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If you can believe it—conscientious mothers in the nineteenth century strapped their little girls into corsets. Healthy support clothing for kids, or so physicians thought at the time. Huh. Go figure. (Oops, sorry about that.)

Anyway, back to corsets, the contraptions have been around for thousands of years but became de rigueur for women around 1830-40, when waistlines returned to fashion. The high-waisted empire style was “in” during the regency period (fashion-wise approx.1800-1820), when short stays were sometimes used to support the bosom. A really racy gal in those days wore only a thin shift under her gown and dampened both, for full disclosure, if you will.

A camisole or comfy shift was worn under the corset, and a corset cover over the foundation (torture) garment. Corset covers were often beautifully embroidered. After that came a bustle (usually tied on), either over or under petticoats, then the dress or gown. That’s a lot of clothing, but men had their own layers to contend with, which included long underwear of cotton, linen or wool, a dress shirt closed with studs and cuff links, then braces (suspenders), next a stiff collar that was pinned or tied in place, the vest, and coat. Lack of a hat stamped a man as someone of lowly birth or in a state of partial undress. We’ve got a lot of near naked or underbred guys running around nowadays.

Before the guys start with superior snickers about women getting laced up, men also wore corsets, including the Prince Regent, who was lampooned as the Prince of Whales. It was sad enough when the BBC series (I think it was Blackadder) with Hugh Laurie potraying the prince as a scrawny, bumbling idiot, which history attests that Prince Florizel was not. The future George IV left as a legacy some mighty fine cultural works that nearly bankrupted England. Darn, I’ve digressed again.

The corset, more commonly known back then as stays, reached its zenith by the late nineteen hundreds. The fashionable lady boasted a wasp-waist, at the most sixteen inches, and I’ve read an account of thirteen inches. When autopsies started revealing horribly distorted innards, physicians spoke out against the garments, and the practice of tight-lacing started to fade in popularity. If you think women were nuts for buckling under to the fashion imperative of the day, just imagine what they would have thought about getting their faces injected with botox. Yeah, it’s all relative to the times.

The introduction of women in the work force during WWI changed women’s lives and attitudes forever. Stays were set aside for comfort’s sake. Women had always worked in factories; they just started to get uppity about it. Freedom from stays may have helped to free minds and ambitions.

When I was seven, my aunt opened her museum, The Old General Store. Also a fine seamstress, Aunt Marie dressed me up like a girl of the times in high-buttoned shoes and a dress she made with a sewed-in, modest bustle. There were more dresses as I grew older, and I always loved wearing them. The style felt so comfy, even during the heat of summer. I’ve seen many actresses in films wear period clothing without any sense of the time period, lifting the skirts on the sides to move or step up, and crossing their legs, which only harlots did to proclaim their slut-status. (Check out cigarette pictures from later1800’s.)

The finest portrayal and use of period costuming I’ve ever seen is Ingrid Bergman in Saratoga Trunk, from the Edna Ferber novel. (IMHO, the movie is far better than the book.) You can see the corset ridges under the exquisite gowns by Leah Rhodes, and Bergman moves and sits as women did in that era. It’s also fascinating to watch Bergman and Gary Cooper’s attraction for each other burn up the screen. It was rumored they were having a flaming affair during the filming, but that’s often said when a couple click in acting roles. The way Coop looks at her makes my heart go pitty-pat. Yee-ow. This time, I’m glad I digressed. I’m going to go watch it again.

Next time: Shut up! They Didn’t Do That in Vickie’s Time

 

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