I’ve been reading this fabulous book about corsets. OK, well it’s probably not everybodies cup of tea, but as someone who is really quite passionate about historic costume and vintage fashion I cant help but spend my free time reading every scrap of information I can about such things.
I’ve recently become interested in historic underwear as I have been looking at the collection at work. I also managed to get a grant to pay for a replica of one of our dresses. The grant also enabled us to have the entire appropriate set of under garments made. Which lead to a little bit of research for me. Believe me, you would not have wanted to get dressed in the early Victorian period, what with the split drawers, chemise corset and up to 5 different petticoats etc etc etc you would have been weighed down just with your undercrackers. That’s before you put on your heavy dress, just for going downstairs to take tea.
The corset is a very interesting garment as all sorts of myths have come about surrounding it, some true, some pure fantasy. I like the story of the bride who got married and then collapsed and died shortly afterwards apparently as a result of suffocation. Her corset was done up too tightly. Apparently the mother then ran off with her widow and married him. One suspects foul play…
The first evidence of corsets are metal ones found in museum collections across Europe in the Fifteenth Century. It is now thought that these odd contraptions may have been made and worn for medical reasons. Then from about the Sixteenth Century you start getting variations on what we imagine corsets to look like. The variations in the lacing helping with dating. Some of them were designed to make the waist a perfectly small size, just 24 inches around the waist. Medical reports at the time suggest autopsy’s of women with deformed overlapping ribs and so on.
By the time you get to the late Victorian/ Edwardian period corsets first get longer and then slowly, partly as a result of the need to work on the land during the war they stop being worn altogether and women’s greater independence. This issue is a whole essay in itself and is bound up with the social- political circumstances at the time. Interestingly, during the Edwardian period you start to get lots of slightly potty fashions, the hobble skirt springs to mind. Corsets were nearly a thing of the past, that is, apart from the old ladies who were a bit set in their ways. Corsetry did carry on, with body shaping undergarments in the fifties and sixties and then you get to the present day…
One thing that really stands out though is that it seems that by the Seventeenth century even children wore corsets, starting as young as two. Perhaps even more shocking, little boys up to the age of six were made to wear stays (when they were breeched). So next time your children are moaning about their clothes it might be worth pointing out that it could be so much worse….
This is a very brief summary of a few points which interested me, I’ts a topic which I intend to write a lot more on and lecture about. However, I’m already pointing out to the kids how lucky they are to be wearing comfy clothes, sometimes it’s worth sitting back and remembering how far fashion has come!