Yikes! I've read some scary books in my days; yes, some real horror stories, but this!
Whoa. For someone like myself who grew up in the '60s, the age of "let it all hang out," who burned her bra back in the '70s and hasn't seen the
likes of one since, visions of these poor women imprisoned in whalebone torture devices is, to me, the stuff nightmares are made of.
Seriously, this is a most fascinating book, excellently written by Kristina Seleshanko, who has authored lots of historic fashion books. It is filled with historic ads., illustrations, photos, and even a few patterns, all concerning the phenomenon of corsets, which gradually evolved into the more familiar and much less painful girdle. And the early examples are truly horrifying. Why these women felt they had to submit their bodies to such unnatural contortions is beyond me, but fortunately they eventually learned they were creating serious, even fatal health issues, and that led, slowly, albeit, to undergarments that were much less dangerous.
I learned so much from this book, having had an interest in fashion, history, and historic fashion for a long, long time. The first thing that quite floored me, which should have been so obvious, concerns the health issues, first mentioned on page iv in the introductory section. Seleshanko writes, "During the nineteenth century, doctors and laymen began suspecting a connection between women's notoriously delicate health and corset wearing." Just think about that. How many women died in childbirth? Or were frail, pale, and seemed to succumb all too easily to the slightest exposure to any disease that made its rounds. Can you just imagine how squashed and compressed their organs must have been? How could their blood even circulate through their bodies correctly? It didn't. Seleshanko also states that "a corseted woman's lung power was reduced by one fifth." How many times have we read in Victorian novels, of women speaking "breathlessly." It was literal. In fact, there were cases of women lacing up too tight and breaking a rib, or even rupturing a blood vessel, causing instant death.
What is more shocking is that girls as young as age four wore training corsets, and by the time they were twelve, were wearing regular corsets. Even little boys wore them.
This book begins in the 18th century, where small waists, big hips and squashed up boobs seemed to be the style which evolved into the Victorian "hourglass" figure. That later evolved into that distorted posture from the late 1800s to early 1900s, which emphasized chest thrust forward and butt sticking out back. The long lean look of the teens made way for the flappers of the twenties, but by then girdles were being born. Slim waists came in again in the forties, and went right back out. By the fifties, undergarments were getting sexier—something you'd actually want the man in your life to see you wearing! Of course now, corsets have returned as an ultra-sexy garment, as in Victoria's Secret and the like.
I took lots and lots of notes as I read, and will present to you some of the information I found particularly interesting. And though I try to avoid doing this, in this book it was necessary, so I did take a handful of photos from the book to share.
I really did not know this, but bras only became popular in the 1930s. So the corset was the means to support the bosom, and to push it up and out, when fashion dictated. Below are some stays from the 18th century, found on page 3. The one in the top right is for a nursing mother. And yes, there were maternity corsets, too. One wonders why babies didn't come out all squashed and deformed. And one can also understand why so many died in infancy and were so frail in childhood. What a terrible ruin these needless undergarments caused!
The next is from page 15. Notice the tiny, tiny waist of the lady in the upper right, and the pushed-up boobs. For the image in the bottom left, Seleshanko has written: "What the average Victorian woman looked like in a corset. Large hips, stomach and bosom were encouraged." There were also corsets for wearing under a bathing suit! Can you imagine that?
There were corsets designed to support the heavy skirts, which were normally supported by the waist, and now considered unhealthy. But with this corset, the poor lady's shoulders bore the burden.
One company that designed corsets with more flexibility was Delsarte Manufacturing, which boasted that their "waists" and girdles were perfect for women who went to the gymnasium.
By the early 1900s that distorted posture of chest-out-in-front, butt-out-in-back was in style, and the corsets were there to assist ladies in conforming their bodies to suit the style, with tiny waists, too. Below are some examples from page 28. And speaking of tiny waists here is a "shocking" photo, from page 44. I'm sorry, I mean, I know they didn't have Photoshop back then but seriously, I do NOT believe that image is "real." It is creepy, either way. By the way, the bottom right drawing on the first image is a corset for a little boy "to encourage correct posture."
The image below, from page 46 demonstrates the "old posture" and the new for 1900. The next shows a maternity corset, and on the bottom, one of the several "racy" photos included in the book. The last one shows a woman lacing an S-curve corset for the "pigeon bosom" look. Indeed . . . . Next to that, from page 51, we see the long lean look of 1913. Prepare for the flappers of the 1920s! Incidentally, I found the prices of these garments interesting, too. From the ads included in the book from the late 1800s-early 1900s, $1 to $5 seemed the norm, but one on page 53 was $25! Wow, I wouldn't pay that much for a piece of underwear today. In the 1920s, though, as girdles came into style and gradually replaced the corset, the price went down again. On page 64, an ad from 1927-28 has an "inexpensive corset" for only 89¢ and a brassiere for 45¢, from the M.W. Savage Co. catalog.
By page 69, the models look much more modern, with bras and girdles like you
might even see today. The company names get familiar, too. That page was from a Montgomery Ward catalogue of 1934. On page 73, we see a panty girdle from
1941, and an ad by Maiden Form on page 74, from Harper's Bazaar. On page 84 is a page from a Sears, Roebuck and Co.catalog,
when "neo-Victorian" dresses once again required a skinny waist. That trend came in and went back out during the '40s. By the way, the Warner
Brothers Corset Company mentioned quite a bit throughout the book is not related to the entertainment company. It is now Warnaco, and one of its more
familiar trademarks is White Stag, which it sold to Wal-Mart. Other familiar companies mentioned here are May Company and Bali.
Below, from an ad by Warner's in 1952 on page 94, we finally see something you might want your husband or boyfriend to see you wearing. If you're my age, at least. In a Montgomery Ward catalog from 1956-57, we can now purchase girdles in black, blue, white, pink, and red. Yeah, RED. And finally, a quite modern ad (if you were born in the '50s like me), for a girdle that "can't ride up—ever!" from Perma-lift. This is found on page 115.
In all, this is just plain fun to read, and in addition, I learned quite a bit of fascinating and unexpected facts. I really like the title, too! If you are interested in historic fashion, this book is highly recommended. For more fashion book reviews on my site, please see the Fashion Index Page.
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