Victorian Corsets

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clara bow

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If there's another thread on this topic, I failed to locate it.

I'd like to know if anyone is aware of a site/online articles that describes corsets/Victorian women's clothing circa 1890-1900, give or take. I visited wikipedia but it didn't go into the depth I'm needing.

Anything with pictures and detailed description of things like different styles, stays/hooks, chemises, various undergarments etc. would really help.

Thanks!
 

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The 300s section of your library--both the stacks and the reserve shelves--should have books on costuming. Some will have patterns.

It starts with folklore and seagues into fashion, something I've never been able to figure out.

I spent a lot of time there in the years I did costuming. In one case I photocopied a pattern for a Victorian ball gown, enlarged it, and made a gorgeous frock, but, OH, the work!

Tried my hand at corsets, but those never worked out.

Victorian dressmakers and corset-makers were a vital part of a lady's life. If you wanted a new dress you made it yourself or went in for a fitting. There was no "off the rack" as we know it today.

I've found no research on it, but would bet there were used clothing stores back then. I know in the 1920's Harpo Marx bought his famous ratty coat at a pawn shop, something you don't see there now.

Clothing was quite the investment back then. A bride's trousseau was a BIG deal. Every young woman had a cedar chest (her "hope" chest) full of frillies and household linens. The biggest event in a young girl's life was to get married and have kids.

And that was IT.

:shuddering:

http://www.victoriana.com/corsets/corseting.htm

http://www.victoriana.com/library/Dressing/

http://www.victoriana.com/antique-marketplace/Accessories/corsets.htm

http://www.westsussex.gov.uk/apps/eLearning/Doc?id=1038

http://victorianbazaar.com/crinoline.html

http://victorianbazaar.com/corsets.html

I recall reading some Victorian doctor stating that corsets were a healthful necessity since womens' spines were unable to bear the weight of their own bodies, so weak and helpless was the sex.

:gag:
 

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I recall reading some Victorian doctor stating that corsets were a healthful necessity since womens' spines were unable to bear the weight of their own bodies, so weak and helpless was the sex.

:gag:

By the late Victorian era, some women were beginning to protest the wearing of a corset. It was becoming recognized that they were physically altering women's bodies and all of the effects were not healthy.

It's not surprising that the Victorian era encompassed such a range of fashion and views, given how long of a time period it was.
 

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By the late Victorian era, some women were beginning to protest the wearing of a corset. It was becoming recognized that they were physically altering women's bodies and all of the effects were not healthy.

It's not surprising that the Victorian era encompassed such a range of fashion and views, given how long of a time period it was.

Yep. It came and went. Most articles by doctors at least in the early-to-mid century (haven't researched later) were strongly against tight lacing as a health-harming evil.

There was a tight lacing era at the start in the 1830s and 40s, that was fading in the 1850s and 1860s, to the point that a woman could write in 1864: "Many years ago, women compressed themselves suicidally in steel and whalebone, and, though the custom is dead and buried beyond all hope of resurrection, there are men not a few who will go down to their graves in the firm belief that women are killing themselves off by thousands with tight lacing."

But even as she wrote, the fad was picking up again and tight lacing came back in fashion, though I haven't researched the 1890s to know just where it stood at that point. Women still wore corsets all along, of course, but for normal support rather than for fashion extremes. Being female in the period was a job that often required heavy lifting, from children to cast iron pots. Nor did all women in the tight-lacing periods lace that tight, any more than all women today diet until they're underweight because fashion dictates, although they're generally aware of the fashion ideal.
 

clara bow

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I am so thrilled and impressed with the level of knowledge here! Everyone, thanks so much for the links--they are exactly what I need. I don't know why I couldn't find the equivalent during my search. The images are fantastic! Thank you!

Regarding the decline of corsets, that is an issue I'm having to decide upon for my current project. The story is an alternate history tale, and a global catastrophe has significantly impacted major industries such as textile.

I did read that in the 1890's, they were in style, but some manufacturers/tailors were designing less restricting versions.

So I'm having to decide when and how often my heroine will even wear a corset. She will in the first few chapters, at least, but after that, certain story elements might even dictate the foolhardiness (health wise) of wearing one. The story will have a lot of action/adventure and the heroine will be globe trotting extensively via airship. High altitudes and corsets won't mix too well.

Also, I remember reading somewhere long ago, maybe in a historical romance book, that Victorian dresses wouldn't "hang" right on a woman's body since they were tailored to accommodate corsets. Does anyone know if that's true, and/or that's an issue I should research/consider?

whew--I'll stop talking your ears off. Thanks again!

ps After reading the posts again, I think I might do well to have the heroine wear a modified corset for "normal support" as Pup mentioned, rather than for fashion (the least of her concerns anyway, given the story). It helps to know that the tight lacing wasn't so generalized as I assumed.

By the late Victorian era, some women were beginning to protest the wearing of a corset. It was becoming recognized that they were physically altering women's bodies and all of the effects were not healthy.

Yep. It came and went.

But even as she wrote, the fad was picking up again and tight lacing came back in fashion, though I haven't researched the 1890s to know just where it stood at that point.
 
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Pup

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Also, I remember reading somewhere long ago, maybe in a historical romance book, that Victorian dresses wouldn't "hang" right on a woman's body since they were tailored to accommodate corsets. Does anyone know if that's true, and/or that's an issue I should research/consider?

Again, I can only speak about mid-century through approximately the end of the 1860s, when most bodices were designed to fit tightly, so I don't know what 1890s fashions would be like. For a while I had a business that included fitting 1860s dress reproductions, and in general, a corset was necessary to get the proper look.

However, for some women, it added a bit to the measurements, because it was an extra layer. For others it decreased the measurements, while for others it didn't change and for others it decreased the waist while increasing the bust, like a push-up bra. I think it just depended on the person's figure as well as how tightly she laced.

So it might be that a woman's dress, if it was made to fit tightly over a corset, would gap an inch or so without it, or it might fit just fine. If the dress itself had a fair amount of boning, it might even look good, though I'm sure the woman herself would feel self-conscious.

But again, that's the 1860s look, with a tightly fitting bodice above a full skirt, and a relative short corset compared to what was coming later. Things changed, and if bodices were looser fitting, it'd be another thing entirely.
 

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If there's another thread on this topic, I failed to locate it.

I'd like to know if anyone is aware of a site/online articles that describes corsets/Victorian women's clothing circa 1890-1900, give or take. I visited wikipedia but it didn't go into the depth I'm needing.

Anything with pictures and detailed description of things like different styles, stays/hooks, chemises, various undergarments etc. would really help.

Thanks!

I bought a reproduction Sears 1902 catalogue for clothing details. It has everything you need and probably more!!!
 

Gillhoughly

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Since women either had their dressmaker fit the outfit or made it themselves, they could always have a custom fit. The sewing machine was the most important item in a woman's household!

Check for female Victorian athletes--yes, there were many who went in for "healthful activities" like lawn tennis, biking, horseback riding, and mountain climbing. I'm sure they had less tight lacing--just enough to keep those puppies from blouncing around!

The bra as we know it wasn't invented until around 1889 and not in wide use until the 1920's.

Also on that page: "1917 The U.S. War Industries Board requests women to stop buying corsets to reduce the consumption of metal. Sources say up to 28,000 tons of metal was conserved through this effort - "enough to build two battleships."

Seems to me that has a bearing on your alternate history!

I deal with textiles in my Day Job and lemme tell ya, the outsourcing of fabric manufacture to China has seriously robbed me of locally made supplies at a reasonable cost.

I used to be able to buy wholesale Melton wool ends from mills in the US, paying about 2-3 bucks a yard. NOW I have to wait months for container ships to arrive from China and the stuff (wholesale, yet!) costs me 11-15 bucks a yard. I had to stop using it. My clients don't want to pay for the price difference or wait that long.

If the same thing happens to cotton I'm up shit creek for my business.
 

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Whalebones were often used for corsets & of course the 'case of the vapors' happened when surprise/shock made the woman gasp and her confined lungs couldn't expand. lack of oxygen, faint, thud.
 

clara bow

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Also on that page: "1917 The U.S. War Industries Board requests women to stop buying corsets to reduce the consumption of metal. Sources say up to 28,000 tons of metal was conserved through this effort - "enough to build two battleships."

Seems to me that has a bearing on your alternate history!
.

holy toledo--you're right! I am going to give this some serious exploration. gracias!
 

clara bow

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Just wanted to add that my concern also is to be historically accurate. If I have my heroine abandon her corset I want to make sure it's believably done & accurate to the time period. This discussion has really given me some wonderful insight and inspiration for my story.
 

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'case of the vapors

Actually, the vapors was another term for having flatulence. I'm sure tight corsets may have added to this problem.

I've also heard the vapors defined as being another term for cramps (or later in life, hot flashes), but can't find anything to support that on the Net.

---------------
If your gal has a C-cup she ain't gonna want to drop that corset.

If she's a B or A it won't be too much a prob, but she's gonna be bouncy if not floppy. Even the cowgirls on the Texas plains--and it's hotter than the devil's boots in the summer--wore corsets while ropin' cattle. I've seen some of those old time pictures of them branding cattle while wearing skirts and corsets and wondering how the heck they DIDN'T faint!

I was a C-cup in the days when women were burning their bras. I was tempted, but Mom warned me my boobs would be sagging down to my navel in a month. Seemed a good idea to leave on the bra!

Have you heard of the sheep-herder's bra? it rounds 'em up and points 'em in the right direction.

Then there's the American bra...one yank and it's off!
 

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I came across a Ladies Home Journal from (I think) the 1890s. In there was an ad for a maternity corset! It was designed for the comfort of the woman and safety for the baby. Can you believe it?
 

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I came across a Ladies Home Journal from (I think) the 1890s. In there was an ad for a maternity corset! It was designed for the comfort of the woman and safety for the baby. Can you believe it?

Yes, of course, but maybe it's because I write historical fiction and spend more time trying to understand 19th century people rather than look at them as strange, shocking creatures.

The other options would be for a woman to wear the same size clothes she always has and try to squeeze the baby in there. Or give up the bust and back support she's used to, just when she needs it most.

Before we snicker too hard, try googling maternity back support for product sales pitches like this:
Maternity supports for pregnant moms are becoming routine items in a pregnancy wardrobe as an increasing number of doctors, nurses and health care professionals are now consistently recommending abdominal and back supports during pregnancy for many women.

The routine use of maternity supports is on the rise because of the need to remain active during pregnancy. Today, more than ever there is an increasing awareness of healthy lifestyles and a desire to remain physically fit during pregnancy. There is a need to remain active due to the high number of dual income families as well as women who are the "bread winners" in their home.
 

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Avoiding a holier-than-thou response, nowwhere in the ad did it mention for back support or her health or for her to fit into her dress longer or recommended by a doctor. The gist of the ad was her appearance...with a quick mention of the baby.
 

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Wow--lookit all the corsetry!

I make & wear them. Yes, you read that right--make & wear.

If I had my druthers, I'd rather wear a corset than a bra. It gives your back nice support, just like those elastic back-support things do. It shapes your waist, adjusts your boobs, and in general is a Good Thing.

Some types available in the 19th C:

Athletic Corsets, for riding etc, were made of elasticized cotton and lightly boned. Light boning means at the side seams and on either side of the back panels, where it is laced; and by the busk, the snap device for the front. These were in use from 1830-right through to the 20s.

Maternity corsets were designed to support & shape you without crushing you or the baby. It adjusted to fit, with additional panels & pieces. When you were too big you simply 'retired' from the public eye. After you had your baby, you wore a special nursing corset.

Tight lacing seems to be more a male concern than a female one. Most corsets laced down to a 22" waist at the minimum. Most were much larger. There's a lot if surviving Victorian clothing. Most of it falls well within the range of a modern small-medium. Some are quite large, even by our standards. Surviving corsets--and again, there's a lot of them-- don't typically go smaller than 22". Considering that the corset is not supposed to lace completely closed, this should give you an idea of minimal sizes. You are supposed to have a 2-3" gap in the back. If you can lace it closed, you really need a smaller one.

When you first put it on, you lace it as tight as possible. It will feel tight & you may not be ready for the effect. After several minutes your body will adjust, and it can be laced properly.

What do I mean by body adjusting? People are pretty soft & flexible. Guts can be moved around with little effect on their performance. Xrays of women doing extreme 'corset training' show just how adjustable our innards are. FWIW corset training has as much to do with the real corsets worn by real women as it does with rocket fuel--ie, none at all.

One thing to consider is that kids were put into corsets around the age of 3, so when they grew up they were well-adapted to them. Yes, boys wore them too.

While some parts of corsets can be 'mass produced', the best fit requires some tailoring. The ideal is to have someone who knows what they are doing make you a corset. For most women, then as now, that was too pricey. Instead they bought ready-mades & tailored them as needed.

The one drawback comes when removing it. For a few minutes you hurt, as your bones & muscles get back to work.
 

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You make them, Khaz? OMG I'm so jealous! I've always wanted to try that.

I love my corset, for those very reasons. It makes my back feel good. It improves my posture and gives grace to my movements. It looks beautiful with everything from jeans to full skirts (and is especially nice now that I've lost a bunch of weight, because it's snug when tightly laced [yes, I know, I need a new one] but I can loosen it without it looking odd, and have a bit more room if I want without people knowing). The fact that it gives me a flat tummy and teeny-tiny waist is just a bonus.

I would wear it every day if I could--but as it's made of black velvet that wouldn't be very practical. I'm dying to get more, though. It's one of the things I've promised myself if my book sells.
 

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Excellent post, Khazarkhum!

Also, men wore corsets and no one thought twice about it.

When Vincent Price was researching the role of Prince Albert for a play (with Helen Hayes, no less!) he managed to have a good look at Albert's clothing and was shocked to find corsets were a necessity for everything, especially the quasi-military stuff. After that, Price said he "had" the character--his posture was everything.

I recall a CSI episode about Civil War reinactors and one of them was severely into the corseting side of things, in a very unhealthy way. Of course one should never research fiction by using another fiction, but there must be some truth to it.

Ooooooo! Look what I found--an Aussie corset maker!

Check the gallery--I'm breathless! WOW!

Stand by--incoming case of the vapors!

CorsetComp.jpg


Mom and daughter "health corsets."

180px-Perfect_Health_Corset.png



A Pattern Source.

Man's corset--don't know how accurate it is, though.

I'd forgotten how much fun this stuff is--but if I stop to make a Victorian outfit I won't have time to write!
 
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Pup

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I recall a CSI episode about Civil War reinactors and one of them was severely into the corseting side of things, in a very unhealthy way. Of course one should never reseach fiction by using another fiction, but there must be some truth to it.

That's something I can talk about, since as I mentioned above I used to make dresses for reenactors, as a business that expanded from making historic clothes for myself and my wife to save money.

There's the erotic or body-shaping corseting world, and there might be some overlap among reenactors, but if there is, I never ran into it. The progressive end of the hobby that I dealt with just wears period underwear as a normal matter of course at reenactments, because it's all part of recreating period life which is what they enjoy, but there's not really any focus on it in particular.

Every woman I made a dress for gave me measurements over a corset, and the measurements were well within the normal range for a random group of modern women. I've been around dozens of women wearing corsets (and dresses too of course :) ), and seen them doing hard work, riding side-saddle, pregnant, you-name-it. My wife has a lighter-boned one for a lower-class working impression, and a more highly boned one for an upper-class or Sunday-clothes impression.

After so many years, I think I've lost my ability to see normal 19th century clothing as anything strange--though of course they had some wacky fashions just as we have body piercing, spike heels, fetish-inspired fashions, and odd impractical stuff too.

Other reenactors less comfortable with the idea of historic clothing wear modern underwear and usually less accurate outer garments as well, and generally have the mindset that as long as something is hidden, it can or should be modern.

I'd forgotten how much fun this stuff is--but if I stop to make a Victorian outfit I won't have time to write!

Careful, it's addictive. :)
 

clara bow

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Wow, that was exactly my thought yesterday after posting here. I was also wondering how they handled nursing. I suppose there were flaps built in for easy access...for the sake of all those moms, I hope so!


*slaps self on forehead* I need to read all posts before commenting. d'oh!

I came across a Ladies Home Journal from (I think) the 1890s. In there was an ad for a maternity corset! It was designed for the comfort of the woman and safety for the baby. Can you believe it?
 
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clara bow

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Another question (and pardon my ignorance, but this is why I'm trying to learn): Could a woman put the athletic corset on and off by herself? I had read about the athletic ones and wondered if this would be a good fit (!) for my character. Thanks for all the terrific information. Can't wait to thank you all in my acknowledgments, should I be so lucky.

Athletic Corsets, for riding etc, were made of elasticized cotton and lightly boned. Light boning means at the side seams and on either side of the back panels, where it is laced; and by the busk, the snap device for the front. These were in use from 1830-right through to the 20s.
 

clara bow

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I have to admit, though, I find photos like these a little unsettling. Just when I think I have a high tolerance for things that can happen to the human body, I get a little squeamish knowing what can happen sometimes while wearing corsets. I think it's more the extreme part of the fashion that bothers me, in the sense that I get sad thinking about all the health risks (I have the same reaction to seeing dangerously thin people who I suspect have anorexia nervosa).

this topic is both fascinating and sobering.

CorsetComp.jpg


Mom and daughter "health corsets."

180px-Perfect_Health_Corset.png



A Pattern Source.

Man's corset--don't know how accurate it is, though.

I'd forgotten how much fun this stuff is--but if I stop to make a Victorian outfit I won't have time to write!
 

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Another question (and pardon my ignorance, but this is why I'm trying to learn): Could a woman put the athletic corset on and off by herself?

Unless things changed dramatically from mid-century to the end of the century, a woman could put on any corset by herself. It unhooks at the busk in the front, and the laces are only for adjusting. (I just asked my wife for details.) She says she loosens the laces a little in back, puts it on and hooks the busk. Then she reaches behind and tightens the laces a little, maybe takes a tug at the top and the middle too rather than just pulling the strings at the bottom, like tightening shoestrings. Then she ties the laces in a bow at the bottom.

To take it off, she just unhooks the busk.

Her lighter-boned corset, based off a pattern in Godey's, has no laces, buttons down the front, and has wide shoulder straps. It's more like a sports bra, in that it's designed to compress the bust, while regular corsets are more designed to support the bust from below.

(I have the same reaction to seeing dangerously thin people who I suspect have anorexia nervosa).

That's exactly it. In every era, there are people who take fashions and peer pressure to extremes. A woman in the 19th century who wore a corset normally would be upset by those pictures too, just like a women today who diets to maintain a healthy weight would nonetheless be upset to see a woman harm herself due to anorexia.