Thursday, April 24, 2014

Respect for the Past, Part 2


They bring to mind medieval torture devices and extra super tiny waists. Pain and female repression. You might have even seen old X-rays of deformed ribs and squashed lungs.

Picture from French doctor Ludovic O’Followell’s Le Corset (1908)

I'm here to tell you that corsets are actually completely awesome.


First of all, let's just get the wasp waist look out of your head. That look only came into vogue late in the Victorian Era and it didn't last very long. It was also a more extreme trend that not everyone participated in. Just like not every woman today wears stilletto nails, not every woman went in for the teeny tiny corsets.

For most of the centuries that women wore corsets and stays they were meant to support a woman's natural assets and make her dresses fit better.

Picture from

There were many variations of corsets over those many centuries, but I'm going to talk about the mid 1800's since that's the time that I have experience in.

Let's begin with children. Yes, children wore corsets. Sort of. 

Mid Victorian babies wore dresses. Even the boys. One thing we know about babies is that they have diapers. Diapers are messy. Victorians didn't have disposable or plastic diapers, so they dressed their babies in a lot of layers. The diaper layer, then a wool "soaker" to keep some of the wet in, then lots and lots of petticoats. You see, if you have lots of petticoats they'll absorb any leakage before it can get to the outer dress, or leak all over Mom.

If you're picturing all these petticoats you can probably imagine that there would be a lot of bulk. A baby or toddler doesn't have a defined waist to hold up all these petticoats. Instead they would wear stays that had buttons at the waist. The petticoats would have button holes in their waist bands and they'd button together. The stays were usually more like little vests than the corset that a grown woman would wear. There were no bones and there would be straps to go over the shoulders.

As a child grew up their stays would change. Boys would be "breeched", that means they'd start wearing pants, and stop wearing petticoats. Girls would keep similar stays until they were nearing puberty. That's when their stays would start to resemble corsets.

As a girl started to develop a figure she would need more supportive stays. The first way to add support would be to add quilting. Wool would be added thinly between the two layers and quilted nicely.

As the girl grew out of the quilting she might add firmer support with straw, this was also a popular support in the 1700s.

Once she was ready for a full corset, she'd upgrade to whale baleen. Not bone, baleen.

Of course there were different styles for corsets over the years, but during the 1850s and 1860s the idea shape was for a girl to have a torso like an inverted triangle and bell like skirts.

That's where the hoops came in! Hoops weren't patented until the late 1850s, before then women wore corded petticoats. These were petticoats with row after row of cording sewn in to help them stand out. Then the beautiful steel hoops came around and women were able to achieve the glorious wide skirts of their dreams.

As you can probably imagine, these corded petticoats and steel hoops were not light weight. Add the yards and yards of fabric required for a proper bell skirt and we're talking pounds of weight.

Trying to wear that much weight only supported by your hip bones would really be a pain. Literally. A pain in your back.

That's what's so great about a corset! All that weight gets distributed up and down the torso, allowing much more comfort. I know this one from first hand experience. I thought I could get away with wearing all those petticoats without a corset... It was not pretty.

A corset also kept the line of a lady's bodice nice. No unsightly bumps or terrible "muffin top"!

As for the comfort of a corset, I was pleasantly surprised. A good fitting corset is kind of like wearing a long sports bra. I bought my corset from Treadle Treasures on Etsy. It's a "working" corset, which means that it has a hook and eye closure on the front instead of a metal busk. This allows for a little more movement at my waist.

The only hindrance about a corset is that I can't drink any soda. Fizzy drinks that make one even slightly bloated lead to a lot of discomfort. It's also hard to eat a large meal. Smaller meals and snacks are all that I could do, I felt full very quickly. I've been told that smaller meals are healthier, so maybe this is a benefit!

My corset is so comfortable that I've actually put it on to do housework. Didn't really work well for bending down, but doing dishes was great! Wearing a corset to do my daily work really gave me more respect for my fore-mothers. They really did know what they were doing. Far from being some kind of torture device, it really was a support. I can see how women would rebel against the late Victorian wasp-waist styles, but the corset itself had a long life and in my opinion it lasted so long because it had a real value.

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