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The corset controversy describes 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, decades, and 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.
English publications in which the controversy raged included The Times, Lancet, Queen, The Scotsman, Ladies Treasury, The Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine, and All the Year Round.
In the United States, the Chicago Tribune, looked across the Atlantic and commented, "The English journals are indulging in one of their periodical battles over the corset question. At moderate intervals the pros and cons of tight lacing are hotly discussed by our British brothers and sisters with very great fervor and very little common sense."
Despite its disdain, the Chicago Tribune published its own contributions to the controversy. Other American newspapers and periodicals also participated, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Hartford Daily Courant, the North American Review, and The Saint Paul Daily Globe.
Other parts of the English-speaking world joined from time to time, reprinting articles from England and America, as well as contributing their own. Newspapers from the Amador Ledger of California, the Hobart Town Courier, the Otago Witness, and the Timaru Herald of New Zealand had their say.
The line between wearing corsets in general and tight lacing in particular was never drawn precisely. Many detractors denounced both, blurring the distinction between the practices, while many advocates endorsed both. Additionally, many women who wore corsets denied that they tight laced, adding confusion to the controversy. The West Coast Times wrote "The evil consequences of tight lacing are universally admitted. Ladies, however, generally refuse to acknowledge that tight lacing is at all common. Each possessor of a small waist claims that it is a gift of Nature, not a work of art, and wears a corset, not for the purpose of compressing her shape into a narrow circumference, but merely as a comfortable, if not necessary support."
Corsets and fashion
The dress styles of the time called for full skirts, and small waists emphasized the fashion. That fashion should govern women's dress seemed as certain to the majority then as it does to a few today. The corset was the device that enabled the small waist.
I myself have never felt any ill effects from nearly 30 years of the most severe tight lacing, nor have I yet found any authentic case of real harm being done by stays, even when laced to the utmost degree of tightness, both day and night.
People who write against the practice of tight lacing are either those who have never been laced and have never take the trouble to inquire into the pros and cons of the subject, or those who have, perhaps been once lace up very tightly in badly made, ill-fitting stays with the settled determination of finding them most awful instruments of torture.
Those who have been systematically laced up in proper stays from their childhood are the only ones who are capable of forming a right judgment on this subject and I hope you will allow tight lacers the opportunity of defending themselves against the enemies of trim little waist.
A reader wrote to The Toronto Daily Mail said that only those who had experienced tight lacing could understand its pleasures. The editor of the "Women's Chats" section of the West Australian advocated "tight lacing in moderation".
Doctors railed against the practice as decidedly harmful. Women replied that tight lacing was actually beneficial as well as enjoyable. Some women extolled the virtues of tight lacing.
... though few ladies may be able to attain the coveted size of "16 inches that may be spanned", such is the flexibility of the female frame that with properly fitted stays – not the flimsy ready-made article generally sold – most ladies may, without discomfort or injury, attain a smallness of waist that would delight both themselves and their friends.
The distinguished anatomist William Henry Flower in 1881 published a book  demonstrating by text and illustrations the deformities caused to female anatomy by corsets. This did not prevent his wife and four daughters from wearing them.
Mothers and daughters
Women were expected to wear corsets and mothers had a duty to her female children to teach them to wear the garment. On the American frontier in 1880, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about a pioneer family.The women and, in particular the girls, were expected to behave according to the norms of the times. In the book, the eldest daughter tries on a dress that could not fit until her corset is laced more tightly. But many condemned mothers who made their daughters wear corsets.
What is to be said for the sinful folly (the mania is apparently not confined to the young) of the mother who put her child into corsets at six years old, or the young lady who "enjoys the feeling of tight lacing so much," and never lets her waist exceed 17 inches or 153⁄4 if she has no breakfast? We are not surprised to hear that she cannot walk. Are there really such foolish relatives as the one who insisted on a young woman reducing her waist to 17 inches saying "No man will marry a girl unless she looks smart." These unfortunate victims of fashion sleep in their corsets, and know no release night or day from the agony of tight ligaments pressing gradually on soft and growing bones.
In some cases, mothers started their daughters wearing corsets in early childhood. Mothers typically put their daughters into serious corsets in their teens or sometimes in the pre-teens. Some were uncertain as to when and how to begin tight lacing. They sought advice in their local newspapers, giving rise to heated discussions. One such exchange took place in the pages of the Toronto Daily Mail, from April to June 1883, in the Saturday section, "Women's Kingdom".
Girls would seek relief from their stays at night and mothers would seek to prevent it. Some objected entirely to corsets until the very end of the teen age years. In fashionable London, tight lacing of teen-aged daughters was a serious affair. The New York Times wrote:
...tight lacing is fashionable again. One of the most exclusive corsetieres in Oxford Street, who is the authority for the statement, said today:
"We are on the verge of another tiny-waist craze. The demand for the smaller sizes in corsets has doubled in the last six months. Eighteens are now in common demand and orders for seventeen-inch and sixteen-inch corsets have greatly increased in the last few weeks. Not a few of my clients are systematically training for the fashionable measurements.
"When the eventual size is decided upon, three pairs of corsets are made, one for ordinary wear, one for special occasions, and another for night wear. To take a typical case, a young lady was brought to me by her mother at the beginning of the year. The girl, who was 16 years old, was tall and already possessed of a well-developed figure. She had a waist that measured twenty inches. Her mother was desirous that it be reduced to sixteen inches.
"I provided three pairs of corsets of graduated sizes, and the young miss wore sixteen-inch corsets, laced close the week before last at the Buckingham Palace garden party. She and her mother were so delighted with the effect that the girl came to me a day or two later to be measured for a pair of fifteens for dress occasions."
In fashionable society, a girl was expected to have a suitably small waist. Girls' schools were preparation for society and some headmistresses treated that attainment as part of the girls' schooling. As the girl was not yet an adult, her opinion was not considered. A reader wrote to the editors of The Science of Health describing her experience. The West Australian printed excerpts from the diary of a school girl describing how figure training was accomplished.
A woman signing herself as a schoolmistress defended the practice as an "elegant article of dress". Her solution agreed with that of the young lady, commencing the practice at an early age. One young lady looked back upon the practice with affection. Today, one might read these accounts with skepticism, but contemporary advertisements describe corsets as small as 15 inches. Others were proud of their training and saw tight-lacing as the source of a fine accomplishment. However, other young ladies recalled the practice with little fondness.
There are many articles admonishing girls to abjure the custom of tight lacing and assuring them that no man they would want to marry had any interest in small waists. Typical of these is:
Another, entitled "The Absurdity of the Custom as Well as the Effect upon the Health of Slaves to the Fashion", begins:
There would be no tight lacing if girls could be made to understand this simple fact: that men dread the thought of marrying a woman who is subject to fits of irritable temper, to headaches and other ailments we need not mention, all of which, everybody knows, are the direct and inevitable product of the compression of the waist.
Other articles suggested more dire consequences. Whatever the doctors might say, young ladies laced down in preparation for their wedding, as evidenced by contemporary photographs. Moreover, some women laced down after their marriage to please husbands who fancied the practice. One such wife wrote:
Girls working in "fashion establishments", as they were then called, wore corsets to suit the dictates of their employers. Tiny waists were required of employees to sell the then current fashions, much as size zero models are frequently used in fashion shows today. The editor of "The Ladies Page" of The Western Mail wrote Fashion establishments were much the same in Paris: Various writers condemned the practice.
The dress reform movement
Advocates of dress reform deplored the impractical and restrictive fashions of the time. The bloomer dress was a mid-century attempt at rational clothing for women. It attracted considerable ridicule in the press and relatively few adopters. Other attempts at dress reform fared no better.
Burn up the corsets! ... No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.
Louisa May Alcott devoted Chapter 18 ("Fashion and Physiology") of her 1875 young adult fiction, Eight Cousins, to advocating for dress reform in the form of the "freedom suit," which is described as being different from and more socially acceptable than bloomers. The young main character, Rose Campbell, is under the guardianship of her physician uncle Alec. However, her aunt Clara wishes Rose to dress appropriately to her position as an heiress, and one day gives her a fashionable outfit to try. Rose ultimately rejects it in favor of Alec's freedom suit, consisting of close-fitting pantaloons and shirt under a long-skirted petticoat and dress. Earlier in the novel, Rose had been wearing a tight belt to keep her waist small, which Alec insisted she stop doing for the sake of her health (Chapter 5, "A Belt and a Box"). When Clara tries to convince her to wear a corset, Alec was furious.
But dress reform had little mainstream impact. Fashion continued to emphasize the waist and, so long as it did, the corset continued to be regarded as an indispensable of dress. An unusually perceptive reformer described the situation in an address to the National Christian League in 1895. Her speech was reported in the New York Times: It seemed that change would be glacially slow at best. A year later, The New York Times wrote:
End of the controversy
All this changed in the early 20th century when the world of fashion circled back to styles reminiscent of the Empire silhouette. Fashionable dress was fluid and soft, with flowing lines. What rational dress reform was unable to accomplish in decades of rhetoric, the wheel of changing fashion brought about almost overnight. The waist became unimportant and the waist-restricting corset lost its significance.
Paul Poiret was a leader in this movement. He replaced the corset with the hobble skirt, which, while equally restrictive, was different and thus readily adopted in an era eager for change. In his autobiography, Poiret wrote
- 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.
The hobble skirt lasted but a few years, but its adoption marked the beginning of the end. Other designers such as Madeleine Vionnet, Mariano Fortuny, and Coco Chanel soon followed with simple comfortable fashions that freed the entire woman. With their adoption into mainstream fashion, the corset controversy receded into a historical curiosity.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Corsets.|
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- Jenkins, David (ed.), The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Cambridge University Press, September 2003, p. 903
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- The Lancet, Volume 94, Issue 2400, 28 August 1869, "The Waist of the Period"
- Rousseau, Jean Jacques. "On Tight Lacing" The Lancet, 9, 1785, pp. 1202–3
- Wikimedia Commons, Category: Corset advertisements
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- Poiret, Paul, My first fifty years, Gollancz, 1931, p. 73