Corsetted Victorians and others – myths and reality

1851-60 blue ribbed silk corset, Museum of London Prints. Image Number 002188

1851-60 blue ribbed silk corset, Museum of London Prints. Image Number 002188

“Oh my, this must hurt – how do you breathe in this?!” –  Many re-enactors, (and modern corset wearers), will recognize that remark, whether as a comment under a picture or spoken at an event.  I have heard my fill over the last few years, when dressed in Victorian kit, and the discussions that followed were equally interesting and illuminating for both parties.

Recently I have been browsing through Pinterest boards looking for images  of 1895 corsets, and noticed several nice pictures – yet it was not the pictures that captured my attention, rather the comments and descriptions below that were even more arresting…..

Just a few examples:

* ‘They are lovely, but so uncomfortable’ ( on this pin )

* ‘This is a victorian corset which was used to create the perfect hourglasss figure. This is gorgeous but I can’t imagine wearing it. No wonder Victorian women passed out all the time! …They couldn’t breathe ‘ ( on this )

*’Vintage 1910-1918 Fashion Corsets….women used to be laced up so tight in these corsets that they sometimes endured cracked ribs…..can’t imagine! All for the sake of having a tiny waist….’ ( on this pin)

*’how many ribs do you think had to be removed so the ladies could wear this torture device?’ ( on this pin)

*Talk about taking appearance to extremes! In the 18th – 19th century, it was fashionable to either surgically remove smaller rib bones or crush the waistline into an impossibly small size in order to achieve a “waspish” waist. Incredibly dumb!’  ( on this)

There are more, but no doubt you get the idea…
😦

Well,  I have been wearing corsets for work and for going out for the last 7 years – and earlier-period stays for even longer…. I have also been making Victorian, Edwardian and modern corsets for the last 7  years ( I think I’ve made about 200  altogether)  so have managed to learn a bit about the history of corsets and their day-to-day use….

Let us have a look at a few popular myths.

90ties

1898 Print Victorian Woman Spring Toilette Fashion Clothing Costume Dress Hat

 ‘Their waists were tiny!’

Some of them, probably yes – there are always people with  smaller waists, especially when tight-lacing,  but by no means was that the norm.

*Extant corsets have  waist measurements from roughly 18″ to 30″ or more – and considering that they were not meant to be worn closed but with 2″ gap, and allowing 2-4″ tissue displacement (the so-called “squish” factor), the original waist circumference could be anything from 22″ to 40″ or more. Jennifer  from Historical Sewing explains it very well in her own blog.

*optical illusion factor – crinolines, bustles, hip pads, bug sleeves, sloping shoulders and V-shaped blouse cut and decoration – with these, it was easier to emphasize the waist, which looked smaller when contrasted with hide hips and/or shoulders.

*extant clothing and corsets are usually small –  this is true, but again, there may be several explanations for the fact that it is the smaller items that have survived to the present day:

primo –  people did tend to be just a tad shorter than nowadays – so different proportions…

secundo – and that is just my theory – it seems to me that a lot of surviving clothes belonged to teenagers and very your ladies. I have owned, handled and seen a great deal of the clothing  with labels pronouncing that they belonged to ‘Miss Smith’ or ‘Miss Brown’ – so at that time mostly unmarried, young women  (of course there were exceptions). Since they were only worn for a limited time, once young miss outgrew them, (or got married and had babies etc), they were stored ready to be handed down as necessary to the next generation. Clothes that were worn by grown-ups don’t seem to survive that well – mostly because they were worn much more thoroughly, but also because they were remodeled, restyled, etc, so that the original gown could be used for many years.
This is  just a theory, discussed with a few fellow costumiers, but there might be a little truth to it too – I would be interested in other people’s opinions!

*photoshop. No, really –  at least the Victorian/Edwardian version of it.  Most of the fashion plates from that era are drawings. It is easy to draw a tiny waist…. The reality however is a bit different.  A quick search on Pinterest of Google images will show just as much – or better still, a book I happen to have here – Victorian Costume for Ladies 1860-1900, with over 350 original photographs. Yes, there were  a few tiny waists in evidence (  and let us bear in mind that early attempts at editing was already done – by taking the photograph, concealing unwanted bits and taking the photograph of the  retouched original – an excellent blog post on Victorian/edwardian photo shopping by Cynthia from Redthreaded   here), but looking at the photographs  from the era you will find that the majority of ladies are far from willowy. They look natural, with comfortable sizes of 10-18 or more….. the book is amazing, and recommended! Below a few snaps from the book:

IMG_20141219_180838 IMG_20141219_181011 IMG_20141219_180635 IMG_20141219_180756

Also, interestingly enough, have a look at  the  Victorian burlesque dancers –  the lovely ladies are definitely  much more substantial than our “size 0” models…..

burlesque fairies

The chorus of fairies in the burlesque Ariel, Gaiety Theatre, London, 8 October 1883

The fact is also  backed up by the original patterns – they encompass a variety of sizes. I use  Francis Grimble’s books a lot, and if you have a look and do some maths, you will see that many garments  are not that small waisted at all. Plus the names are rather endearing – ‘ a jacket for a stout lady’, or ‘a bodice for a medium size  lady’, ‘a bodice for well-developed ladies’, ‘bodice with narrow shoulders and back’ – etc. A superb resource!

All together I think we can safely agree that  the incredibly small waist myth is just that – a bit of a myth….

 Corsets are so uncomfortable! 

This is very true, as most of the ladies who ever bought a modern generic size cheap corset can say….  Ill fitted corsets can be a torture – I have had the dubious ‘pleasure’ of trying on a few of the corsets-UK modern items,  and though no doubt there are women who will find the fit comfortable,  for me it was a very painful experience – and not because of the waist measurements.  It is usually  the hip and rib part that is too small – not enough hip spring can be very uncomfortable! As a result, I ended up in a ‘corset tube’, which did not reduce my waist, but rather pinched my hips and ribs…

However a well-fitted corset can be a real blessing.  I am a comfortable size 12, with 34F bust, and I find Victorian and Edwardian corsets a pleasure to wear.  My natural waist is 34″ and I usually lace to 27-28″  if I know I am wearing the corset for a whole day. They support my bust from underneath – so my shoulders don’t ache from carrying the burden.  They help me maintain my posture – this is a godsend  especially for markets and events when I have to be standing for long periods – for example, the last 2 weekends I spent working with the public, standing for 6 hours with a short lunch break. Normally my lower back would be screaming – but in corset I could feel the comfort of the ‘exoskeleton’, keeping me upright and supporting my back…

Also, in the last few months I have been suffering from costocondritis – a painful condition of the ribs ( connective tissue), that made wearing a modern bra impossible – the band sits just on the painful parts.   But a corset, laced just enough to support the bust from underneath was a real blessing – as a result I ended up wearing mine for a few weeks daily, just in order to work – and only swapped for a soft bralette once the acute stage subsided.

Corsets and Tunics Dec 16 (58)

this is my favourite corset from the days when my ribs ache a lot – a replica of corded 1850s one.

 

47. at Holkham (4)

at work…. 🙂

LJP_6523

early edwardian corset 27″ waist

Why the difference between the modern and traditional corsets? Apart from the fit issues, the style is also important – modern corsets are usually overbust, designed to be worn on their own.  Historical pieces are usually mid-bust –  and a well fitted  corset squeezes the waist, but accommodates the rib-cage and supports the bust without compressing one’s lungs (so normal breathing is not impaired). Mid bust corsets are more comfortable to wear as they do not ‘ride up’ like many modern overbust corsets when sitting. 🙂

Some Victorian corset feature a spoon busk –  which is  gently rounded, accommodating the belly ( the famous fashionable rounded belly of the time!), so the internal organs were  comfy, but the support and fashion was achieved at the same time,

I have recently made a replica of a 1880 one – and it is one of the most comfortable corsets i have ever owned.

 

Victorian Dressmaker (85)

 

Of course, the materials used for quality corsets which can be used everyday are very different to the plastic-boned viscose jacquards available in mass produced versions….

Let’s remember that corsets were worn every day, all day and women were not sitting idly looking pretty.  They walked, danced, worked, rode, played sports – all in corsets. True, sport corsets were shorter (especially important for riding), but still, they were all practical garments… In fact we now have a group showing people doing a variety of activities in corsets ( Corsets in Action)

In my Victorian corset I have danced  ( video here), skated

47.trying on the ice rink - fail....

and ridden side saddle.. in a mock up  first –

7. side view of the mock up - back just a bit too high

8. mock up in action - sides half an inch too high, and digging into armipts when riding - mark the arms position

and in a proper habit

LJP_3182

It is also a myth that you cannot bend in a corset as it is impossible to bend from the waist. Well,  try bending from the waist without one –  you won’t go far…. Humans are designed to bend from the hips!!

A brief demo – my apologies for the style of the pictures but grabbed my corset as I was writing this article and took some pictures to show  that it is possible to bend…

IMG_20141219_185655

corset worn on modern clothes, laced to 27.5 waist – the size of my Victorian clothing

IMG_20141219_185706

side view

IMG_20141219_185747

starting to bend from the hips

IMG_20141219_185716

IMG_20141219_185723

touching the floor. not the most comfortable position , and usually can go further, but sort of makes a point. warning, dont try at home if you are not naturally bendy! 🙂 If you need to pick something up, crouch down instead of bending – healthier and easier….

Voila!  🙂

And so, in my opinion if the corset is well fitted, laced properly (not too tightly), it can be very comfortable. This  refers to both modern and historical wear – well-made corsets will support your back and bust and won’t crush your ribs.
True, if you are wearing a corset just for a photo-shoot, it is OK to lace tightly- I can get to 24″) for fashion corsets, but then I don’t spend a day wearing them…

IMG_00000510

natural waist 33″

IMG_00000521

corseted waist 24″. Here a lovely underbust by Clessidra Couture

 

 

 No wonder women fainted all the time! 

Here there is some truth to it – but this mostly refers to the lightheaded feeling you can get if you take off your corset too fast, after wearing it for a long time… As the blood rushes down more abruptly, it is indeed possible to swoon…. so gradual lacing  and unlacing is recommended.

It may also have happened if your fashionable women laced too tightly….. more for a fashion’s sake than practical.
😉

Women had ribs surgically removed!

With surgery as dangerous as it was in Victorian times?  with no antibiotics to battle the infection? Really very, very doubtful…. plus, again, neither medical or the photographic evidence doesn’t really  support it…

Corsets deformed silhouette and caused medical problems

This can be very true if laced excessively, I dare say. Yes, your body will change if you are a trained tightlacer, and wear a corset from early on. We are all familiar with the drawings showing how the organs move and ribs deform and there may be some truth in it. At the same time many of us have seen modern MRI imagery of a corset being worn – and as it turns out it is not as bad as we thought, with the organs being moved in exactly the same way pregnancy would affect them – here the results of the experiment as presented by Lucy Corsetry

 

Also, corsets did not cause pneumonia, colds, consumption etc. You need viruses, bacteria or fungi to cause the infection in the first place. As for the argument that you breathe differently with a corset on – If you do, then the corset doesn’t fit you properly. Opera singers wore them on stage, singing their hearts out…. 🙂

I do however think that if you wore a corset day in and day out, unless you stayed active, you were in serious danger of suffering from muscle atrophy. Corset supports you very well ( many people with back problems find them  great for pain relief!), but it does all the work your lumbar and core muscles usually do. So unless you are an active person and keep in shape, using the muscles,  prolonged  use of corset will weaken the muscles. Also, an interesting point, discussed with a medical friend as a possibility – many more women than today suffered from prolapsed uterus  – usually after the birth. The reason may be just that – long use of corset, weak muscles, especially in the late stages of pregnancy –  and bad things may have happened. Again, just a theory here.

Still,  usually women did stay more active than we nowadays believe –  and so managed to keep at least some reasonable strength in their core muscles ( horseriding was great for that !).

Well, I think I’d better stop – if you have any other remarks or comments, please do so, very interested in others’ opinions and experiences!

Further reading

Our youtube video, showing Victorian activities in corsets – here

 

A great article with more references by Johanna  Goldberg : Did corsets harm women
Lovely article by Historical Sewing – here

…and a comprehensive read on the myths are covered here and a few more – by  Yesterday’s Thimble – here

…also, an interesting article by the  Pragmatic Costumer – here

Hope you can find the article useful – best wishes from Izabela of Prior Attire!

63 thoughts on “Corsetted Victorians and others – myths and reality

  1. Just to further help your cause… I can agree whole heartedly that wrong corsets are horrible!! I am a 32DDD, 33, 42… and most off the rack corsets do next to noting for my waist… but do manage to squish my hips and ribs terribly. Not to mention the wretched squish out it causes. I can also say that in a 186o’s era corset.. i have played basketball with my brothers, camped out, and hiked in a place called “devils den” (aptly named… wretched place).. and this corset being one of my own creation i dropped my waist to a 26, with no aches and pains… in fact i dare say I had less aches at the end of those days than i do on a regular day.

  2. I may like to add another historical aspect into the whole argument that ladies constantly fainted due to the corsets (which we can say was most definitely not the definite). During the earlier time period when gas lighting was introduced into homes you were bound to have some leaks, they were more common than you would think. If a fixture was improperly maintained or installed improperly in a home a gas leak could occur, this leak could cause the inhabitants of a room (due to over exposure) to faint. If you had a tight lacer wearing an ill fitting corset (constricting the ladies breathing) it would be the ultimate recipe for fainting spells and misrepresentation that it was strictly the corset’s fault and not the lighting fixtures.

    • I think that sounds plausible. A couple of years ago I attended an 18th century ball and there was an accident with the fireplace and the room was filled with smoke. I was not laced hard at all, but my body rebelled when oxygen became scarce and I nearly fainted and had to remove my stays for the rest of the evening. Only time I have ever had any trouble laced!

  3. Bravo! There can never be enough articles debunking those myths!

    Many years ago I saw an exhibition in Sweden were almost a whole late 19th Century wardrobe of a well to do lady whas shown. I found it very interesting that her ball gowns were about 4 inchjes smaller in the waist than her day gowns, clearly showing that the lady laced herself moderatly on a day to day basis and then went the whole hog for a party.

    • Add in that she was exerting herself with however much dancing, and having more alcohol than usual, and, like ladies today, may have eaten little during the day because of busy-ness, excitement, or the desire to tie her corset that little bit tighter, et voila! A fainting spell.

      • Plus also: not all fainting was medical. Some, maybe most, was tactical. Ladies were known to faint, so much so that how to faint, gracefully and so that your clothing didn’t become dislodged or your skirts end up revealing a disgraceful amount of leg, was taught in finishing schools or by mothers or governesses or your teenaged peers. Now, if one has actually passed out, none of this knowledge can be applied. Because one is unconscious. But if one is fainting to attract attention, or distract from something or someone else, or escape a conversation, or any number of other reasons, then this knowledge comes into play.

    • This also implies that women who were not so wealthy generally didn’t lace tightly at all–much like most women of the middle class and lower today don’t wear the kinds of things you see going to the Oscars and so forth.

  4. Interesting article! I have done quite a bit of research on corsets because I have been working on a novel that takes place in the 1800s, so I always enjoy information. Do you happen to know what happens when you are wearing a corset and you get completely wet? Or if women had different corsets for when they traveled? Either way, thanks for the interesting read!

    • thank you! as for your questions – wet corset’s lot will hugely depend on the boning. If whalebone or plastic equivalent – it will be fine. if steel, it will rust if left unattended, and will stain the fabric. I used a corset for a photoshoot in a pouring rain, and the aftercare meant undoing the binding and flossing along one edge, removing the bones, drying the corset, drying,oiling and cleaning the bones and re-inserting. The busk is a problem too, though most are nowadays made from stainless steal…
      travel corsets – if travelling by horseback, shorter or sport corsets were worn. if in a carriage or train, for shorter journeys normal corsets would do without any problem – similarly for longer ones though ( on a train where you can move and walk), but i wouldn’t be surprised if ladies wore the shorter corsets for comfort too!

  5. Have to say, I love the corseted look; not simply the thinner waist it gives me, but the smooth silhouette and the way I stand and move in it. Unfortunately my finances are just too tight to get a custom made corset, although I’d love one, but I’m lucky enough to find modern made, shop bought corsets very comfortable. Gradual lacing (half inch every half hour if need be) means I can lace fairly tightly and still find them comfortable for a whole day. And yes, I get the same questions: “how do you breathe? How can you move? Isn’t that ridiculously uncomfortable?”!

  6. This is a great post. Thanks! I do have to say though that I have actual testimony of ribs being removed. I heard it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. My great-grandmother talked about the lunacy of some women who had their bottom ribs removed. No pain medication, just cut, reach in, snip, and pull. It was a grisly description. My ggm was extremely practical and not one to go in for fancy or exaggeration at all, so I believe her account. She did say that it was not at all common.

    • thanks! I must admit i am a naturally very skeptical soul, so until i see hospital ledgers, I treat everything as hearsay…. after all we do gossip nowadays too, and some of the things we shear nowadays are tre – and some not. Interesting to hear though!

    • There is NO WAY people in the 19th or even most of the 20th century had ribs removed. That is a serious operation now and done under extreme circumstances such as to facilitate open heart surgery or to remove the bone due to bone cancer in that specific rib. The floating rib is fixed to the spine at the back so any removal of the rib cannot be done simply by “cutting, reaching in, snipping and then pulling”. The rib has to be physically broken and removed from the spine – which would require an operation on the back, near the spine to deal with the serious damage that would cause. In addition, the ribs protect the lungs so are very close to those lungs. To safely remove a rib, would put the lungs are great risk and even if the person survives (unlikely in the 19th century), would now mean the lungs would be unprotected in that area and wearing a corset then would be impossible.

      I know a man who did have a rib removed for one of those reasons 12 years ago. He was months recovering and was confined to bed for a very long time. He had 24 hour care for many months with the wound area being constantly monitored for any risk of infection. He was much weaker physically than he had been before.

      If a person before the 20th century had a rib removed it is likely they would have died. Anaesthesia was only discovered in the mid part of the period and was not controllable enough for the rest of the century to be of use in an major operation like this would be. If anaesthesia was not used, the pain alone would send the patient into severe shock and probably fatal shock, let alone the serious risk of loss of blood and subsequent infection setting in.

      In Valerie Steel’s book The Corset: A Cultural History (2001, Yale University Press), she researched this very myth and found no evidence that it happened in any medical literature of the time. I quote her here: “It would have been very difficult for a woman to find a physician willing to undertake such a hazardous procedure for cosmetic purposes. Histories of plastic surgery do not mention rib removal.”

      I doubt any woman would have been insane enough to have asked for this procedure….if they had, they may have found themselves in an insane asylum. Many women and men found themselves there for less.

      • Not to mention how firmly ribs are attached to muscle and other tissue, and the proximity to the thoracic and even abdominal cavities which makes infection quite catastrophic if these areas are compromised.

    • Rib removal actually happened as a last resort treatment for TB in the 1920s. It doesn’t make the waist smaller. Bodies don’t work that way!

  7. Just from your waist images alone, I am very curious how you manage to squeeze 10 inches out of your waist? You & I have approximately the same size waist & I absolute LOVE the corset for the relief I get from back pain of far far too many car accidents – as passenger – (young & stupid days). I adore the late 1870s attire & have been making some for myself as a regular day-wear.

    Also you talk of spring steel as a boning? do you have any images that I could see that would help me when I go to get some? Also where is the best place to get it? I used plastic boning in my first 2 corsets, but when the plastic bent too badly – from my own body heat – it became impossible to wear. Now I just put it on when the back pain is at its worst.

    I live in Canada so I do not have the same shopping options available. I am open to ideas & suggestions. I also have a very very very snug budget. Love the article & that you took the time to dispel many of the myths.

    • If you live in Canada, then Farthingales is the source you need to check out. http://www.farthingalescorsetmakingsupplies.com/Default.asp. Spring steel is a flat, coated steel “bone” with a good amount of back and forth flex. Spiral steel has all-direction flex. Farthingales also has some very good tutorials and corset-making information. They sell everything you need to make a corset, from patterns to coutil to bone tape. I’ve ordered from them frequently, and I live in the U.S. Luckily the now have a U.S. retail partner. If steel bones are too expensive, go to your local hardware store/big box home supply store and look for 1/2-inch-wide, 36-inch-long plastic cable/duct ties. Not electrical ties: cable or duct ties. They’re better than the plastic boning products sold in sewing shops, and very affordable. They are heavy duty, and resist heat well enough that (unless you’re wearing a corset made with them every single day) they won’t form themselves to your lumps and bumps–unlike plastic boning. I use them in my Regency-era stays because they’re lighter than steel, but for a Victorian-era corset, steel is the best option.

  8. Thank you, great info! I love corsets and have few for costumes, but I always worried about how much they might weaken my back muscles – I’m in my fifties, already have disc hernia and I feel so much better when a corset is supporting my back, especially for a long day on feet. The flattering look actually is the secondary thing for me.

  9. I found corsets helped me walk again after issues with child birth and were far better than the giant tuby grip the hospital gave me and looked nicer. But I found people were horrified I’d squeezed into them so soon after having a baby – I had both separated pelvis and muscles. And I know other women have found the same with their pregnancies and after affects.

  10. just a minor detail to a great and ever so interesting article, but thought you may be interested in the fact that Miss did not denote and unmarried woman, but more a woman of low status. ergo, an unmarried business owner would have been a Mrs, but her married housekeeper a Miss.

    🙂

    • I’d be fascinated to learn where your information is from. It directly contradicts all literature I’ve read from the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian periods. Are you referring to titles from an earlier period? I’m admittedly less well read in those.

      • hello there – which particular in=formatuon you’d like clarified? most of what I was writing on refers directly to Victorians nad Edwardian styles and comes from studying extant examples ( both in compendium books or in the museums, and the sizes of the garments are no secret) and from period patterns for clothes and corsetry ( again a huge variety of sizes exists – see Francis Grimble’s books, Janet Arnold’s, Jill Salen’s to name just a few). Practical issues are mostly dealt with by actually making replicas of the corsets and wearing them – by myself as well as my clients and fellow historians. As for literature of the times being a source of factual information – well, I read English at the uni and got my MA in English literature – and during my time there I learnt that although the pieces can and do provide us with some invaluable information about he life in the era, it is worthwhile researching it further and confirming it, especially as far as the fictional literature is concerned – after all, we do not believe everything modern writers write about our times, do we? 🙂 Yes tiny waist were fashionable and there were the few lucky ones who had the figure for it, and lots of others tried to achieve it too – but looking at the plethora of data available from the patterns, garments and photographs, most women wore corsets from 16inch waist to 40 inch waist – so a huge range of sizes here, pretty much like our own society…
        What particular information are you referring to, if i may ask?

      • Oh, dear, I seem to have replied incorrectly. I wasn’t asking about the information from the post, which was excellent and taught me a lot. I was trying to ask the commenter about the information on “Miss” vs “Mrs.” They wrote that these titles applied to social status rather than marital status.

  11. when I do steampunk 101 panels I suggest women start out with corsets that are comfortably snug, and to keep their bra on underneath. It helps keep your boobs up higher and you can keep the corset a bit looser until you get used to them. And victorian women did in fact pad their hips and boobs to get a better figure. One of my vintage reprints has pattern pieces to make boob and hip pads

  12. Mom was a seamstress and i have done costuming of various types my entire life, add in that in my family a d cup is considered small. Now being a guy i have little personal experience with a corset ( save a stint as frank in rocky horror which REALLY doesn’t count) but as a builder of things and father of of voluptuous ladies, few things have angered me more than the modern worlds constant belief that a bra was EVER a good idea, if you need to support something you make gravity work for you, i’ve made bodices and few corsets and when they are well made the ladies wearing them not only had fewer head and back aches, but felt more confidant. ALL of your points were excellent and valid… i would love to see functional corseting make a come back just for the health of the more curvaceous members of the human race,

    • Cat, a bra is SUPPOSED to support from below, as well–specifically, from the band. The straps aren’t intended to support the breasts, just to keep the cups from shifting out of place. Unfortunately, we live in a world of ready-to-wear clothing that fits very few people well, so most women are wearing bras that don’t fit them right, and the weight of the fat sacks we call breasts hangs from the shoulders. I found this out personally when I was in my mid-twenties–I am a DDD/F cup–and I went to a bra boutique instead of a department store. I was measured properly by someone who knew what she was doing, and fit into a bra that suited me the best–smaller band size, larger cup. I have been able to wear my bras without putting the shoulder straps up ever since, even the soft-cup bras. The straps rub and itch under my pits, so I don’t generally wear them that way, but I CAN, with no backaches or headaches.

      I still prefer a custom corset, but that’s because I LOVE what they do for the lumps and bumps….

  13. I’d like to point out that from what I’ve seen, “fainting couches” appear to have been more common in warmer climates (the American South, for example). I believe woman feinted frequently during the Victorian times not due to corsets, but due to the sheer amount they were wearing. Layers and layers of fabrics, often tight around the midsection – it was heat exhaustion! (Not to mention it was seen as a very feminine thing to do, so much of it may have been exaggerated).

    • oooh yes! I was wearing a cotton and silk overbust, with polyester knee length petticoat, under a simple cotton dress to a friends wedding last summer… turns out she was having it in a gorgeous 1800’s chapel with no air-con… it got to 42 degrees Celsius that day. I nearly fainted but managed to stay up and about by shoving an ice-pack down my corset.(wouldn’t fit the dress without a corset, too far from home to change), but all that night my nose bled something terrible. and the next day I was so weak and close to fainting…

      I have no Idea how my Great-Great Grandmother did it in the Australian summer.

      • Acclimatization. Heat–and cold–are actually harder on modern people who have air conditioners and heaters than they were on people who were around before they existed because people back then had no particular choice about getting used to the weather as it rolled around, whereas modern folk make temperature changes of upwards of 20 degrees F. several times a day for most of the year.

        Also that polyester petticoat was probably part of your problem; polyester doesn’t breathe, and even a single undergarment of material that doesn’t breathe does horrible things to your heat levels.

      • Polyester? Yikes! No wonder you had trouble! NEVER wear synthetic fibers as part of a historical costume. Accuracy aside, polyester and other “plastic” cloth traps body heat something awful. Stick to 100% natural fibers as a general rule.

  14. I have a going out corset and I love it !! Where would I get one to where every day under my regular clothes? My back feels so much better when I wear one .

  15. A lot of surviving costume from the Victorian period is also mourning wear, which would have been happily discarded after a while and have limited reuse.

    My ex has a book of saucy Victorian pin ups, many of which are blatantly and badly altered to make the waist smaller, if I remember I’ll borrow it and bring it to torm if you like

    Corsets uk are bloody awful, thier stuff is just tubular

  16. A wonderful article with desperately needed information. When I made my first corset I wasn’t sure how comfortable it would be. I only gave it about 5 hours of “break-in time” before wearing it all day at a Victorian Festival. It was extremely comfortable. I had no back pain (and I have a bad back from old injuries). In fact, I was more comfortable in the corset than out of it. Same thing goes for my Regency stays – my back loves them.

    About the ability to bend over – I don’t have much problem with it, but I’ve seen others really struggle. I think one of the problems may be that their corsets are too long over the hips, especially in front, so the hinging action of the hips is restricted or even prevented. Just a guess, but most of the women I see having real problems are wearing corsets that don’t fit correctly (you can tell a lot from their clothing).

    As for how these garments managed to last to this day – there are so many variables here. Maybe some families traditionally kept their ancestors garments (I know a family who does that). The wealthy woman’s or gent’s clothing received rigorous and meticulous care, which would improve longevity. And, as you mentioned, clothing would be stored to be handed down. One thing that I also think is valid, although I’ve never seen it addresses anywhere, is death. People died at a much higher rate than we experience today. Clothing might have been kept as a remembrance and out of love. I don’t know if it’s fact, but it seems a reasonable possibility to me.

    • Hear hear!!!
      As to not being able to bend….I think its the “bones” which is the problem and causes issues in bending or lack of bending. I have 6 off-the-shelf corsets from Corsets UK who I think are actually very good value for their price…providing the buyer understands they are NOT going to be made *for* their particular body. One of those is an underbust and VERY comfy…apart from the problem of not bending. The other 4 are their standard type which are great to an extent, but as I super curvy they weren’t *quite* right – squishing hip more than they should and not supporting the bust as well. As with the underbust – I can’t bend in them.
      Then I found a new range at Corsets UK which have a shape which is absolutely PERFECT for 1860s…This is my 6th corset from them. Fitted me beautifully from bust to hip and what a waist shape (3 inches down – which isn’t “much” but the shape it creates gives illusion to a teeny tiny waist…people were assuming I was below 30″!). However, the bust again wasn’t perfect – I’m just that bit too big for *that* corset but it was better than the ones before. I have spent an entire day in London in full costume wandering around the underground and around museums and no pain at all just after Christmas last year. It was a revelation. But again, I can’t “bend”. One of my friends with me had to keep picking stuff up I managed to drop (ermine scarf or gloves!).

      THEN I had a new corset for my birthday from What Katie Did. Again, its a gorgeous corset and fits me at the bust as if made for me…And I can bend. Why? because unlike the Corsets UK ones (which I do like and WILL recommend for newbies to Victorian), this one doesn’t have steels all the way around. Only in the front busk and the back lacing. The rest of the bones are the new synthetic whalebone and it is fab stuff. Moulds to the body but springs back to normal shape (unlike horrible rigilene which once bent stays bent). I’ve not managed to have a full day in this new corset *yet* (hoping to on the 7th March) but am loving it already.

      Last year I was able to look closely at extant corsets from the Symmington Collection. Just like WKD corsets, these only had steels in the front and back. The rest of the “boning” was mostly tightly twisted paper cording – fraction of an inch wide – but when placed side by side all round, and using a firm top fabric (most were “drab” fabric) and lining AND a tightly woven hessian interlining, made a very firm, shaped corset which would have provided the fashionable shape, support AND allowed the wearer to bend. Also allowed for the makers to MACHINE sew the beautiful and very intricate flossing designs. Couldn’t do that with steel bones!

      Spiral bones don’t appear till the Edwardian period (1910 I think), and flat steels don’t seem to be used in period corsets except for the busk and back (mostly). The boning as used was usually this cording, or cane (which I’ve used in Tudor bodices to great effect) or whalebone (mostly for elite corsets).

      So, the reason why most people – re-enactors/costumers and ladies-who-want-to-wear-one-for-a-night-out find they can’t bend (and then assume Victorian ladies couldn’t) is because they have flat steels all round. Stands to reason no one can bend then. 😉

      • I must say i disagree a little bit here – whether the steel is a good substitute for whalebone or not, I think the bending issue depends much more on cut rather than on the boning entirely – though again, it may also depend on the individual body type. My victorian corsets use flat and spiral steel boning ( up to 48 bones, all around) and I can bend with no problem whatsoever, as demonstrated in the post. Admittedly, when once, as an experiment to see what silhouette i can get, i inserted flat bones everywhere, the corset was less comfortable – but i still could bend, though not as much as normal ( palms flat on the floor) Synthetic boning here would indeed work better. As for Corsets UK, glad at least someone finds them useful, I used them for my 3 victorian bridemaids and will never use them again – they were uncomfortable, didn’t create any silhouette at all on the girls ( size 14,10 and 8) and started to fall apart after a day’s wear… I tried one once, and it squashed my hips and my waist that usually laces down a few good inches in my corsets was reduced by an inch… the silhouette i achieved was that of a toothpaste tube:-( so after my experiences I do not recommend them to anyone 😦

      • Personally I find that I can’t bend over and touch my toes when wearing a corset, nor ride sidesaddle , do cartwheels or any other acrobatics . Does the fact that I can’t do any of these things when I’m NOT wearing a corset make any difference please, Izabela ?

      • I need to disappoint you here, Eleanor, alas corsets, even the best brands, are very unlike some brands of tampons….which apparently enables you to do all kinds of physical activities when wearing one…… 😉 So no miracles should be expected… 😉

      • Absolutely agree Izabela…My point above is what was being used *in the period* may provide some clue as to whether Victorian women (and indeed their corsetted forbears) were able to “bend” and move, so they could easily go about their day-to-day business…and the answer is yes. Few would be doing the kind of exercise that is popular now (e.g in gyms or whatever). Their exercise was in corsets and day-to-day work.

        No woman was going to be attempting to work a full day if they were physically restricted in what they could do. Modern off the shelf corsets aren’t designed to allow freedom of movement-plus-shaping. They are purely decorative and for the “odd night out” use. But then the question is *how* did the Victorian ladies marry flexibility and shaping? What was *in* the corsets to enable shaping and close fitting support but also flexibility? The answer is in the “boning” that was used: featherboning from…feathers (1883 – Warren Featherboning Company); Cording (cord, twisted paper, ixtle plant), reed/cane and whalebone (baleen). Flat steels were around, but as they didn’t have the plastic covering and as they easily rusted, they weren’t popular for corsetry, except where *needed* like the busk and back lacing.

        Spiral steels are far more flexible – hence why they are in use in long line Edwardian corsets, but they aren’t authentic for Victorian, being invented in 1904 by a Mr Beauman, whose invention was then taken up by Mr William Wallace Kincaid and Mr Pardee…they founded the Spirella Corsets company. There was an early form of a “spiral” kind of boning made from watchsprings but again, not that common due to the rust issue.

        Modern flat steels simply won’t allow as much flex in the waist/torso as cane, twisted cord and whalebone (real or synthetic) does. My corsets UK ones are very inflexible even though they give a lovely shape. My WKD isn’t inflexible and actually gives me an even better reduction because the bones in it CAN flex enough to mould to the hour glass figure AND give flexibilty. I *can* get to the floor without straining.

        Lastly, but not least, its is going to be a personal thing too…I can bend to the ground with a bit of stiffness when out of a corset but that’s due to a back injury (fracture in the spine) 20 years ago (wasn’t found for 6 months!) which now gives me bad sciatica (this past week in work, I’ve been bent over double every time I get up from my chair…maybe I should wear my corset in work!). I’m never going to be cartwheeling or anything anyway out of corset let alone in one. Other people will be way more flexible and supple than I am so that will be a big factor. As I said, my comment was on what *was* more likely to be used in period corsetry to enable the balance between flexibility and shaping.

  17. Pingback: Corsets! | Cambridge LadyBirds WI

  18. I LOVE my custom corset! I have a mid-1800’s corset that I wear to events, and people ask me all the time if I can breathe or comment on how uncomfortable they would be if they :had: to wear a corset. Pshaw! I say! 😉 If worn as it was supposed to, it can be worn all day with no problems. Actually, I’ve noticed how much better my posture is and how my back doesn’t hurt (like it does at work – yay for retail!).

  19. Your “Theory Secundo”–“it seems to me that a lot of surviving clothes belonged to teenagers and very your ladies” makes a lot of sense.

  20. Pingback: What News Australia’s Tightlacing Article Failed to Mention » Lucy's Corsetry

  21. I am just getting into historical reenactments and costumes, and I was wondering where to find good quality edwardian style corsets?

  22. Yes! I am so tired of people who know nothing about corsets acting like they’re nothing more than a suffocation device. Great article! I’ll have to remember some of these points next time I get into a discussion with someone about historical corsets. 🙂

  23. Pingback: Busting Victorian myths: corsets | Corsets Online

  24. Where to find a good corset for day to day wear (e.g. under casual clothes, to school etc.) to improve my posture? I am rather tall and thus tend to slump/slouch which causes pain in my back, neck, and shoulders. Yes, I read the part about how overuse and prolonged inactivity can cause muscle atrophy, but I just want to get back in the right position and don’t intend to wear it every single day.
    I am in the U.S.

  25. Pingback: A Damsel in This Dress

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s