A Corset Can Do a Lot For a Lady…

 

 

 

 

 

 “Oh, you push it up here,

You pull it down there.

You tighten up the middle till you’re gaspin’ for air.    

Oh, a corset can do a lot for a lady,

Cause it helps to show a man what she’s got.”

 

This little ditty, from a very old movie called “The First Traveling Saleslady,” says it all.  Women have been wearing corsets for hundreds of years (think Queen Elizabeth I and her cone-shaped figure).  The style has changed according to fashion, but the basic construction remains the same, as well as the main reason for wearing the contraption (see above ditty).

Corsets are typically made of a flexible material, like cloth, and stiffened with boning (also called ribs or stays) inserted into channels in the fabric. In the 19th century, steel and whalebone were favored for the boning. Featherbone was used as a less expensive substitute for whalebone and was constructed from flattened strips of goose quill woven together with yarn to form a long strip.

Corsets are held together by lacing, usually at the back. Tightening or loosening the lacing changes the firmness of the corset. In the l800s heyday of corsets, a well-to-do woman would be laced by her maid.   However, many corsets also had a buttoned or hooked front opening called a busk. Once the lacing was adjusted comfortably, it was possible to leave the lacing as adjusted and take the corset on and off using the front opening. Self-lacing is also almost impossible with tightlacing, which strives for the utmost possible reduction of the waist.  (How could we forget Scarlett O’Hara hanging onto the bedpost while Mammy yanked her laces?)

In the 1830’s, the corset was thought of as a medical necessity. It was believed that a woman was fragile, and needed assistance from some form of stay to hold her up. Even girls as young as three or four were laced up into bodices. Gradually these garments were lengthened and tightened. By the time they were teenagers, the girls were unable to sit or stand for any length of time without the aid of a tightly laced corset. The corset deformed the internal organs making it impossible to draw deep breath, in or out of a corset. Because of this, Victorian women were always fainting and getting the vapors. 

The practice of tightlacing reached its apex in the 1890s.  It was the ambition of most girls to have, at marriage, a waist measuring no more inches than the years of their age—and to marry before 21.   

Working-class women (except when dressed for special occasions) usually wore looser corsets and simpler clothes, with less weight. The higher up in class a lady was, the more confining her clothes were. This was because she didn’t need the freedom to do household chores.

The corset is still very much with us—just open any Victoria’s Secret Catalog.  Women no longer cinch their waists to wasp proportions.  But some current practices I could name are just as drastic.  What do you think?  Opinions, anyone?  

P.S.  I’ll offer a choice of my current books to the first one who can name the two actresses in the above photo.

   

Website | + posts

I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

40 thoughts on “A Corset Can Do a Lot For a Lady…”

  1. Oh I had to look up! I would love to see these movies, I love the older ones! I must check if its captioned for the deaf. I’m gonna guess its Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing from what I found on IMBD, Internet Movie Data Base).

    Ouch on the corsets! But I have to say, they are beautiful and the dresses they wore too, is beautiful. Its too in part what has me enjoy historical romances so much, the history the culture, society rules and of course the dressing for both men and woman. Loved this post!

  2. PS I know I wasn’t first but enjoyed playing by finding more about this movie! And too reading this post and all I learned today. Love it. I look forward to your books. It was great to meet you Elizabeth.

  3. Hi Elizabeth, what a fabulous post. Since I think the bra is actually a torture device :), I’d never have survived a corset. I also like the scene in Titanic when Rose’s meanie mama is tightening and tightening her corset…Gasp.

    I do love the look of 19th century women’s attire but wonder how much they suffered on a hot day with all that garb on. Whew.

  4. Hi Elizabeth…Fasinating post. I never would have made it in that time period since I was mostly tom-boyish growing up:) I also believe bra’s are torture devices…and fortunately can get away with a stretchy (extremely comfortable) barely there kind of deal. I’m all about comfortable clothes.

    The corset sort of reminds me of foot binding *shutter*. I’ve read a lot of historicals (as well as other genres)and for the life of me don’t understand why women put up with such restrictive clothing. Where were the rebels? ….Nancy:)

  5. Sorry you weren’t quite fast enough, Caffey, but thanks for posting. It was Carol Channing who sang that song, and she was so funny. Don’t know if the movie is even available on video now (I remembered from having seen it as a kid, which really shows my age), but it was a lot of fun.

  6. LOL, Tanya. I forgot about the Titanic scene. It’s amazing what women did in those clothes, especially the frontier types and the Victorian women explorers who trekked the dark corners of the world in corsets and petticoats. But yes, those clothes were so beautiful.

  7. Lucky you, Nancy. My bras are pieces of structural engineering and I have to wear them all the time–not fun. But you’re right, those corsets were almost as bad as footbinding. Putting them on little girls was the worst. Thanks for your post.

  8. Yikes–underwire bras are bad enough! I’m with many of you and would love to lose the thing. However, for some reason nobody’s decided that perky means pointing to the ground. :)And I refuse to wear tight shoes. If it weren’t for Birks… well, I’d happily be barefoot.

    It is astounding what we do for ‘beauty’ or ‘status’–or because some man wants to have control.

    And we can’t forget those cultures who have bound their children’s heads to shape the skull differently. Eww.

  9. Yeah, people have strange ideas of what’s beautiful. Those Chinese women who had their feet bound were crippled for life. On a personal note, when my grandmother died unexpectedly in 1962 at about 75, the family consented to an autopsy. Without going into detail, her internal organs had been badly disarranged–she’d worn a corset as a young girl/woman.
    And one thing I love about this modern age is that women finally get to wear really comfy shoes.
    🙂

  10. LOL, Pam. For me, underwires are the only thing that keeps my straps from cutting canyons in my shoulders. They’re miserable things, but if I were to go braless long enough I’d look like the National Geographic Playmate of the Month!
    🙂

  11. I like to believe that one of the few benefits of growing older is reaching an age where we can quit wearing clothes that hurt.

    No high heels for me.
    No girdles…I can’t believe they still make them.
    No tight jeans.

    Of course if I was skinnier and looked better in those things I might not find my lofty moral highground of common sense so easy to stay on. 😀

  12. I have to say corsets can be nice for a seduction, but I can’t think that I would ever wear one!

  13. When I was younger I used to find corsets a way to repress woman, why all the binding and suffering. I am glad we don’t have them anymore (other than in the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue)

  14. Thanks so much. I watched that movie not long ago and love it. The scene you pictured is one of my favorite and both those gals are hilarious in it. I wore a merry widow on my wedding day which was torture so I can’t imagaine wearing one that could be laced tighter.

  15. I’m with you on the high heels, Mary. I wore high heels with little pointy toes when I taught school years ago. My feet were just screaming at the end of the day. But everybody wore them.

    And the seduction thing, Nathalie, Lily and Mary. A lot of men seem to have corset fantasies, which may be why corsets have survived so long.

    Did you wear the Merry Widow on the outside or the inside for your wedding, Connie? My artist daughter was married in a dark red custom made corset with a little jacket and a skirt–it looked beautiful on her.

  16. Speaking of Merry Widow–most of you may already know this, but the term comes from the operetta by Franz Lehar. The leading lady does a song wearing a corset, which must’ve been pretty risque for it’s time.

  17. Wow – you guys make me feel normal. Thank you! I new there was a reason I kept coming back here. 🙂

    I can totally relate to the comfy shoes, no bra sect. Mind you, every so often I have to make a mad dash to the bedroom to put on a bra when a strange vehicle comes into our farmyard. :-0

    I’d love to stay but I have a 1pm call time on set today so I have to run and put a bra on but I leave. I’ll check in later when I get back.

    Fantastic topic Elizabeth, thanks. Women’s undergarments are one of those areas in my writing that I’ve never taken the time to research properly. 🙁

    Have a fun day.

  18. HI all ya’ll fillies!!!!!! Im back…LOL, I was out of town for a whole week!!!!!

    anyway….boy do I need a tight laced corset these days!!! hahaha 😉

    after 2 kids,that would help my figure..HOWEVER, I could never wear one, I cant even stand a pair of tight jeans across my stomach and I hate bras too…so, the corset would be a torture device to me…I’d tell you anything you wanted to know if you laced me up in one of those crazy contraptions!

    Elizabeth, I bet your artist daughter was very beautiful on her wedding day..Id love to see a photo of what she wore!

  19. Elizabeth, what an interesting blog! I just wonder if a man designed and invented the corset. I’ll just bet he did! lol

    It’s kinda sad that men thought women were so fragile they had to be propped up. Too weird. Seems all through history a man was always telling a woman what to do.

    I’m glad I don’t have to wear a corset, although I could definitely use one. I hate anything that binds. Like most of you, I go for comfort. Besides, I can’t imagine wearing layers upon layers of clothes in this heat. It was 105 here yesterday! Yikes! Too hot to breathe.

    Thanks for the smiles. I enjoyed this information.

  20. LOL Anita. I have these visions of you seeing a pickup pull into your yard and you rushing to the bedroom (all this and I don’t even know what you look like)
    Have you noticed that in most historical romance love scenes, it doesn’t really tell you how that corset comes off?
    🙂

    And welcome back, Melissa. Hope you went someplace fun. And if I find a picture of my daughter’s wedding I’ll publish it. She did look gorgeous.

  21. Hi, Linda. In my research for this blog I learned that there were corsets for men, too. Those older guys in their trim military uniforms were likely wearing them. But I’ll bet they didn’t cinch till it hurt! It would be fun to know when and how corsets were invented.
    And can you imagine trying to sit and write in one?
    Thanks for posting, and keep cool!

  22. I remember my grandmother’s girdle hanging on the line! I don’t think she felt dressed without it.

    Here’s another underwear question:
    Remember when we said “thongs” and we meant “flipflops?” Now there’s a torture devise. The thong. My daughter talked me into buying them so I don’t have panty lines in my slacks. She thinks they’re comfortable. How can that possibly be?

    Young women supposedly wear a thong so that they don’t have panty lines, but then they wear their pants so low that you can see the top of the thong above their pants or jeans.

    I can’t believe I wore underwires and French bras when I was young. I guess it makes a difference when you’re not attempting to actually hold anything up. LOL

  23. LOL, Cheryl. And give me panty lines any day. The last thing I need is to walk around with a wedgie. Never tried a thong, but I can just imagine…
    Thanks for the smile.
    🙂

  24. Elizabeth, On the inside! In 1963 I would have wiped out half the population of the town if I’d have worn it on the outside. My mother and all 9 of her sisters would have had heart attacks! Not to mention my husbands family who already thought I wasn’t good enough for him. Yes we are still together in spite of their predictions.

  25. Elizabeth… I went “home” to AL for a week…we went camping with my best friend and her family then spent some time with my family!

    Cheryl..LOL, too funny and it’s odd that you said that…I was just discussing that same thing on another board today… how, women wear thongs so you cant see their panty lines, then you can see the thongs sticking out at the top of their pants or something.. YUCK.. not attractive

    and how anyone can think they are comfy..I will never know

  26. Well I can see from 31 comments so far I am probably too late to win one of your books. I really wanted to read them and see your style. I may in the future. Corsets I have not worn but girdles I have. With all the problems I have with my stomach there is absolutely no way I’d wear one. God Bless you special today.

  27. Well I can see from 31 comments so far I am probably too late to win one of your books. I really wanted to read them and see your style. I may in the future. Corsets I have not worn but girdles I have. With all the problems I have with my stomach there is absolutely no way I’d wear one. God Bless you special today.
    The women in picture are Giner Rogers and Carol Channing

  28. Thanks, Jane. And you’re right about Ginger and Carol but, alas, too late to win. Better luck next time. I remember when young women, especially, were expected to wear girdles. It kept us from, uh, jiggling around and held our stockings up in the days before pantyhose. You might remember it, too. Thanks a lot for your comment.

  29. Interesting about your grandmother, Estella. I guess some women got used to corsets and wore them all their lives.

    And congratulations on a long and happy marriage, Connie. That’s an accomplishment. Bet you were a lovely bride.

    Glad you had a fun trip and a good reason to travel, Melissa. It’s great to have you back.

    And I am still laughing at your comment, Mary. Thanks all of you!

  30. I’ll be leaving you for a few hours to go help a friend get ready for her son’s wedding this weekend. But I’ll be sure to check in when I get home. Have fun, and thanks for your great coments.
    Elizabeth

  31. Hi Elizabeth,

    Great post today. I didn’t know the more wealthy the woman, the tighter the corset! Cause … they don’t have to do housework. Wow! You learn something every day!!

Comments are closed.