Corsets must rank with foot-binding in “not made by or for women” fashion history. But the search for wasp waists and swan-curve backs did call up the ingenuity of Victorian engineers – and some benighted attempts to make these armatures more healthy – or less devastating. Consider:
- “Electric corsets” of the late 1870’s claimed to use the “healthy” effects of magnetic bands running up and down the body.
- Dr. Gustave Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen Corset of natural, undyed wool were reinforced with heavy cording rather than whalebone struts. Wool was better for the skin said Dr. Jaeger.
- The Edwardian swan or “S” curve forced the upper body forward and the hips back for balance, but at least did not constrict the ribs as mightily as the predecessor, “pinch the waist” corsets.
- The clever corset/ bustle combination of the 1884 “New Phantom” affixed steel wires to a pivot which folded while sitting and zinged back into place when you stood up.
- Not a corset but I can’t resist a promo of the Queen Victoria Golden Jubilee bustle with a music box that played “God Save the Queen” when derriere hit the chair.
No question corsets were deforming, painful, hot and unhealthy. These facts were well known at the time. Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece (1890) observes: “The ladies never seemed at ease…. For their dresses were always made too tight, and the bodices wrinkled laterally from the strain; and their stays showed in a sharp ledge across the middle of their backs. And in spite of whalebone, they were apt to bulge below the waist in front; for, poor dears, they were but human after all, and they had to expand somewhere.”
But some points of reality bear noting. The great mass of women in the 1880’s did not wear extreme corsets, or any corset at all. They worked on farms, shops, factories or long hours at home. The wife of a New York City streetcar driver, working 14-16 hours for $1.75 a day, of which $4 per week went to rent, was not wearing the red sateen corset pictured here. The spoofers of the freakish wasp waist that leads this blog (and women like Sofia in my novel) had their way. By the turn of the century, corsets and bustles were old hat, so very 19th century.
And finally, those elegant period etchings of gentlewomen strolling in Central Park with their wasp waists and swan backs were no more representative of the typical gentlewoman than the airbrushed, Photo Shopped models in glossy magazines resemble today’s young women strolling any street (or mall).
Victoria and Albert Museum, “The secret history of the corset and crinoline”