful while the bones were still growing.  Girls had to be taught to walk again.  More details here.  The reasons – well a mixture of “beauty” and “to ensure marriage to a rich man” .  Western men don’t find small feet beautiful or erotic, clearly Chinese men did.  Who, I wonder, tells these men what is beautiful or not? As in many societies, unmarried adult women are social and financial problem to be avoided at all costs.  Here are some rather gruesome pictures.

For our purposes there are several interesting points to note.  First it was done by mothers to their daughters – men were not involved, it was considered “necessary” in terms of the marriage market, and if not done at an early age it the feet would have grown too large.  One site comments that Chinese mothers would tell their daughter crying with the pain of newly bound feet ” you will thank me when you are older, men will not marry a girl with big feet”. We will meet this comment again later.

2. Girls in Corsets

There are plenty of references to young girls in corsets in the 18, 19 and early 20 centuries.  I’ve already written about a 11-year-old girl of 1740 in stiff stays here.  In the 19 century the idea continued….here’s a comment from the autobiography of Gwen Raverat, born 1885, so she was talking about 1898 or so.

We did rebel against stays. Margaret says that the first time she was put into them – when she was about thirteen – she ran round and round the nursery, screaming with rage. I did not do that. I simply went and took them off; endured sullenly the row which ensued.  When my soft-shelled condition was discovered, l was forcibly re-corseted; and, as soon as possible, went away and took them off again. I had a bad figure, and to me they were real instruments of torture; they prevented me from  breathing, and dug deep holes into my softer parts on every side, I am sure no hair-shirt could have been worse to me.  ref 1

 

Here’s a French mail order catalogue from around 1901 for  corset for girls aged 13 to 16.

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It might not have been very stiff to wear – ONLY 34 whalebones (!!)placed on the bias to prevent unladylike bending.  Ref 2

If you thought the 1920s brought freedom from corsetry for young girls I’ve news for you.  Here’s the Canadian Eatons mail order catalogue of 1939/40….boned girdles for10 year olds.

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It’s  here .    Let me translate for you..the corselette is practical for young girls aged 8 to 14.  Horizontal boning across the abdomen. (We don’t want 10 year old girls with bulges do we?)  The Gaine (girdle) is  for girls aged 10 to 14, elastic and is comfortable but fairly firm to mould the waist.  Probably not as firm as a Chinese girl’s foot bandages, but Gwen Raverat’s mother would certainly understand the need for firm control of early teen flesh?

I think I can conclude that these three examples show it was common to put girls into corsets for the best of reasons.  Even in 1939 I doubt if a 12 year old girl would have challenged her mother on being asked to wear a corset for the first time.  As above this corseting was done “woman to girl”, no men involved, and refusal to wear it was not an option.

3.  Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Fgm is found in the Saharan areas of Africa.  It involves the non consensual removal of some or all of the external genitals (private parts if you are shocked).  I was horrified to find that  by movement of the people to the West it is also practiced in London and New York….sometimes in modern clinics, rather than with a rusty razor blade in the African bush.

I find it all so horrible I’m not posting pictures here …..just Google Fgm and be prepared to be appalled.   Here’s a video here , with blood and screams and multiple helpers holding the “lucky” girl down.

But why?  So that the girl is easier to marry off.  There’s a health aspect too, FGM reduces unhealthy sexual desire.  Again, from what I understand men were forbidden to be present at the “cutting”.

So, why is FGM in this post?  Like the other horrors in this post it is done with the mother’s approval on a girl unable to refuse.  The reasons include being more eligible for marriage and some references to “health”

 

4.  Training Bras….and just Bras too?

Of course, today in the West we have left the above uncivilised ideas behind us……or have we? Just look at the internet advice to mothers buying their daughter her first bra.  “Essential for modesty”, and you will look better, and stop you sagging in later life.  Why are  little girls persuaded into training bras, or why do mothers encourage their daughters into them?

Again, the idea of a support garment of being “necessary” for a growing girl is still with us.  A different degree than in the 18 and 19 centuries but the theme rests  unchanged.

To my knowledge 2 years ago  a 12 year old was finding it hard  to wear a bra for the first time (umm, we all have those memories?).  She said it chafed, her mother told he to smile and get used to it.  “You can’t go out without a bra”.  Perhaps not too far from the 1740 mother who insisted her daughter wore rigid, tight stays?

5. Dental Braces

No need to describe these things.  But dentists are saying that some mothers insist on dental braces for their girls for reasons of beauty and not dental health.  You can find 19 century adverts for shoulder braces to stop / cure girls from stooping.  Are dental braces using the same thinking?  Try searcing the web for photographs of children wearing braces – most are girls.

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The Common Factors

I’ve listed below  the common factors in these 5 ways of deforming the body.  “What” I hear you say, a modern bra deforms the body?”  Well if you are a different shape with and without a bra then it is deforming you?  Yes, we would add “comfort”  and “respectability”…..but a Victorian woman would say the same about here tight corset?

Here’s a summary of what I’ve said above.  Y = yes   N = No

I’ve added a column to indicate if men were involved in the process, interesting to note  a general “no” except for today’s dental braces.

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Putting this WORD table here took all the skills and laughter of my 15 year old grandson!

So, I’m sorry for the horrors and descriptions of pain on children, but it’s the reasons that I’m looking at.  What do you think?

references:

ref1   Gwen Raveratt “Period Piece”  Page 259  Google Books here

Ref 2   Wiki media  here