Past Blast Tuesday: Fashion Nightmares, Part 1 – The Corset


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Corset 1878 

Photo Credit: Hourglass corset, 1878: Anetode/ Wikimedia Commons / CC PD Mark

The next 3 Past Blast Tuesday posts are going to be about fashion nightmares from the past.

I was inspired by an article  that recently appeared on the Huff Post Women website. The article refers to the new fitness trend called a “waist training” belt. It struck me how this belt looks very much like the corsets that women wore in the 19th century and people’s the concerns about them are not unlike those held during the 19th century.

The corset was an undergarment worn by women (and men as well, though less frequently and for a shorter period of time in history). Its main purpose was to provide the idealistic “hourglass figure” that was thought to be so attractive at that time. The gist of the corset is cinching the waist while making the most of the bust and hips.

The way in which 19th century corsets were constructed (especially during the last quarter or so of the century, when corsetry was at its peek), it was indeed a fashion nightmare. One of the most unforgettable scenes for me from the film Gone With The Wind (1939) is when a post-baby Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is clutching a bedpost while her maid Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) is pulling tight at the laces of a corset, her voice booming, “Hold on… and suck in!”

Leigh and McDaniel GWTW

Photo Credit: Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939): BudCat14/Ross/ Flickr  / CC BY 2.0

Women wore corsets because the fashion at the time called for blooming skirts, cinched waists, and thrusting busts. Some women, to be sure, did not wear corsets (such as working class women, who needed the kind of freedom of movement that a corset could not give to do their work), but any woman who was fashionable, chaste, and proper would never think of venturing past her front door without one. When properly laced, they also helped a woman keep her posture, her manners, and her composure.

But it seems that the corset did more harm than good for many women. Proponents of the corset controversy  insisted that corsets caused physical damage to women, internally and externally. Some doctors even blamed “womanly” ailments (such as fainting spells, nervousness, and hysteria) on corsets. This might not have always been far off the mark. Consider that a tightly laced corset restricted not only movement of the body but also of the lungs and heart and the theory was that this caused the dizzy spells and fainting that we read so much about in 19th century fiction.

In addition, many believed that corsets promoted feminine vanity and sexual fantasies. A woman was believed to look more attractive and provocative with a corset and such thinking made some women preoccupied and even obsessed with their appearance.

One thing that struck me was how the corset wasn’t just about constraining women physically but also psychologically. As I mentioned in my blog post on the separate spheres  , women were thought to be the weaker sex, both physically and psychologically and in constant need of care and support. A woman in a corset could do little more than stand or sit demurely and more athletic pursuits such as running, jumping, and bike riding were out of the question. A woman restricted in her movements was also restricted in her thoughts and ideas.

Pougy L'Art D'etre Jolie Pic Isolated

English translation of the caption: “It supports the weak and contains the strong”

Photo Credit: Liane De Pougy, L’art d’etre Jolie, 1904: Haabet/ Wikimedia Commons / CC PD Old ; image modified to include  the picture and caption.

As I mentioned above, it was the last quarter of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th when corsets became, ironically, more rather than less restrictive. I say ironically because this is when the rise of the suffragist movement and the New Woman began to emerge. Not to be outdone, the suffragist movement had as one of its components the idea of dress reform. It actually began in the mid-19th century with the idea of the “bloomer”, which didn’t really take off until about 40 years later (well after Amelia Bloomer, one of its designers, had died). Dress reform suffragists and others of the movement advocated lighter undergarments that put less of a strain on a woman’s figure than the corset as well as sports clothing that women could wear to move in when the popularity of athletics began to take shape after the turn of the 20th century.

I won’t argue the point of whether the new waist training belts or even the corsets of today have the same physical and psychological effects on women as they did in the 19th century since, thankfully, fashion and technology have come a long way. But I do think that if we consider the fashions of yesteryear that we don’t necessarily want to bring back today, the corset is at the top of the list.

Next week, I’ll be talking about another fashion nightmare, the petticoat.

Further Reading: (a nice article that goes into a lot more detail about corsets throughout the 19th and early 20th century) (an interesting article about men’s corsets)