Sunday, June 30, 2013

Small waists and corsets

Recently I was online reading one of my many historical blogging sites and I happened across a comment on the very picture I used for my header.

The lovely Princess Mathilde of Bavaria
They said: 'Her waist! Unreal what women used to do to themselves. No wonder she looks ill.' Wow. Really? It made me stop and think about how the general public thinks of corsets. 

First off, a few definitions. Tight lacing is when you wear your corset tighter and tighter very gradually (months or years, not days) until you get a smaller waist.

Corset training is when you wear a corset to get a smaller waist. It is not as extreme as tight-lacing.

Coutil (or coutille) is the fabric commonly used for corsets. It's woven in a herringbone weave, which makes it very strong and unlikely to stretch.

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I'm sure the one of the first things people think of when they think of corsets is the scene from Gone With the Wind where Scarlett is holding on to the bedpost while Mammy pulls her corset tight.

"Just hold on and suck in!"
Most people who wore corsets corset-trained from a young age. I am not one hundred percent sure at what age they would start. I have seen corsets for children as young as 8-10. I think it would depend on the family as well. A farm girl would not be as concerned with wearing a corset at a young age and tightening it down as a southern belle (read Scarlett O'Hara) would be.

Scarlett, being a pampered young girl would have started wearing stays when she was young, training her waist for years until she could squeeze into a 20 inch-waisted dress. Laura Ingalls, on the other hand, a farm girl through and through, refused to wear her corset when she was growing up, preferring to run around unrestrained, much to the dismay of Ma, who had an 18 inch waist herself before she was married.

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One of the common arguments against corsets is that they distort your internal organs. Yes, they do move them around, but you can take your corset off any time you like. Child birth also distorts your internal organs and that lasts for nine months!

Corsets are also recommended today by doctors to help correct scoliosis. 

Not to mention recommended by me to correct bad posture. ;) Young ladies and also young men would wear corsets to give them good posture and poise. Yes, you read that right.

Also, corsets give a strong base on which to wear your petticoats. A drawstring cutting into your waist gets old after a while, trust me.

"But wait a minute, Veronica," you say "Aren't corsets uncomfortable to wear?"

No, not really. Corsets are skin-tight, so naturally if you are not a perfect size 10 or 14 or whatever,  and you buy one off the shelf, it won't fit right and it won't be comfortable. You have to make one or have one custom-made to your dimensions for them to work. Just like a pair of shoes - if they don't fit right, you'll be miserable in them.

There were people like Camille Clifford who laced themselves down to an 18 inch wasp waist, but the majority of people didn't. Women used a variety of ways to make their waists appear smaller. 

One of the ways women enhanced their figure and made their waist look even smaller was with bust and hip pads. I will not go into that and will instead point you to a blog post by American Duchess.  

Illusion was another way women appeared to have small waists. Common sense says that if you put something excessively big next to something of normal size, the normal-sized object will appear smaller. Big sleeves and full skirts were two ways to make your waist look smaller.

1830's dress
So next time you see someone wearing a corset or read an article about them, keep an open mind. Don't dis corsets before you've had a chance to try them. Also, take a second look at that waist. It might not be as small as you think.


  1. Im sorry to disagree with most of your post. Hollywood has set the image of the standard 18" waist, but you did give the right source of Hollywood movie that made it so. Women would not corset train in the terms of making their waist smaller. Girls wore, what in today would be training bras, when they were in puberty. It wouldnt be practical to try to achieve a small waist, yet they used corsets as support for skirts and the womanly figure. You posted a fabulous picture of Camille Clifford, a great example of picture editing of the time. Infact, you can see where the photographer trimmed her sides to make her look skinner than what she really was!

    1. That's okay. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions. :) I realize now that it might sound as if I thought everyone had a 20 inch waist, when I know very well they didn't... :/ Now that you mention it, it does look like the picture of Camille Clifford has been altered, much like the pictures of movie stars today. I wonder what the original picture looked like?

      I do agree with you about the food. I think it would be interesting to see what people would look like in ten years if all the fast food disappeared off the planet. :) Thanks for your comments!

  2. Another thing, You may disregard or include the eating habits of the ones before us. They, not necessarily, eat healthy, nor many werent malnutritioned, but there was not fast food and processed. Todays food is more technology than nutritious, but there is a huge significance to those who eat fast foods and those who still farm in their back yard.

  3. Lovely post! I seem to talking online about corsets a lot lately, as that "what women used to do to themselves" horror (sometimes accompanied by tsking over what women do today) is such a common reaction around the internet.

    I do have to disagree with Suzanne, though. I'm not sure they talked about "waist training" the way we do today, but Valerie Steele speculates in Corsets: A Cultural History that the permanent bone changes that can be seen in x-rays and skeletons came from childhood corset wear, rather than adult women tightening down - and portraits of upper-class children in the 18th century show a conical figure that would not be possible without taking time to reshape their ribcages.

    1. Thank you for your kind remarks! I think it's the historical costuming section of the internet that's in charge of the commotion. ;)


  4. Hi Veronica, lovely post. You are correct that a decent corset that was made for the wearer is not uncomfortable. I do not recommend wearing them while gardening, country dancing, or anything else highly strenuous, but for watercoloring and waltzing they are just the thing.

  5. Hi Veronica - thank you for all the hard work in getting this blog up and running.

    One of the differences between the present day and the 18 and 19 centuries is that today corsets are not "normal". Certainly women weart them for the stage, period re-enactment etc, but it is "dressing up" and not normal wear. In the 18 and 19 cents probably could not remember a time when there was not some restriction around the waist and rib cage. There are museum examples of binders (really little corsets) for babies, and getting stronger and more boned from toddler age upwards. Girls would have thought it normal that Sunday dresses and party dresses were tighter and more uncomfortable than everyday wear., overall, we have a different view of corsets today.


  6. Hello! Loved this post! I actually added it to my Pinterest board for the Best of the Blogs link-up that I'm hosting over at my blog. There's still five days to link-up, you can check it out here:


  7. I think if a girl wants to corset then go right ahead! I know a lot of people think its a archaic and we've moved away from that. Im gonna consider getting one when I have a little extra cash cause I have a somewhat hour glass figure because of my hips but I would love to get my waist to cooperate more with that. I also think it would actually make me feel better wearing some dresses.

  8. Hi,
    Thanks for your great informative writing.
    I agree with you. I enjoy your post about get a smaller waist