Monday, July 29, 2013

Instruments of Torture? Turn of the Century Corsetry

by Abigail Cucolo
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Corsets and girdles have been used for centuries to mold women’s (and sometimes men’s) figures into the fashionable shape of the times. We recently put two corsets on display as part of an exhibit on undergarments. The desired silhouettes they helped achieve are dramatically different.

During the Victorian period, the fashionable ideal of a “well developed bust, a tapering waist and large hips” resulted in a mature, firmly restricted silhouette. A split-metal busk at the front for dressing convenience and narrow boning that did away with shoulder straps created a curvaceous design. Extending from mid-bosom to lower torso and supported by a steam-set shape that emphasized the hips and raised the bust, the corset pushed the bulk of the flesh up and down creating the fashionable hourglass silhouette.

While wool corsets were worn for warmth, fashion often trumped function as the 1880s saw finer materials dominating corset construction. Sometimes seen as a rebellion against the severe moral attitude and prim exterior of Victorian society, corsets became increasingly embellished and seductive. Colorful, lace-trimmed, embroidered designs in fine silks, lawns, and muslins became the most sought after models.

With the rise of the health and dress reform movements, there was a great amount of controversy surrounding the corset. Advocates for reform protested against the harmful effects of this “instrument of torture.” They believed that the tight lacing crushed the ribcage, displaced and damaged the internal organs, and caused disease. Many argued to go corsetless, but that was seen as particularly indecent by prudish Victorian society, so more flexible, breathable designs with straps to relieve the weight from the waist and hips appeared. They were not as popular, however, and the mainstream corset remained an intricately boned, strapless hourglass.

Corset (1883-1895) from the
Victoria & Albert Museum T.84-1980
During the Bustle period, a new feature was introduced that attempted to bridge the gap between fashion and health- the spoon busk. With a shape that carved the stomach inward then expanded to cup the lower abdomen, this new busk was thought to keep the waist tight without pressing on the internal organs. It became the favorite model by the 1880s; however, its “improved” design did not lessen the harmful effects. Despite complaints by doctors and reformers, corsets became even more tightly laced throughout the 1890s as Victorian fashion made its last and most severe hurrah before the Edwardian period ushered in a new silhouette. 

When the year 1901 arrived, a fresh look was in fashion that contrasted remarkably to the stiff, architectural silhouette of the previous decades. The figure was molded into an elegant, flowing s-curve by the new straight busk corset. Because of its straight front and long line, the bosom was pushed forward while the hips were thrust back, arching the spine and forming the fashionable shape (the forward tilt of a women’s torso could be so severe, that many women used canes or parasols for balance). This new corset was supposed to be more healthful than the late Victorian model. 

Mme. Ines Gaches-Sarraute was a French corsetiere with a degree in medicine who is credited with the creation of the straight busk corset. She believed that the hourglass corset suppressed the bust, while the spoon busk forced the organs downwards. The straight busk, on the other hand, would support the abdomen and relieve the waist and the bosom by beginning below the breasts. In actuality, this corset allowed for even tighter cinching than any corset before and did not offer any support to the chest. The bust line, therefore, was low and emphasized the fashionable pigeon breasted, mono-bosom look of the time.

While the intentions to improve the corset and make it less destructive were respectable, they were misguided. The straight busk corset simply created new problems for the body. That elegant s-curve caused back, breathing, and knee (hyperextension) difficulties, resulting in the most harmful design yet through the fashionable extremes of a tiny waist and forced figure.

Though physically taxing, the corset as it had been known would not disappear in everyday-wear until WWI, after which women would wear more flexible corset like girdles to achieve the fashionable silhouette of the day. Even now we have not escaped the pressure to fit our bodies into a fashionable ideal- internalizing the corset through diet and exercise. And when that doesn’t work- hey, there’s always Spanx! 

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying at one of the Fountainhead Hotels. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!

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