• Susana Aikin

THE VICTORIAN ERA AND WOMEN’S CORSETS

In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century.
Read further on the Victorian Era and Women's Corsets.

Hourglass figure

The focus of the stylish feminine silhouette of the mid and late 19th century was an hourglass figure with a tiny waist, and the use of corsets, which had been popular in Europe since the 16th century, reached a fashionable peak in the Victorian era.


Corsets reached a peak in the late Victorian era

Victorian corsets didn’t end at the hips like their 18th century predecessors, but flared out and reached several inches below the waist. Spiral steel stays were introduced to mold the female figure and make it exaggeratedly curvaceous. Tightlacing became increasingly popular as a means to reduce the waistline.

Tightlacing became more extreme as the 19th century progressed


The wasp-waisted hourglass figure was the beauty ideal of late Victorian fashion

Not everyone looked kindly on corsets. For dress reformists of the late 1800s, corsets were a dangerous moral evil, promoting promiscuous views of female bodies and superficial indulgence in fashion. The obvious health risks, including damaged and rearranged internal organs, compromised fertility. Weakness and general depletion of health were also blamed on excessive corsetry.


Illustration of the effect of corsets on the ribcage, circa 1890

Tightlacing was at the core of the corset controversy. A throng of voices eventually joined in against it: preachers condemned it, doctors counseled patients against it, and journalists wrote articles criticizing the frivolity of women, who sacrificed their health for the sake of fashion.


Tightlacing became the epicenter of the corset controversy

The Victorian dress reform movement of the mid and late Victorian era was part of the first wave of feminism in the United States and in Britain, and its members did passionate advocacy of practical and comfortable clothing for women.


In their view, the feminine fashion of the time was not only detrimental to women’s health, but also the result of a patriarchal conspiracy to make women subservient. They believed a change in fashion would shift the position of women in society, allowing for greater social mobility, independence from men and marriage, the ability to work for wages, as well as physical movement and comfort.


Penny dreadful illustration of the evils of tight corsets, circa 1890

Still corseting was accepted by a majority as essential for beauty, fashionable dress and an upright military-style posture, the necessary physical structure for moral and well-ordered society. So despite all these protests, little changed in restrictive fashion and undergarments by 1900.


Grace La Rue, American actress circa 1900

In 1910, the swan-bill corset became the latest fashion fad—a straight-front piece also known as the S-bend corset or health corset. Its name was derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset, which forced the torso forward and made the hips jut out in back.


The swan-bill corset circa 1910

After 1917, when the United States went into World War I, the U.S. War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production. This step liberated some 28,000 tons of metal, enough to build two battleships. The corset further declined in popularity as women took to brassieres and girdles, which used less steel in their construction.


Brassiere advertisement, circa 1920

By 1920 corsets had mostly fallen out of fashion as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form. Early designs of brassieres were introduced and the girdle soon took the place of the corset, which was more concerned with reducing the hips rather than the waist.


Vogue fashion illustration of the roaring 20s

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