From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The corset controversy is an ensemble of
letters and articles concerning the corset that appeared in newspapers and
periodicals in the 19th century.
Changing form of the corset
Corsets, also called bodices or stays, were
worn by European women from the 16th century onward, changing their
form as fashions changed. For most of this period, floor-length
full skirts were the norm. Variations were endless. The French
court dress of the 18th century with its extensive drapery
supported by panniers was an extreme but telling example of the
style. The English had their "robe anglaise”. Irrespective of
variation, rigid corsets beneath the dress compressed the waist.
Beginning in the 1790s, there was an abrupt break with tradition
as the Empire silhouette became fashionable.
Coinciding with the French Revolution, a revolution occurred in
women's clothing. Inspired by the tunics of classical antiquity,
dresses were high-waisted and loose fitting, with a long flowing
skirt. The corset was reduced to a minimal form, primarily to
support the bosom.
Then, starting in the mid 1820's, women's fashion returned to
the full skirts of the prior century. In a repudiation of the
Empire silhouette, the waist became the central focus of female
dress. The corset assumed the dominant role it would hold for the
rest of the 19th century. Designed to emphasize the waist, it was
pulled in as required to achieve the desired tenuity.  Doctors
and much of the press deplored the garment but were unable to
override the dictates of fashion.
Criticism of the corset was nothing new. During a tight lacing period of
the prior century, Jean Jacques Rousseau had denounced the practice
in The Lancet  while
cartoons of the period satirized the practice. What
had changed was that in the 19th century, women were writing
letters to publications expressing their views directly and
articulately. The one-sided denunciation of the past turned into a
Women made their voices heard, sharing their experiences and
their opinions, some in favor of the corset and even tight lacing.
Newspapers and popular journals became the media for the exchange
of hundreds of letters and articles concerning the corset.
Known as the "corset controversy" or simply the "corset
question", the controversy spilled over multiple publications,
multiple decades, and multiple countries. Of particular and
singular concern was the issue of tight lacing. The flow of
articles and letters waxed and waned over time, reaching a
crescendo in the late 1860s, which may be taken to be the peak of
the frenzy. However, the issue surfaced long before and continued
long afterward. Throughout this period, advertisements in the same
publications promoted the sale of corsets with enthusiasm. 
English publications in which the controversy raged included the
The Times, Lancet, Queen, The Scotsman, Ladies Treasury, The
Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine, and All the Year
In America, the Chicago Tribune, looked across the
Atlantic and sniffed,
- the English journals are indulging in one of their
periodical battles over the corset question. At moderate intervals
the pros and cons of tight lacing are hotly discussed by our
British brothers and sisters with very great fervor and very little
Despite its disdain, the Chicago Tribune published its own
contributions. Other American newspapers and periodicals also
participated, including The New York Times, The Washington
Post, The Boston Globe, the Hartford Daily Courant,
the North American Review, and The Saint Paul Daily
Other parts of the English-speaking world joined from time to
time, reprinting articles from England and America, as well as
contributing their own. Even provincial newspapers such as the
Amador Ledger of California, the Hobart Town
Courier, the Otago Witness, and the Timaru
Herald of New Zealand had their say.
of the Controversy
Much of the controversy can be simply summarized: The detractors
of the corset argued that it was harmful to health, its wearing
prompted by vanity and foolishness. The advocates rejoined that it
was required for fashionable dress and had its own unique
However such a summary fails to do justice to the countless
variations and subtleties of the discourse. Hundreds of letters and
articles appear, woven into multiple threads. As the controversy
went on for decades without significant change of substance or
tone, a chronological exposition would prove tedious. Instead, it
is most useful to describe the controversy by its major themes.
The views, particularly those in favor of tight lacing, are so
remarkable that no summary can represent them faithfully. Only
actual quotations from the time can do them justice.
The line between wearing corsets in general and tight lacing in
particular was never drawn precisely. Many detractors denounced
both, obviating the distinction, while many advocates endorsed
both. Additionally, many women who wore corsets denied that they
tight laced, adding confusion to the controversy. The West
Coast Times wrote 
- The evil consequences of tight lacing are universally
admitted. Ladies, however, generally refuse to acknowledge that
tight lacing is at all common. Each possessor of a small waist
claims that it is a gift of Nature, not a work of art, and wears a
corset, not for the purpose of compressing her shape into a narrow
circumference, but merely as a comfortable, if not necessary
Reading the correspondence today, one cannot help but be
incredulous as to some of these practices. Indeed, some dress
scholars such as Doris Moore have characterized various letters as
spurious and fantasies.
However, the articles and letters appeared in a wide variety of
publications, in multiple countries, and over several decades
suggesting that they were, in the main, authentic. It is most
likely they are a manifestation of the values their time.
Then, as today, women suffered for the sake of fashion. For
perspective, one might consider recent articles by modern women
concerning high heels. Sarah Sands, English author of a topical
column on social and cultural issues, wrote in The
- High heels are to us what corsets were to late Victorian
women. They are inhumanly uncomfortable – and yet self-imposed. ...
Women burned their bras but now subject their feet to terrifying
pieces of engineering in order to lengthen their legs and reduce
their waists. Since the Sixties, society has been founded on
comfort, convenience and personal freedom. Yet, in 2008, women are
squeezing their Ugly Sister feet into shoes that are
heartbreakingly beautiful and feel like the crucifixion. Some
things are simply worth the suffering.
Sunday Times of London ran a similar article .
- Why must everything in life be good, wholemeal, mid-heel
and earnest if you are to be a respectable female? High heels may
stand on un-PC ground, but we choose them knowingly and interpret
them on our own terms by attaching them to our feet, making them an
extension of us. The relationship a woman has with her heels comes
from the same sickening lack of common sense displayed in a bad,
but good, love affair. The pain, the suffering — the joy of
The dress styles of the time called for full skirts and small
waists emphasized the fashion. That fashion should govern women's
dress seemed as certain to the majority then as it does to a few
today. The corset was the device that enabled the small waist.
Fashionable Dress, late 19th Century
The Saint Paul Daily Globe wrote 
- CORSETS FOR BELLES, How they Mound the form in the
- There is not a single fashionable woman who des not wear a
corset. Some of the slender young debutantes affect the picturesque
princess bodice, with the whalebones inserted in every
- "Go without my stays? Never" exclaimed one of the leaders
of fashion. "I wouldn't do anything so untidy. I think a woman
without corsets is most unsightly." "You cannot look smart and have
a pretty figure without stays. It is impossible."
There were countless denunciations. Fashions that required a
tiny waist were deemed oppressive. One such appeared in the
Chicago Tribune 
- THE SLAVES OF FASHION, through Long Centuries Women Have
Obeyed Her Whims
- It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel
or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by
fashion on civilized womanhood during the last generation. ... the
tight lacing required by the wasp waist has produced generations of
invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish
for many decades. ... And in order to look stylish, thousands of
women wear dress waist so tight that no free movement of the upper
body is possible; indeed in numbers of instances, ladies are
compelled to put their bonnets on before attempting the painful
ordeal of getting into glove-fitting dress waists.
Yet some women professed to enjoy the practice. A letter to the
Boston Globe reads 
- I myself have never felt any ill effects from nearly 30
years of the most severe tight lacing, nor have I yet found any
authentic case of real harm being done by stays, even when laced to
the utmost degree of tightness, both day and night.
- People who write against the practice of tight lacing are
either those who have never been laced and have never take the
trouble to inquire into the pros and cons of the subject, or those
who have, perhaps been once lace up very tightly in badly made,
ill-fitting stays with the settled determination of finding them
most awful instruments of torture.
- Those who have been systematically laced up in proper stays
from their childhood are the only ones who are capable of forming a
right judgment on this subject and I hope you will allow tight
lacers the opportunity of defending themselves against the enemies
of trim little waist.
A corsetiere described how women might attain the desired waist
- In our business, we constantly find women who want to have
the waist made smaller and who are willing to endure anything in
the world except hanging to get a little waist. ... We measure the
corset, pulling he measurements snug. And we tell the woman to wear
it as tightly as she can comfortably do. Then we suggest a series
of corsets, each a little smaller than the last, thus making the
transition a slow and easy one from a big waist to a little
- We frequently have customers who want to wear a corset day
and night in the extreme eagerness to get thin. ... We have made
this woman two corsets, one for day wear and one for night wear.
The day corset is a nineteen inch. ... As soon as the waist has
been reduced, and it is coming down rapidly, we will make two more
corsets. The new ones will measure seventeen for day wear and
eighteen inches for night wear. And in a short time we hope to
present the woman with a pair of sixteen inch corsets to fit her
Doctors railed against the practice as positively harmful. Women
replied that tight lacing was actually beneficial and well as
enjoyable. The following exchange, which took place during ten days
in 1869 in the pages of The Times of London, gives a
flavor of the discourse that volleyed back and forth for
The exchange was initiated by a note in the British medical
journal, the Lancet ,
which was reprinted in The Times of London.
- Our old friend, tight-lacing, has again made his
appearance. ... The folly is one which was formerly to be found
mainly in the drawing-room, but now it also fills our streets. It
is lamentable to observe at every turn a woman, young or old, who
moves forward in a stooping position, unable even to hold herself
upright in consequence of the constraint upon the muscles of the
back. ... as medical practitioners, we see its effects every day in
the train of nervous and dyspeptic symptoms by this it is
constantly indicated, and in the still more grave internal mischief
of permanent character which is often caused by it. Until some
little physiological knowledge is made a part of female education,
and is considered an "accomplishment", we suppose it is of little
use to protest against the cruel injury to health which women thus
inflict upon themselves.
A reader signing herself "Not a Girl of the Period" wrote a
letter to The Times in reply 
- Sir, -- As the paragraph with the above heading, copied
in The Times from the Lancet a few days ago, has
naturally excited some discussion among those affected by it, I
request to say a few words in our defense. The writer in the
Lancet says he sees ladies stooping in consequences of being
tight-laced. As any person of experience knows that wearing tight
stays of proper construction, and stiff enough in front, produces
exactly the contrary effect. Those whom he sees stooping have
either acquire the habit during the late fashion of neglecting the
figure, or are led into it by wearing the stays with weak steels in
front, for which we are indebted to the doctors ...
- He may learn from Fairholt's Costumes and other
books, that in spite of the denunciations of doctors of medicine
and theology, this fashion has flourished throughout Europe for a
thousand years at least and no means among our sex alone. And if he
will, for once, consult instead of advising those who have had real
experience of it, he will learn that when practiced judiciously it
is not only harmless, but often beneficial to health, and extremely
A reader, signing herself, Anti-Slavery countered 
- ... feminine curiosity compel me to ask what sort of flesh
and blood, body and bones are possessed by "not a Girl of the
Period" to enable her to find tight-lacing "extremely pleasant" ...
Tight-lacing, or an approach to it, is as extremely unpleasant as
it is unnecessary for either health or elegance. It is practices
because its victims suppose it improves their appearance, and
because they can bear it with that female fortitude with enable us
to endure so much. ... I have not worn stays or any substitute form
them since my school days, and many friends who have paid me the
complement of wishing to imitate my carriage have left them off
too, and have never return to them, finding that their figures
suffered no more than mine from the freedom which is too delightful
to give up.
The Lancet felt compelled to reply as well, expanding
on its medical arguments 
- The writer of a letter to 'The Times', who signs herself
"not a Girl of the Period", takes up the cudgels on behalf of the
tight lacers, and impugns the accuracy of our options that the
practice is a injurious to the health as its effects are monstrous
to the eye. ... If a lady encases herself in a stiff pair of stays,
and laces them tightly, the lungs would be quite unprovided with
air, and she would speedily die but for the action of the
diaphragm. By this she is saved, but her safety is purchased at a
- And we do not hesitate to say that to the practice of tight
lacing is due a very large number of distressing female ailments,
over and beyond those derangements of digestion and circulation to
which we have already referenced in our former article. The writer
in The Times refers us to Fairholt's Costumes,
for proof that, in spite of denunciation, the fashion has
flourished throughout Europe for a thousand years at least, and her
inference is evident that the continuance of the practice under
these circumstances proved it innocuous -- a style of argument by
which, we need scarcely remark, the harmlessness of theft, murder,
drunkenness, and a few other "fashions" might equally well be
substantiated. -- The Lancet
Other readers wrote to extol the virtues of tight lacing 
- ... though few ladies may be able to attain the coveted
size of "16 inches that may be spanned", such is the flexibility of
the female frame that with properly fitted stays -- not the flimsy
ready-made article generally sold -- most ladies may, without
discomfort or injury, attain a smallness of waist that would
delight both themselves and their friends.
Corset Advertisement, 1886
It was expected that women would wear corsets and it was part of
a mother's duty to her female offspring to have them wear the
how and when might depend on the mother, the daughter, the place,
and the time. However, some things were the much the same
everywhere. Two examples, one from the American frontier of 1880,
the other from London in 1907, are variations on the theme.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was an
American author who wrote a series of children's books based on her
childhood in a pioneer family. Little Town on the
Prairie is set in 1880 in South Dakota in an area recently
settled. Despite being on the frontier, the women and, in
particular the girls, were expected to behave according to the
norms of the times. Its date, in 1941, takes it out of the
"discussion" period, but as it was written as a children's book for
girls, its account is unlikely to be spurious or a fantasy, so it
serves as a reliable testament of some the more curious practices
such as sleeping in corsets.
The family had four daughters, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace,
the youngest. Mary, the eldest, tries on a dress that is found not
to fit until her corset is laced more tightly, leading to the
following exchange 
- "I'm glad I don't have to wear corsets yet," said
- "Be glad while you can be," said Laura. "You'll have to
wear them pretty soon." Her corsets were a sad affliction to her,
from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them
off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts
down to their shoe tops, they must wear corsets.
- "You should wear them at night," Ma said. Mary did, but
Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that would
not let her draw a deep breath. Always before she could get to
sleep, she had to take off her corsets.
- "What your figure will be, goodness knows," Ma warned her.
"When I was married, your Pa could span my waist with his two
In fashionable London, tight lacing was a serious affair.
The New York Times wrote 
- ...tight lacing is fashionable again. One of the most
exclusive corsetieres in Oxford Street, who is the authority for
the statement, said today:
- "We are on the verge of another tiny-waist craze. The
demand for the smaller sizes in corsets has doubled in the last six
months. Eighteens are now in common demand and orders for
seventeen-inch and sixteen-inch corsets have greatly increased in
the last few weeks. Not a few of my clients are systematically
training for the fashionable measurements.
- "When the eventual size is decided upon, three pairs of
corsets are made, one for ordinary wear, one for special occasions,
and another for night wear. To take a typical case, a young lady
was brought to me by her mother at the beginning of the year. The
girl, who was 16 years old, was tall and already possessed of a
well-developed figure. She had a waist that measured twenty inches.
Her mother was desirous that it be reduced to sixteen
- "I provided three pairs of corsets of graduated sizes, and
the young miss wore sixteen-inch corsets, laced close the week
before last at the Buckingham Palace garden party. She and her
mother were so delighted with the effect that the girl came to me a
day or two later to be measured for a pair of fifteens for dress
There was no shortage of those who condemned both mother and
daughter. For example 
- What is to be said for the sinful folly (the mania is
apparently not confined to the young) of the mother who put her
child into corsets as six years old, or the young lady who "enjoys
the feeling of tight lacing so much," and never lets her waist
exceed 17 inches or 15 3/4 if she has no breakfast? We are not
surprised to hear that she cannot walk. Are there really such
foolish relatives as the one who insisted on a young woman reducing
her waist to 17 inches saying "No man will marry a girl unless she
looks smart." These unfortunate victims of fashion sleep in their
corsets, and know no release night or day from the agony of tight
ligaments pressing gradually on soft and growing bones.
In some cases, mothers started their daughters wearing corsets
in early childhood. The New York Times described the
practice in its Fashion section 
- From the time an infant wears dresses, a kind of broad belt
is used, with shoulder pieces. To this, the child's undergarments
are buttoned. Little girls wear these until they are about 7 years
of age. From this time, the belt has rather more shape, and the
back part is supported on both sides by a whalebone or a very soft
steel spring. From the age of 10 to 12 years, another bone is added
in the back. Corsets for young ladies have busks, narrow
whalebones, and very soft steel springs. Ladies' corsets of satin
or other material have jointed busks, and are drawn in over the
hips, making the front of the corsets very long.
Mothers wrote letters describing their version of the practice.
The following, published in the English periodical
- ... that the formation of the waist is not begun early
enough. The consequence of this is, that the waist has to be
compressed into a slender shape after it has been allowed to swell,
and the stays are therefore made so as to allow of being laced
tighter and tighter.
- Now I am persuaded that much inconvenience is caused by
this practice, which might be entirely avoided by the following
simple plan, which I have myself tried with my own daughters, and
have found to answer admirably. At the age of seven I had them
fitted with stays without much bone and a flexible busk, and these
were made to meet from top to bottom when laced, and so as not to
exercise the least pressure round the chest and beneath the waist,
and only a very slight pressure at the waist, just enough to show
off the figure and give it a roundness. To prevent the stays from
slipping, easy shoulder-straps were added. In front, extending from
the top more than half way to the waist, were two sets of
lace-holes, by which the stays could be enlarged round the upper
- As my daughters grew, these permitted of my always
preventing any undue pressure, but I always laced the stays so as
to meet behind. When new ones were required they were made exactly
the same size at the waist, but as large round the upper part as
the gradual enlargement had made the former pair. They were also of
course made a little longer, and the position of the
shoulder-straps slightly altered; by these means their figures were
directed, instead of forced, into a slender shape; no inconvenience
was felt, and my daughters, I am happy to say, are straight, and
enjoy perfect health, while the waist of the eldest is eighteen
inches, and that of the youngest seventeen. I am convinced that my
plan is the most reasonable one that can be adopted.
- By this means 'tight-lacing' will be abolished, for no
tight-lacing or compression is required, and the child, being
accustomed to the stays from an early age, does not experience any
of the inconveniences which are sometimes felt by those who do not
adopt them till twelve or fourteen.
Another letter, in the Boston Globe,  is
- ...I know many mothers who are not only enthusiastic lacers
themselves, but are very strict in employing this article of dress
in the foundation of their children’s figures. Each of my own
daughters — I have four — on her seventh birthday was provided with
a snugly-fitting pair of corsets, which she wore from that time
out, by night as well as by day, unless in case of decided illness.
As the child grew, more bones were added, and the chest and hip
measure was increased, but no alteration was made in the waist, and
no expansion being allowed during the hours of sleep, its tenuity
was retained and there was no necessity of resorting to
tight-lacing, which becomes requisite where corsets are not worn
until the figure has grown large. It goes without saying that I
wear corsets myself, and though I have left youth far behind I
still have a figure that provokes admiration ...
In much of fashionable society, a girl was expected to have a
fashionably small waist. Girls' schools were preparation for
society and there were headmistresses who treated that attainment
as part of the girls' schooling. As the girl was not yet an adult,
her opinion was not considered.
Three letters form a thread that illustrates the issue.  The
thread begins with a letter written by a mother
- I have been abroad for the last four years, during which I
left my daughter at a large and fashionable boarding school near
London; I sent for her home directly I arrived, and, having had no
bad accounts of her health during my absence, I expected to see a
fresh rosy girl of seventeen come bounding to welcome me. What,
then, was my surprise to see a tall, pale young lady glide slowly
in with measured gait and languidly embrace me?
- When she had removed her mantle I understood at once what
had been mainly instrumental in metamorphosing my merry romping
girl to a pale fashionable belle. Her waist had, during the four
years she had been at school, been reduced to such absurdly small
dimension that I could easily have clasped it with my two hands.
‘How could you be so foolish,’ I exclaimed, ‘as to sacrifice your
health for the sake of a fashionable figure?’
- Please don’t blame me, mamma,’ she replied; ‘I assure you I
would not have voluntarily submitted to the torture I have suffered
for all the admiration in the world.’
- She then told me how the most merciless system of
tight-lacing was the rule of the establishment, and how she and her
forty or fifty fellow-pupils had been daily imprisoned in vices of
whalebone drawn tight by the muscular arms of sturdy waiting-maids,
till the fashionable standard of tenuity was attained. The torture
at first was, she declared, often intolerable; but all entreaties
were vain, as no relaxation of the cruel laces was allowed during
the day under any pretext except decided illness.
The daughter herself continued the account in a subsequent
letter. Rather than deplore the practice and call for its
abolition, her remarkable conclusion was that tight lacing should
be started at an early age.
- In last month's number of your valuable Magazine you were
kind enough to publish a letter from my mamma on the subject of
tight-lacing, and as your correspondent ‘STAYLACE' says she is
inclined to think the whole story made up for purpose, mamma has
requested me to write and confirm what she stated in her
from Leoty, Le corset a travers les ages
- It seems wonderful to me how your correspondent can lace so
tightly and never feel any inconvenience. It may be, very likely,
owing to her having begun very young. In my case I can only say
that I suffered sometimes perfect torture from my stays, especially
after dinner, not that I ate heartily, for that I found impossible,
even if we had been allowed to do so by our schoolmistress, who
considered it unladylike.
- The great difference between your correspondent ‘STAYLACE'
and myself seems to be, that she was incased in corsets at an early
age, and thus became gradually accustomed to tight-lacing, while I
did not wear them till I went to school, at fourteen, and I did not
wear them voluntarily.
- Of course, it is impossible to say whether I underwent
greater pressure than she has; I think I must have done so, for my
waist had grown large before it was subjected to the lacing, and
had to be reduced to its present tenuity, whereas, if she began
stays earlier, that would have prevented her figure from growing so
- I quite admit that slender waists are beautiful - in fact,
my own waist is much admired, and that I sometimes forget the pain
I underwent in attaining it. I am also quite ready to confess that
I am not in ill health, though I often feel languid and disinclined
for walking out, nor do I think a girl whose constitution is sound
would suffered any injury to her health from moderate lacing; but I
must beg that you will allow me to declare that when stays are not
worn till fourteen years of age, very tight lacing causes absolute
torture for the first few months, and it was principally to deter
ladies from subjecting their daughters to this pain, in similar
cases, that mamma wrote to you.
- I am sure any young lady who has (like myself) begun
tight-lacing rather late, will corroborate what I have said, and I
hope some will come foreword and do so, now you kindly give the
A woman signing herself as a schoolmistress defended the
practice as an "elegant article of dress". Her solution agreed with
that of the young lady, commencing the practice at an early
- As regular subscriber to your valuable Magazine, I see you
have invited your numerous readers to discuss, the subject brought
forward by a correspondent in Edinburgh, and as the principal of a
large ladies' school in that city, I feel sure you will kindly
allow me space to say a few words I reply to her letter.
- In the first place it must be apparent that your
correspondent committed a great mistake in placing her daughter at
a fashionable school if she did not wish her to become a
fashionable belle, or she should at least have given instructions
that her daughter should not have her figure trained in what every
one knows is the fashionable style. For my own part I have always
paid particular attention to the figures of the young ladies
entrusted to my care, and being fully convinced that if the general
health is properly attended to, corsets are far from being the
dreadfully hurtful things some people imagine, I have never
hesitated to employ this most important and elegant article of
dress, except in one case where the pupil was of a consumptive
tendency, and I was specially requested not to allow her to dress
at all tightly.
- All my pupils enjoy good health, my great secret being
regular exercise, a point which is almost always disregarded. It
appears from your correspondent's letter that the young lady did
not experience any inconvenience the first two years she was at the
school, nor does her mother say her health was affected. She only
complains that she is no longer a ‘romping girl.' Now, no young
lady of eighteen who expects to move in fashionable society would
with to be thought a romping schoolgirl. With regard to no doubt
caused by her not having been accustomed by degrees to a
close-fitting dress before she went to the school.
- I find that girls who have commenced the use of stays at an
early age, and become gradually used to them, do not experience any
uneasiness when they are worn tighter at fourteen or fifteen. There
can be no doubt that a slender figure is as much admired as ever,
and always will be so. The present fashion of short waists is
admitted on all hands to be very ugly, and will soon go out. Those
girls, then, who have not had their figures properly attended to
while growing will be unable to reduce their waists when the
fashion changes, whereas, by proper care now, they will be able to
adopt the fashion of longer waists without any inconvenience. I
trust you will allow us schoolmistresses fair play in this
important matter, and insert this, or part of it, in your
One young lady looked back upon the practice with a certain
- I venture to trouble you with a few particulars the subject
of ‘tight-lacing,' having seen a letter in your March number
inviting correspondence on the matter. I was placed at the age of
fifteen at a fashionable school in London, and there is was the
custom for the waists of the pupils to be reduced one inch per
month until they were what the lady principal considered small
enough. When I left school a seventeen, my waist measured only
thirteen inches, it having been formerly twenty-three inches in
- Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to
dress, and a governess superintended, to see that our corsets were
drawn as tight as possible. After the first few minutes every
morning I felt no pain, and the only ill effects apparently were
occasional headaches and loss of appetite. ...
- Generally all the blame is laid by parents of the principal
of the school, but it is often a subject of the greatest rivalry
among the girls to see which can get the smallest waist, and often
while servant was drawing in the waist of my friend to the utmost
of her strength, the young lady, though being tightened till she
had hardly breath to speak, would urge the maid to pull the stays
yet closer, and tell her not to let the lace slip in the
However, other young ladies recalled the practice with little
- WASP WAIST CONTESTS, Curious Course of Training in Old Time
- A letter recently unearthed from a trunk shows that in the
sixties of the last century, principals of girls' schools thought
they were fitting the girls for society by urging them to retain
small waists. Accordingly, they offered prizes to the girls having
the smallest waists. The girls were put through a course of
training for reducing their waist measures. The conditions of the
contest were that the corset should not be removed on retiring at
night and that each pupil must be inspected every morning to make
sure she had not loosened her corset. One of the persons who
engaged in the contest afterward wrote of it:
- "Some of us tried hard to be permitted to retire from the
contest, but we were rebuked for stultifying ourselves and accurse
of making fools of our principals. On the following morning, the
undergoverness, with her maid, came as usual to superintend the
toilets, and after satisfying herself that each lace was drawn in
to the utmost, she fastened it in a knot at the top and, passing
the ends through a piece of card, placed her own seal on them, so
that any attempt to loosen the corset during the night might be
infallibly detected in the morning."
There are many articles admonishing girls to abjure the custom
of tight lacing and assuring them that no man they would want to
marry had any interest in small waists. Typical is 
- The fashion of light lacing obviously owes its origin to a
desire on the part of the ladies to attract admiration. It is of
little importance to point out that they are quite wrong in their
calculations as to the effect, and that the other sex, so far from
admiring a waist of extreme tenuity, shudder at it as something
unnatural, and inconsistent with true beauty. Without regard to
this fact, though it is in itself sufficient to settle the
question, we would press upon the guilty parties, and all
interested in their welfare, that tight lacing is a practice which
cannot be long persisted in without the most disastrous
consequences. It is painful to reflect that parents, so far from
discouraging the practice, as often enforce it upon their children.
We have heard of a young lady whose mother stood over her every
morning, with the engine of torture in her hand, and
notwithstanding many remonstrative tears, obliged her to submit to
be laced so tightly as almost to stop the power of
Another, entitled "The Absurdity of the Custom as Well as the
Effect upon the Health of Slaves to the Fashion", begins 
- There would be no tight lacing if girls could be made to
understand this simple fact: that men dread the thought of marrying
a woman who is subject to fits of irritable temper, to headaches
and other ailments we need not mention, all of which, everybody
knows, are the direct and inevitable product of the compression of
Mary of Teck shortly before her wedding, 1893
Other articles suggested more dire consequences. A "Doctor
Lewis" wrote 
- A girl who has indulged in tight lacing should not marry.
She may be a very devoted wife, yet her husband will secretly
regret his marriage. Physicians of experience know what is meant,
while thousands of husbands will not only know, but deeply feel the
meaning of this hint.
Whatever the doctors might say, young ladies laced down in
preparation for their wedding, as evidenced by contemporary
Moreover, some women laced down after their marriage to please
husbands who fancied the practice. One such wife wrote 
- I did not commence to lace tightly until I was married, nor
should I have done so then had not my husband been so particularly
fond of a small waist; but I was determined not to lose one atom of
his affection for the sake of a little trouble. I could not bear to
think of him liking any one else's figure better than mine,
consequently, although my waist measured twenty–three inches, I
went and ordered a pair of stays, made very strong and filled with
stiff bone, measuring only fourteen inches round the waist. These,
with the assistance of my maid, I put on, and managed the first day
to lace my waist in to eighteen inches.
- At night I slept in my corset without loosing the lace in
the least. The next day my maid got my waist to seventeen inches,
and so on, an inch smaller every day, until she got them to meet. I
wore them regularly without ever taking them off, having them
tightened afresh every day, as the laces might stretch a
- They did not open in front, so that I could not undo them
if I had wanted. For the first few days the pain was very great,
but as soon as the stays were laced close, and I had worn them so
for a few days, I began to care nothing about it, and in a month or
so I would not have taken them off on an account, for I quite
enjoyed the sensation, and when I let my husband see me with a
dress to fit I was amply repaid for my trouble; and although I am
now grown older, and the fresh bloom of youth is gone from my
cheek, still my figure remains the same, which is a charm age will
not rob me of. I have never had cause to regret the step I
"Il soutient les faibles et contient les forts"
A ladies maid recounted a similar situation 
- I hope you will pardon this letter, but reading the Hon.
Mrs. B’s article on tight lacing, I thought one from a lady’s maid
might interest you, as we see a great deal of this sort of thing. I
am living with a young married lady at present, who is most
particular about her figure and appearance, and her husband is
always talking to her about slim waists and lacing, as he admires
it very much. She is tall, about 5ft. 8in, and well made, so you
can imagine what a business it is pulling her in to 17in; but she
has a splendid figure when she is dressed.
- She always laced tight, but never below 19in till she
married a year ago. Her husband then persuaded and bothered her
into reducing her size. People little think of what pain she is
suffering when they admire her trim waist and tapering figure; but
she is pretty, and has a very pale, good complexion, and white soft
hands and pretty feet, so her female vanity supports her. At 9
o’clock I lace her, after her bath, and a housemaid helps me to
squeeze her waist well in. As I tighten the lace she looks very
white, and her lips often twitch as we pull her in. She never
lunches, and does not walk very much. At night she wears a softer
stay with a 19in waist, as she says it is more painful to allow her
figure to expand completely, and then lace it up again, than to
keep it always about the same size.
Girls working in "fashion establishments", as they were then
called, wore corsets to suit the dictates of their employers. Tiny
waists were required of employees to sell the then current
fashions, much as size
zero models are frequently used in fashion shows today.
The practice was described by a shopgirl 
- When I first accepted my situation, my waist was twenty
inches. My mistress informed me that I would have to lace for the
benefit of her customers and that I also must agree to sleep in her
- When I was ready to retire on the first night, mistress
came and took my corsets away, and next morning she brought me a
pair which were only 18 inches. She made me put them on and said
that she would lace them in herself. I did as she told me and I had
to stand with the other girls employed in the establishment while
she laced me in. I did not like it at first, standing in a row with
my hair hanging down, waiting for the mistress to come and lace me
in, but of course I soon got used to it as all the other girls had
to do. I was never allowed to dress myself until the mistress had
laced me in ...
- One morning, I was sent for and found that three other
girls besides myself had been called. We learned that we were to
wear 16 inch corsets. At first I rebelled, but the mistress coaxed
me ... When night came, I was glad, for I though I would be able to
take the corsets off. Judge of my dismay when the mistress informed
me that I would have to sleep in these corsets. Next morning as we
stood in line, she measured our waist and told us we would have to
continue sleeping in these corsets. Once a week, she said that we
could be allowed to take them off. At last the time came for us to
take them off and what a relief that was. In a short time, however,
they were put back on again and laced in smaller than ever. ... At
last, though, I got so that the sixteen inch corset would lace up
tight and I knew I was a successful model. ...
- Now I am proud of myself. Mistress has gotten me so that my
waist is only fifteen inches. My corsets, too, are well laced
together. Everybody admires my little waist ... I am not sorry that
I am a model as after all I have gone through I am well looked
after my mistress, and if she were to ask me to put on smaller
corsets, I would do so.
Various writers condemned the practice, for example 
- Now there is one practice which is painfully common among
all classes, and that is the use of the "locked corset". This is
practically a steel corset, with a waist varying from about 14in to
16in. Into this the growing girl is compressed by force, the corset
is shut tight and secured by a lock, the key being kept by the
mother or whoever is responsible for the proceeding.
- It may be observed here that it is the usual practice for
the heads of "trying on" departments in large dress-making and
mantle-making establishments to require all girls engaged in
"trying on" to enter one of these corsets, which is looked, and the
key kept by the head. In the case of the growing girl, the object
is to prevent the waist from growing as the rest of the body
develops, and the idea is really only worthy of Chinese
- In the case of the shop girl, the object is to "preserve"
the figure precisely at the exact amount of compression which is
supposed to I show off ladies' garments to the best advantage. In
any case, the girl is confined in this way by the middle, night and
day. She has to sleep in her "little ease" if she can, and the
torture is such that at first even the shopgirl, worn out with the
fatigues of the day, can hardly sleep for the pain.
- Probably nothing can be done until all women are
sufficiently sensible, to, realize that there is no beauty in a
wasp's waist, that the majority of men do not really care a bit
about it, and that there is real danger in tight-lacing, but surely
the dreadful events which have happened lately ought to do
something to emancipate schoolgirls and debutantes from their
perpetual imprisonment in locked corsets. Elder women who compress
on their own account are responsible for their own folly, but
something ought to be done to put an end to this form of
- Girls in the more fashionable London stores make the most
amazing statements in reference to dress regulations. They are
compelled to compress their waists to a wasp-line slimness to show
off the "creations" to the best advantage.
- "The girls are expected to be living fashion plates," says
the editor of a London trade paper. "The must have all the elegance
of willowy style and lissome, grace of figure, without which there
are no good in the service."
- The editor above referred to a letter from a girl in one of
the most fashionable stores, and she makes this alarming statement.
"The girls are laced up till there are nearly cut in two. Locked
corsets are used, the key being kept by the manageress, and the
corsets being worn night and day."
- In reply to a letter of remonstrance, the firm stated that
they had certain regulations in regard to dress and other matters,
and that no girl ever objected in the least to tight
One such shop girl certainly had her objections
- It is only two months ago that my employer insisted upon my
reducing my waist from 16in to 14in, on the ground that she must
have a model to show the newest fashions on. How could I refuse? I
know many girls who would lace their waist till they fainted to get
a good situation. And so to please these ladies, I am locked day
and night into a vice which hardly allows me to breathe.
Dress Reform Movement
Advocates of dress reform deplored the impractical and
restrictive fashions of the time. The bloomer
dress was a mid-century attempt at rational clothing for women.
It attracted considerable ridicule in the press and relatively few
adopters. Other attempts at dress reform fared no better.
Various dress reformers turned to the printing press. In 1873,
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps wrote 
- Burn up the corsets! ... No, nor do you save the
whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of
the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens
for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation
I assure you, from this moment has begun.
But dress reform had little mainstream impact. Fashion continued
to emphasize the waist and, so long as it did, the corset continued
to be regarded as an indispensable of dress. An unusually
perceptive reformer described the situation in an address to the
National Christian League in 1895. Her speech was reported in the
New York Times,
- WOMEN'S SLAVERY TO FASHION -- She Admires Ideal Garments
but will not Wear Them
- Mrs. Margaret Stanton Lawrence ... told of the artist who
spent years in inventing a dress for woman that would be at once
comfortable, convenient, and beautiful. Success crowned his
efforts, but alas! who would invent the woman to wear this ideal
garment! The dress was delightful, all women admitted, and filled
every requirement, but -- alas again for them! their husbands would
not walk in the streets with the wearers of such a garb, their
fashionable friends begged to be spared the visits of such
unconventional creatures, and the clergymen in the churches asked
that their congregations be not disturbed by thoughts of a woman's
Afternoon Dress circa 1894
It seemed that change would be glacially slow at best. A year
later, The New York Times wrote 
- FOR THE LIBERATED WOMEN; THOSE VALIANT ONES WHO WILL GIVE
UP THE BINDING CORSET. More and More Women Are Doffing Their Stays
-- But It Still Takes High Courage to Join Their Ranks
- The receipt of several letters asking The Times to give
some designs suitable for making up gowns to be worn without
corsets has suggested the article here presented. The leaven is
working among women: Many have discarded them, many more, mothers,
who feel that it is too late for them to change, are persuading
their growing daughters to omit their adoption. ... Human nature is
weak, very weak, when it comes to the question of personal
appearance, and having for generations adopted the standard of a
tapering waist as a mark of feminine beauty of figure, it is going
to take character, perseverance, religion even to counteract this.
- "One of the most pathetic speeches that I have listened to
in a long time", said a woman recently, "was that made by a friend
to me the other day. We were discussing hygienic dress and the use
of disuse of corsets. I remarked casually and tritely that it took
a good deal of moral courage to give them up. 'Moral courage!' she
repeated, 'it takes wrestling with the Lord. There is no plea I
have made oftener of my Heavenly Father than that He would give me
strength to persevere in this thing'".
All this changed in the early 20th century when the world of
fashion circled back to styles reminiscent of the Empire
silhouette. Fashionable dress was fluid and soft, with flowing
lines. What rational dress reform was unable to accomplish in
decades of rhetoric, the wheel of changing fashion brought about
almost overnight. The waist became unimportant and the
waist-restricting corset lost its significance.
Paul Poiret was
one of the leaders in this movement. He replaced the corset with
the hobble skirt ,
which, while equally restrictive, was different and thus readily
adopted in an era eager for change.  In
his autobiography, Poiret wrote 
- It was in the name of Liberty that I proclaimed the fall of
the corset and the adoption of the brassiere, which since then, has
won the day. Yes, I freed the bust, but I shackled the
The hobble skirt lasted but a few years, but its adoption marked
the beginning of the end. Other designers such as Madeleine
Vionnet, Mariano Fortuny, and Coco Chanel soon
followed with simple comfortable fashions that freed the entire
woman. With their adoption into mainstream fashion, the corset
controversy receded into a historical curiosity.
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