Princess Maud of Wales, later Queen Maud of Norway (1869-1938).
"I can't breathe just looking at this!"
"Beautiful but ouch!"
"painful just looking at it"
"I'm glad that isn't the style now"
"I read that women were so desirous of hour glass figures that they would have their lower two ribs removed."
"Who's got a waist that size?!"
"Eek! Look at that waist."
"Again, breathing is optional."
"Bet she was glad to get that off"
"What a gorgeous dress hate to have my waist pulled in so small to wear it though"
"No lady who lived at that time ever drew a deep breath. They looked fabulous, however!"
"My waistline is laughing hysterically, but gosh how sweet."
"My sister Rosemary had an 18" waist."
"No wonder they had fainting fits. ;-)"
"Exquisite, but I bet it was horribly uncomfortable to wear!"
The photograph above shows a celebrity fashion icon.
She's wear bust and hip padding, a choker to increase the size of her neck, and another long necklace to visually frame her waist. She's also wearing a corset.
Hi, I'm Cathy, and I'm an Internet troll.
Yes, I'm afraid I have become That Person. Lately I have been peppering social media with comments like "She couldn't breathe? Why? Where are YOUR lungs?"
Since I don't want to be that angry, anonymous voice in the darkness, let me stop spitting feathers at unsuspecting strangers, and make a more considered effort.
I'm a costume maker and a historical fashion enthusiast. I don't wear corsets every day, I don't believe that corsets should be re-introduced for everyone, and I don't want to give the vote back. But I do believe that the corset has an unduly negative reputation.
I am not a fetishist, an anti-feminist or a nutcase. But I can't abide presentism - the temptation to judge the women of the past unfairly by the standards of today - and I abhor the exaggeration that does both our ancestors and ourselves a disservice.
CP "a la Sirène" corset, 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. C.I.46.27.6
The corset and women's rights
Every fashion era ridicules the last in order to justify its fickle demands, but our era has been particularly unkind to the corset. In the popular psyche, the demise of the corset is so firmly anchored to the advent of women's rights that a mere undergarment has become a potent symbol of the bad old days.
In a century-long game of Telephone (or Chinese Whispers, depending on where you grew up), the corset has been sensationalised beyond all reason. A garment that was once designed to support the breasts, smooth the figure, encourage it closer to the fashionable shape, and distribute the weight of long skirts has become an instrument of unspeakable, constant torture.
The way that a corset's adjustable lacing could be misused has led us to imagine that no woman took a breath for five hundred years of history. It's just so tempting to gossip about sixteen inch waists, rib removal, and fainting couches - I needn't re-address those myths with more than a link. But is this fair?
Since our great grandmothers are not here to defend themselves, there's no limit on us embellishing, exaggerating, and underestimating their experience... and overestimating our own. How pleased we are with ourselves! How glad we are that we don't have to live like THAT! But are we really seeing the past clearly?
The Tyranny of the High Heel: Imagining the future
Imagine, for a moment, that in the next hundred years, high heeled shoes are phased out completely. Those of us who never wear heels finally convince the rest of us that the damage to both our feet and our posture is not worth the sexy, empowered feeling that a great pair of shoes can give us.
The stiletto becomes obsolete. The wedge gathers dust. The court shoe is a relic, and the kitten heel utters its last meow. Our daughters and granddaughters look back on us with smug satisfaction. How lucky they are!
Our grandmothers had to wear heels for work or risk being fired. Models were tumbling all over the runways of the past. Do you know that women struggled and strived to wear Five! Inch! Heels! Good grief! How did they walk in those things? I tried it once for a play set in that era, and it's impossible! Poor, oppressed dears, doomed to totter through their lives! Ouch! How painful! Poor feet! What torture! I'm so glad we aren't forced to wear those abominations! How clever we are to be permanently in flatties!
And yet... we will not be there to tell them that no-one forced us to wear those shoes. In fact, they actually made us feel good. Sure, we wanted to take them off by the end of the day, but some of us thought it was worth it. A few people like killer heels, but they certainly weren't for everyone. We all wore shoes, but most of us wore less than two inch heels, some less than one, and rarely did we go higher.
As a historical relic, the high heeled shoe would become a sensationalised horror story too. Pictures of celebrities in sky high footwear would be imagined to represent everyone, because it's just so tempting to exaggerate... and the true story of our real lives would become distorted beyond reason.
Corsetry used as a symbol of non-consensual restriction in Titanic.
If you made this gif, please let me know so that I can credit you.
The Fantasy and the Reality
This is where my problem lies. From Gone With The Wind to Pirates of the Caribbean, have you noticed how popular culture tells us repeatedly that corsets were always laced painfully tight?
- Rose's mother tugs cruelly on her corset laces in Titanic in a visual metaphor for their conversation about her forced marriage - a metaphor that reinforces our shared popular assumption that corsetry was - by design - painful and non-consensual.
- Pirates of the Caribbean's Elizabeth Swann falls off a cliff because her stays are sooo tight, and later spits out the ridiculous "You like pain? Try wearing a corset!"
- Even outside the easy target of blockbuster movies, in this museum exhibition, notice how the clothing is described with an impartial, academic eye - except for the "bosom-crushing" corset of the 1840s. I've tried to find an 1840s corset that crushes anything at all in the busticular department, and I've failed. Nope, it's enormous bust gussets as far as the eye can see.
When we believe the hype, we imagine every one of our real ancestors, poor, stupid dears, tightlacing themselves into constant torture. We forget how years of gradual practice, clever cut and construction, and the illusion created by big skirts, sleeves, hats, and hair did much of the heavy lifting. We forget how tightlacing was an unusual, extreme, and even fetishised practice. We choose not to notice that shocking surviving photographs show actresses and aristocrats peddling unrealistic beauty standards that are directly analagous to today's Kardashian ideals. It's left to re-enactors and curious alternative fashionistas to make a real corset, put it on, and notice how it supports the bust from beneath, improves the posture, and when fitted well and worn correctly, feels... kind of awesome, actually.
In short, popular culture blows the true story way out of proportion. But that happens in every era; we have always exaggerated and ridiculed past fashions. What's the big deal?
The big deal is the damage done to ourselves. By pitying our ancestors and distancing ourselves from the "bad old days", we ignore the parallels in our own era, and minimise our own fashion issues.
French singer and actress Émilie Marie Bouchaud or "Polaire" (1874-1939). Reputed to have had a 16" waist,
she is often wheeled out today as a symbol of the "bad old days", forgetting the fact that she was a tiny celebrity
who used her extreme appearance to shock and attract attention. She was the size zero of her day.
Did corsets die at all?
I do not deny the reality or the benefit of the Rational Dress movement. Many women did want to move away from corsetry in the late nineteenth century - and discard long skirts and high collars too. They found their clothing (as a whole) more restrictive than they would have liked, and fashion eventually followed their preference. Great strides were made, and here I sit in my jeans, grateful.
But we are too quick to gloss over the fact that the ill effects that the dress reformers opposed did not die with the corset, as they intended; they simply sprung back up in another form. When we balk at the corset and congratulate ourselves on our progress, it's easy to forget the red marks on our shoulders from suspending the weight of our breasts from our neck and shoulders, instead of supporting them from underneath and standing tall. We wouldn't leave the house without our bras any more than they left the house without their corsets - and that observation, if you'll excuse the expression, is just the low hanging fruit. I haven't even started on unrealistic beauty standards.
Let me just say this: When Amelia Bloomer put on one of the first pairs of women's trousers, she did not intend the 21st century to feel entitled to look at every detail of her descendants' butts in leggings all day - and to dictate what size and shape those butts ought to be.
(Mark my words, ladies, that ass had better be acceptable - not through padding, or bustle, but through religious adherence to the correct diet and exercise regime. Better not eat that cake when you're alone, Fashion is watching you! How's that for restrictive and tortuous? Never mind, if the diet and exercise don't work, forget the myth of rib removal - in 2017 you really can resort to surgery - and we really do! Hooray, we're free! Long live modern fashion!)
The mindset that expected the illusion of a small waist did not die; it just shifted inwards from our clothes to our bodies themselves. Nowadays we are free to sweat and slouch in shapeless polyester (um, hooray?), but I'd guess that my great grandmother would take her bust improver and corset over breast augmentation and "bikini body" pressure. At least she could take her unrealistic beauty standards off before bed.
By demonising the corset, we minimise the (arguably greater) problems of our own era and project them into the past, instead of comparing and contrasting with a critical eye, and asking what progress still needs to be made. We shouldn't be so smug when we judge our forbears. Corsets were not instruments of torture, and we did not leave restrictive fashion behind at all. We just internalised it. Ouch!!