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Corset controversy


The corset controversy concerns supporters' and detractors' arguments for and against wearing a corset. The controversy was contemporary with the time that corsets were popular in society. Corsets, variously called a pair of bodys or stays, were worn by European women from the late 16th century onward, changing their form as fashions changed. For most of this period, floor-length full skirts were the norm. Variations were endless. The French court dress of the 18th century, with its extensive drapery supported by pannier, was an extreme but telling example of the style. The English had their "robe anglaise”. Irrespective of variation, a form of corset beneath the dress shaped the body.

Beginning in the 1790s, there was an abrupt break with tradition as the Empire silhouette became fashionable. Coinciding with the French Revolution, a revolution occurred in women's clothing. Inspired by the tunics of classical antiquity, dresses were high-waisted and loose fitting, with a long flowing skirt. The corset was reduced to a minimal form, primarily to support the bosom.

Beginning in the mid-1820s, women's fashion returned to the full skirts of the prior century. In a repudiation of the Empire silhouette, the waist became the central focus of female dress. The corset assumed the dominant role it would hold for the rest of the 19th century. Designed to emphasize the waist, it was pulled in as required to achieve the desired slenderness. Doctors and much of the press deplored the garment but were unable to override the dictates of fashion.

Wearing corsets has been subject to criticism since the era of tight lacing during the prior century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced the practice in The Lancet while cartoons of the period satirized the practice. However, by the 19th century, women were writing letters to publications expressing their views directly and articulately. The one-sided denunciation of the past turned into a dialogue. Women made their voices heard, sharing their experiences and their opinions, some in favor of the corset and even tight lacing. Newspapers and popular journals became the media for the exchange of hundreds of letters and articles concerning the corset.

Known as the "corset controversy" or simply the "corset question", the controversy spilled over multiple publications, multiple decades, and multiple countries. Of particular concern was the issue of tight lacing. The flow of articles and letters waxed and waned over time, reaching a crescendo in the late 1860s, which may be taken to be the peak of the frenzy. However, the issue surfaced long before and continued long afterward. Throughout this period, advertisements in the same publications promoted the sale of corsets with enthusiasm.



In a large establishment in the West End of London the standard is 19 inches, and any assistant who does not reach those dimensions within six months of her engagement is discharged. The person in charge of the girls' figures at this shop gave as her experience that out of every 100 girls she found three could not lace at all, six laced with difficulty, eight eventually gave up, ten endured the bondage, seventy really enjoyed it, and three laced excessively. At the time of admission, out of a hundred girls, three had 24 in. waists, six had 23 in., 18 had 22 in., 45 had 21 in., and two had 19 in. At the end of six months, by "judicious lacing," whatever that may mean, the figures were – 21 in. two; 20 in. six; 19 in. seventy five; 18 in. eleven; 17 in four; 1612 in. two.
... some five and a half years ago the following advertisement caught my eye in the “Wanted” columns of a high-class ladies’ newspaper, I at once answered it. It ran as follows: —
'WANTED, at once, a young lady, pretty, tall (good figure essential), as “model” in a showroom of a well-known Paris couturiere. A slight knowledge of French desirable. Apply, with full particulars as to height, etc., and recent photograph, etc.'
It had become necessary, owing to the death of my father, for me to do what my relatives with whom I went to live called “something.” In reply to my letter I was asked to call at an hotel, and after an interview with the principal proprietor and his forewoman, who was a bright and clever Parisian, I was engaged at a very good salary.
A little less than a week later saw me at my post. I soon found that I was to be treated very much in the light of a good-looking, animated automaton. I was told that, though my figure was superb, my waist—which, as it measured about 20in, I had considered reasonably small—was too large, and that consequently, ere I was fitted for the dresses which were to be supplied for my wear, I must visit Léoty and obtain a couple of corsets which would reduce my waist to a trifle less than 18in. This I did, the firm defraying the cost, and I must confess that, though the waist-forming process was not pleasant at first, I was not a little proud of what was referred to as my beautiful figure. Nearly all the hands in the various ateliers and showrooms tight-laced. One girl, a pretty American who was much admired by customers and their male escorts, measured less than 17in over her dress. Several were barely sixteen, and it was to this latter size that I was told I should ultimately be required to reduce myself. I very soon got accustomed to the tight-lacing, and became as anxious as my employers that I should possess a fine figure, which the beautifully, though plainly, made dresses with which X—et Cie. supplied me showed off to perfection.
Within a year of my coming to Paris I possessed the 16in waist desired by my employers, and was admittedly the finest figure in the showroom, in which I was chief model. Amongst our clientele, which comprised many of the smartest, richest and most beautiful women in the French capital, and also many smart Americans, there were, many who openly envied me my good looks, and—from a fashionable point of view—superb figure.
When I first accepted my situation, my waist was twenty inches. My mistress informed me that I would have to lace for the benefit of her customers and that I also must agree to sleep in her house.
When I was ready to retire on the first night, mistress came and took my corsets away, and next morning she brought me a pair which were only 18 inches. She made me put them on and said that she would lace them in herself. I did as she told me and I had to stand with the other girls employed in the establishment while she laced me in. I did not like it at first, standing in a row with my hair hanging down, waiting for the mistress to come and lace me in, but of course I soon got used to it as all the other girls had to do. I was never allowed to dress myself until the mistress had laced me in ...
One morning, I was sent for and found that three other girls besides myself had been called. We learned that we were to wear 16 inch corsets. At first I rebelled, but the mistress coaxed me ... When night came, I was glad, for I though I would be able to take the corsets off. Judge of my dismay when the mistress informed me that I would have to sleep in these corsets. Next morning as we stood in line, she measured our waist and told us we would have to continue sleeping in these corsets. Once a week, she said that we could be allowed to take them off. At last the time came for us to take them off and what a relief that was. In a short time, however, they were put back on again and laced in smaller than ever. ... At last, though, I got so that the sixteen inch corset would lace up tight and I knew I was a successful model. ...
Now I am proud of myself. Mistress has gotten me so that my waist is only fifteen inches. My corsets, too, are well laced together. Everybody admires my little waist ... I am not sorry that I am a model as after all I have gone through I am well looked after my mistress, and if she were to ask me to put on smaller corsets, I would do so.
Now there is one practice which is painfully common among all classes, and that is the use of the "locked corset". This is practically a steel corset, with a waist varying from about 14in to 16in. Into this the growing girl is compressed by force, the corset is shut tight and secured by a lock, the key being kept by the mother or whoever is responsible for the proceeding.
It may be observed here that it is the usual practice for the heads of "trying on" departments in large dress-making and mantle-making establishments to require all girls engaged in "trying on" to enter one of these corsets, which is locked, and the key kept by the head. In the case of the growing girl, the object is to prevent the waist from growing as the rest of the body develops, and the idea is really only worthy of Chinese cruelty.
In the case of the shop girl, the object is to "preserve" the figure precisely at the exact amount of compression which is supposed to I show off ladies' garments to the best advantage. In any case, the girl is confined in this way by the middle, night and day. She has to sleep in her "little ease" if she can, and the torture is such that at first even the shopgirl, worn out with the fatigues of the day, can hardly sleep for the pain.
Probably nothing can be done until all women are sufficiently sensible, to realize that there is no beauty in a wasp's waist, that the majority of men do not really care a bit about it, and that there is real danger in tight-lacing, but surely the dreadful events which have happened lately ought to do something to emancipate schoolgirls and debutantes from their perpetual imprisonment in locked corsets. Elder women who compress on their own account are responsible for their own folly, but something ought to be done to put an end to this form of girl-torture.
Girls in the more fashionable London stores make the most amazing statements in reference to dress regulations. They are compelled to compress their waists to a wasp-line slimness to show off the "creations" to the best advantage.
The girls are expected to be living fashion plates," says the editor of a London trade paper. "They must have all the elegance of willowy style and lissome, grace of figure, without which they are no good in the service.
The editor above referred to a letter from a girl in one of the most fashionable stores, and she makes this alarming statement: "The girls are laced up till they are nearly cut in two. Locked corsets are used, the key being kept by the manageress, and the corsets being worn night and day."
In reply to a letter of remonstrance, the firm stated that it had certain regulations in regard to dress and other matters, and that no girl ever objected in the least to tight lacing.
It is only two months ago that my employer insisted upon my reducing my waist from 16in to 14in, on the ground that she must have a model to show the newest fashions on. How could I refuse? I know many girls who would lace their waist till they fainted to get a good situation. And so to please these ladies, I am locked day and night into a vise which hardly allows me to breathe.
He closed the door with a shrug, but before anyone could speak, his quick eye fell upon an object which caused him to frown, and demand in an indignant tone, "After all I have said, were you really going to tempt my girl with those abominable things?"
"I thought we put them away when she wouldn't wear them," murmured Mrs. Clara, whisking a little pair of corsets out of sight with guilty haste. "I only brought them to try, for Rose is growing stout, and will have no figure if it is not attended to soon," she added, with an air of calm conviction that roused the Doctor still more, for this was one of his especial abominations.
"Growing stout! Yes, thank Heaven, she is, and shall continue to do it, for Nature knows how to mold a woman better than any corset-maker, and I won't have her interfered with. My dear Clara, have you lost your senses that you can for a moment dream of putting a growing girl into an instrument of torture like this?" and with a sudden gesture he plucked forth the offending corsets from under the sofa cushion, and held them out with the expression one would wear on beholding the thumbscrews or the rack of ancient times.
"Don't be absurd, Alec. There is no torture about it, for tight lacing is out of fashion, and we have nice, sensible things nowadays. Everyone wears them; even babies have stiffened waists to support their weak little backs," began Mrs. Clara, rushing to the defense of the pet delusion of most women.
"I know it, and so the poor little souls have weak backs all their days, as their mothers had before them. It is vain to argue the matter, and I won't try, but I wish to state, once for all, that if I ever see a pair of corsets near Rose, I'll put them in the fire, and you may send the bill to me."
WOMEN'S SLAVERY TO FASHION – She Admires Ideal Garments but will not Wear Them
WOMEN'S SLAVERY TO FASHION – She Admires Ideal Garments but will not Wear Them
Mrs. Margaret Stanton Lawrence ... told of the artist who spent years in inventing a dress for woman that would be at once comfortable, convenient, and beautiful. Success crowned his efforts, but alas! who would invent the woman to wear this ideal garment! The dress was delightful, all women admitted, and filled every requirement, but – alas again for them! their husbands would not walk in the streets with the wearers of such a garb, their fashionable friends begged to be spared the visits of such unconventional creatures, and the clergymen in the churches asked that their congregations be not disturbed by thoughts of a woman's dress.
FOR THE LIBERATED WOMEN; THOSE VALIANT ONES WHO WILL GIVE UP THE BINDING CORSET. More and More Women Are Doffing Their Stays – But It Still Takes High Courage to Join Their Ranks.
FOR THE LIBERATED WOMEN; THOSE VALIANT ONES WHO WILL GIVE UP THE BINDING CORSET. More and More Women Are Doffing Their Stays – But It Still Takes High Courage to Join Their Ranks.
The receipt of several letters asking The Times to give some designs suitable for making up gowns to be worn without corsets has suggested the article here presented. The leaven is working among women: Many have discarded them, many more, mothers, who feel that it is too late for them to change, are persuading their growing daughters to omit their adoption. ... Human nature is weak, very weak, when it comes to the question of personal appearance, and having for generations adopted the standard of a tapering waist as a mark of feminine beauty of figure, it is going to take character, perseverance, religion even to counteract this. ...
"One of the most pathetic speeches that I have listened to in a long time", said a woman recently, "was that made by a friend to me the other day. We were discussing hygienic dress and the use of disuse of corsets. I remarked casually and tritely that it took a good deal of moral courage to give them up. 'Moral courage!' she repeated, 'it takes wrestling with the Lord. There is no plea I have made oftener of my Heavenly Father than that He would give me strength to persevere in this thing'".
It was in the name of Liberty that I proclaimed the fall of the corset and the adoption of the brassiere, which since then, has won the day. Yes, I freed the bust, but I shackled the legs.
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