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.

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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 bicyles 1899

I’ve found a very interesting  YouTube video.  You can find it  here .  It shows many ladies on bicycles in Catford, a suburb of London in June 1899.  It looks like a ladies’ bicycle club outing.  There’s just so much social history to be seen here, but we will concentrate on waists and corsets.

Here’s a still clip of a well corseted lady  at 00:30.

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I really can’t resist a few non corset comments.

First, just look at those hats!  Just imagine going for a bike ride today with a large and difficult to manage hat….that’s why they used long hatpins.  I can’t find one person in the video who is not wearing a hat.  When did you last wear a hat in the 21st century?

Second, right at the beginning, the procession of around 100 ladies is led by a man….of course, women could not be trusted to find the way themselves, could they?

And…..how did these ladies avoid getting their long skirts tangled in the rear wheel?  The easy answer is that they were well used to controlling their ankle hiding skirts, so they just did it automatically.

Also, look at the young children in the left foreground, they are all dressed in loose, easy clothes…..both women and children were beginning to have more freedom as the Victorian era was ending….Queen Victoria died 2 years later in 1901.  Compare with the 1740 young girl described here .

The best way to look at the corseted waists is to look in the right bottom of the video as they move off camara.  The focus and clarity are much better.

If you stop the video at the following times you can see some well corseted waists.

 

And here is the ideal hat for a cycle ride at 00:52!

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00:52

 

Two well waisted ladies at 01:02

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At 01:02

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00:46

These ladies are not extremely wasp waisted, this is 1899 and not 1880 when waists were really tight.  However,  if there was an evening dinner after this day time event I expect that these well dressed cycling ladies would have been several inches smaller in their evening dresses.

I’ve worn corsets for reenactment type events.  My feeling is that I could just about manage a strenuous bike ride in a corset, I’m not so sure I would be happy doing so in along skirt that might get caught in the back wheel, and when wearing such a big hat!  Also note that many of the ladies appear (but it’s not clear) to be wearing gloves…well of course, they were well brought up ladies.

Please tell me if you agree with my interpretation, or you think that I’ve got it all wrong.

I’ve got this video as a file on my computer, send me an email if you want a copy.

You can 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!)