“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.