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Corsets, Shapes and Figures around the turn of the 19th Century


Fashionable R&G The goal attained Early 20th c. dinner dress
Princess Wieda Camille Clifford
straight front corset
Traditional dress
Hose support and waist rounding Full boning, maintains the form during tightlacing Traditional corset making is a highly skilled art Straight front S-curve
Camille's trademark figure Some nurse uniforms were based on traditional corseting


The late 19th century is the primary reference point in time for hundreds of years of corset evolution. The attention to detail, the complex construction, permitting a high degree of shaping, all were the result of long term development. The invention of using metal eyelets prevented the tearing of the corset during daily wear and tight-lacing. This and other mechanical improvements, enabled shaping of the chest and waist to a far greater degree than ever before. As a result, towards the end of the 19th century, waist dimensions goals had become small, with 16" to 20" for young fashionable women and 21" to 26" for the more mature. Contrast this with today's average waist sizes, which are 23" to 28" for slender teenagers and models and 28" to 34" for the average mature figure. But in all cases, the emphasis was always on proportion, not just the smallest waist circumference, contrary to the myths that persist today.

During the late 19th century period, changing fashion stimulated the desire for tighter lacing, but not everyone laced down to 19" !   Unfortunately the traditional Victorian corset style with the inward curved busk, when laced very tight, produced stomach discomfort, due to the strong inward pressure into the upper abdomen. A french physician, Mme. Gaches-Sarrautes created a design with straight front busks, which remedied the stomach discomfort, by making the corset much stiffer in front, by using a stiffer busk, such that the corset pushed in the sides more and also curved the back more inward. This style became known as the "Health Corset", and although initially intended to reduce the inward upper abdominal pressure, it became clear that by having the spine in back, and the stiff busk in front, the waist could be pulled in even more than before, creating the classic S-curve shapes - see Camille Clifford.
The new style was quickly adopted and corset makers made sure that they had a renowned physician's name associated with their new garments. For women that had been through repeated pregnancies, this corset became a recommended postpartum form of support.

During the 19th century, the use of the corset was also driven by society, where social status required the presentation and maintenance of a proper and fashionable figure, which could only be achieved by wearing tight corsets. The standard range for off-the-shelf corsets was usually 18" to 30" for most common styles (see Sears & Roebuck catalogs), and with narrower high fashion styles usually ranging from 18" to 24". Smaller corsets (16" to 20") remained the domain of the custom corset maker or corsetiere, simply because the tighter and more precise fit required consideration of the physical differences that normally exists between individuals. Today, if tightlacing is intended, a custom corset is considered essential. It is not only more effective, it is also far more comfortable than an off-the-rack item.


Extreme degree's of compression are often talked about and assumed, but corset training is a gradual process, and in general the overall compression never needs to be nor should it be extreme for a good result. If a corset is laced to the point of being uncomfortable, it is either not properly fitted, or simply laced too tight, or laced too tight too fast.
For tight-lacing, it is important to lace down in several stages, making the corset narrower every twenty or thirty minutes. This will prove to be very tolerable, whereas lacing it to size in one attempt will certainly spell discomfort and result in a negative experience. The women who habitually wore tight corsets did arrive at that level very gradually, such that there never would be a stage of "discomfort". The body adapts and the actual "tightness" is modest in nearly all cases. This was confirmed by pressure measurements as well, where within half an hour of lacing up, the pressure inside the corset had dropped to a relatively low level.

A good indicator for the degree of tightness, rather than just the waist size, is the hipspring, which is the difference between the hip and waist measurements. An uncorseted modern figure has eight to ten inches of hipspring, which increases with moderate lacing to twelve or up to fifteen inches. Devoted tightlacers can train from fifteen to twenty inches of hipspring.

 

Fifteen to Twenty Inches of Hipspring

front laced health corset    1902 figure Classic victorian

The fifteen to twenty inch hipspring examples shown above could range from  slender 34-19-34" to a mature 42-24-44" for Bust/Waist/Hip measurements. As shown above, the three images on the left are "handspan" waists. Whereas the three on the right are not, yet they clearly show the appeal of the large hipspring with balanced proportions.
These latter three represent ideal proportions, without always requiring the extremely small waist.
Nevertheless as a consequence of  the female population outnumbering males during the 19th century,  young women in search for suitable husbands did compete with each other and laced their waists down as small as possible to approach the ideals of beauty. A small tight waist added to the overall presentation and improved maritability. A preserved phrase indicating such:
"If a girl wishes to find a husband,  her waist's inches shouldn't exceed
her age in years, and she should marry before age twenty! "

Some did commit to more extreme forms of figure training, either encouraged or moderated by the parenting mother. These cases have been targeted by the journals and periodicals in the past, but also during the recent anti-corset episode of the 1960's and 70's. This has contributed to a distorted view of what was or is considered "normal" corset wear. Most wearers reduced their waists only by 3-4", which provides shaping and support, without being overly tight. With continuous training, the uncorseted waist will reduce over time, so that if a 3-4" reduction is maintained, this would eventually produce the admired 18" to 22" waists on the average young woman. By comparison, skin tight, belted jeans are capable of producing 1-3" constrictions and have been considered attractive for decades.

For 19th century school going girls to be considered properly dressed in some communities, it was expected for them to wear usually moderate and sometimes tightly laced corsets during the day. And if they were figure training then sometimes during the night as well. By starting from an early age, the shaping would happen naturally without undue stress on the body. The very flexible bone structure eases the body shaping process. It was probably inconvenient,  yet without any torture as is so often presumed.  For example for circassian
The periodicals of the time often got carried away with the subject matter and would describe the practice as torturous and painful, where the reality was very different and driven by the care of the mother or governess to ensure proper figure development. It is important to realize that poor nutrition and minimal hygiene were major health issues, and the corset ensured at least a straight back and an upright posture.  A
british physician, Dr. William Adams, observed in his young female patients, that those wearing the tightest corsets had the straightest backs and consequently the fewest cases of scoliosis compared to the girls wearing looser or no corsets. The medical journals insisted on the supposed health hazards despite being unable to prove any of them. Later  however, they did admit (in public) that their tight laced patients lived long and healthy lives, which was embarrassing to the many doctors who had blamed just about any odd illness on tightlacing.

Sports such as women's basketball, tennis, bicycling and horseback riding were conducted fully dressed and corseted, which did pose a limit on the level of exertion. The restricted lower ribcage encouraged breathing with the upper chest, which was deemed attractive. However, it was recognized that the corset provided valuable support for the torso and this enabled women to compete in sports that did not depend on flexibility at the waist. For example in 1907, a tightly corseted May Sutton competed in the US tennis championships and won. Before her, Irish Maud Watson, played tennis and won the inaugural ladies' championship in 1884 and '85. During both matches she was formally dressed and corseted, demonstrating that women who were used to being corseted, were less inhibited by the practice than is often presumed. Most of the inhibition was actually caused by the dress style itself. For example a promenade dress would only allow small steps to be made, whereas the dresses worn for sports allowed much more freedom around the legs. Removing the corsets during sports activity was usually discouraged, as it turned out that after a day of sports without the support, it would require a lot more effort to close the night corset. To address this problem, shorter corsets were developed, and by wearing these "sport" corsets (shorter on the hip) the wearer would maintain the upper torso and waist dimensions and avoid the night time struggle.  It is interesting to note that a growing number of women horseback riders are returning to wearing traditional corsets again, to improve posture, and for abdominal and bust support.


The women of 19th century Royalty, provided examples of successful figure training: All were committed tightlacers and presented fashionable figures at any age.  Princess Maud was known to be proud of her waist which she managed to keep below 19" and maintained even after tightlacing went out of fashion.






Princess Alexandra
 in 1889
(1844 - 1925)
Princess Alexandra
 in 1893
(1844 - 1925)
Princess Mary (of Teck)
in 1893
(1867 - 1953)
Princess Wieda
in 1897
 Princess Maud
in 1893
(1869 - 1938)
Princess Maud
in 1905
(1869 - 1938)





















Traditional figure training in the past, as it is now, was accomplished by stepwise increased tightening over a period of several months or years, depending on the desired goal. The primary difference as mentioned above, however was the initiation of the process usually at or before the onset of puberty. From an anatomical point of view, this was the most effective age to do so, because the ribs still contain considerable cartilage which allows the corset to set their shape. The early training also coincides with the hormonal activity which causes the natural widening of the pelvis, narrowing of the waist, and bust development. All this helps training, without the often sited stress or torture! A classic example were the "Professional Beauties" of 19th c. England, with one of the prominent rolemodels  Lillie Langtry who in spite of being full figured, was able to maintain a 19" waist for many years. The degree of constriction was dependent on the fashion of the day, but the waist and midriff were always meant to be reduced to their smallest dimension. On average the final waist reductions would be six to eight inches,  and two to four inches for the lower portion of the ribcage. To preserve the daytime progress, corsets were sometimes worn at night as well. This would take weeks to become comfortable with, but then it was as easy to sleep with or without, a practice that is again adopted with success by modern tightlacers.

During the 19th c. bathing once a week was deemed sufficient (!) thus, the corset would only be removed once a week for a short hour, which made the shaping process essentially permanent. Nowadays tightlacers expect to bathe and exercise out of the corset once a day, or every other day, adopting a 23/7 schedule, which is still essentially permanent. For maintenance of the achieved figure however, day time wear is sufficient. Many corseteers maintain their shape with only 8 to 12 hours of wear per day and some even less.

To deal with the cleanliness issues, the more prosperous would use separate night and day corsets, improving cleanliness of body and garments. The disadvantage was the extra time required to lace both morning and night, rather than once per week. 

Much has been written about torturous practices of mothers tightening their daughter's corsets until they would faint from lack of oxygen. This may have been more wishful thinking on the part of those who derived satisfaction from the notion that the women went to great lengths to please the men. But this was less grounded in reality than imagined. The reality was and is, that corset compression produces very pleasurable sensations! Tightlacers reported that they would tightlace for these pleasurable feelings alone, and not just to improve their figures! And this may very well explain why some went to the extremes they did, and why today's individuals who have discovered corsets, do so again.  

The grace and beauty of Victorian women is still very appealing to the modern eye, which may explain in part why corseting is making such a come-back. Although some of the old myths persist, those that have ventured into this domain find that there are simply too many rewards for it to be left alone.
This is just not about oppression if it ever was, but about confidence, elegance and enjoyment.

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