Sunday, 8 February 2015

Dress Down Sunday: A Guest Blogger on the Question of Waist Size




LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES




DD Petticoat


In last week’s Dress Down Sunday, we quoted Cecil Beaton on the female form. This is part of what Beaton said:
With whalebone corsets that ruthlessly laced the human figure into an hour-glass shape, Victorian waistlines became as small as 16 inches. But though a small waistline was essential, the flesh above and below had to be full, of a Renoir-like voluptuousness.
Straight into the comments came one of Clothes in Books’ favourite readers  Daniel Milford-Cottam, expert costume commenter associated with the world-renowned V and A museum in London.

What he had to say was a revelation to me, frankly, and I think it is well worth passing on to a wider audience. In fairness to him, I should say that this was his extemperaneous, off-the-cuff comment, not edited or rewritten: but he has good-naturedly agreed to my reproducing it.

Meanwhile I have obtained his marvellous book Edwardian Fashion,  mentioned below, and will be doing an entry on it soon.

And now I am handing over to our honoured guest blogger.

Daniel Milford-Cottam writes: Ahhh, that lovely old bit of chestnutty dingly-dangly-male-specific-bits about how every Victorian woman had a 16 inch (or less) waist or wanted one. Or that the ideal waist size was 18". I have nothing against waist fetishists and perverts, but sometimes I could quite cheerfully track down the original tight-lacing pervs and beat them about the head repeatedly with an ironclad* for writing their fantasies up in such a way that future perverts and non-perverts took them as gospel truth and reported accordingly.

As the marvellous Mrs. Eric Pritchard wrote in "The Cult of Chiffon" in 1902 (a time when, if you believe a lot of people, every woman was forcing herself into a S-bend corset of unimaginable waist-minusculeness) , "there never was a time when tight-lacing was less in favour" and advising her readers that such practices were vulgar and viewed with disfavour. I have a good myth-busting go at this in my Edwardian Fashion book for Shire. (sorry! Vulgar book plug!)

In addition to this, Doris Langley-Moore, whose collection formed the basis of the Fashion Museum's in Bath, in the late 1940s, carried out an intensive survey with a tape measure of 19th century dresses from the period, to investigate the 18-inch waist myth. She found that almost none of the bodices surveyed had a waist of less than 22 inches, and that the average corseted waist measurement of actual dresses was around 26-28 inches.

Back to Mrs Pritchard: her "The Cult of Chiffon" - basically a style manual advising the fashionable lady of 1902 on how to dress - is magnificent. It desperately needs to be produced as a facsimile edition - I have an original, incredibly rare copy of it, and it provided so many wonderful quotes for Edwardian Fashion, such as, on the tendency of "nice" ladies to wear revolting Victorian underwear, such as hideous "drab-coloured merino combinations - thick, rough and high to the neck":
"Can one wonder that marriage is so often a failure and that the English husband of such a class of woman goes where he can admire the petticoat of aspirations?"
I adore Mrs. Eric Pritchard. She needs to be better known.
On well-dressed women wearing ugly undies: "There is something so hopelessly vulgar in beautifying only the outside of the platter."

On flashy footwear: "As for the boots that are visible a mile away, we certainly do not wish to see the woman who is wearing them."

* An ironclad being a popular colloquial term of the time for those VERY heavy-duty bulletproof "tea rose" corsets that were still being worn by well-upholstered ladies of a certain age well into the 1960s and 70s....
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Thanks again to Daniel who also provided the illustration which is, of course, the petticoat of aspiration mentioned above.




18 comments:

  1. Thanks, Moira, I very much enjoyed this post and especially Daniel Milford-Cottam's guest piece.

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    1. Thanks Prashant - I really enjoyed reading his expert view too.

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    2. Thank you Prashant! Much appreciated.

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  2. Moira - Thanks for hosting Daniel.

    Daniel - Thanks so much for sharing what you found out about corsets and ladies' wear. It is so interesting how those myths get started and then spread round. Unless someone is willing to look at it all critically and really investigate, people take it as truth. Well, I haven't got a 16-inch waist, but even knowing that corsets were also made for larger waistlines would never in a million years get me to wear one!

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    1. Margot, I love the idea of someone really checking out the facts, not taking things on trust. Now I'm trying to remember, Scarlett O'Hara had a small waist didn't she? I might have to look up to see what it was.

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    2. Scarlett's waist was seventeen and three quarters, I believe.

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    1. Be glad no-one's there with a tape measure Sergio.

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  4. Corsets - when did women stop wearing them?

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    1. That's a very good question Col. I think between the World Wars they faded away, to be replaced with rubber girdles and similar, with less of the defining whalebone or steel stays and boning.

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  5. Girdles? I remember when women wore them, and now there are all sorts of torture garments which are similar, but are marketed under other names.

    What I want to know is who is keeping track of how many women fainted from lack of oxygen while wearing corsets? There must have been widespread cases of "the vapors" and just plain lack of air.

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    1. Indeed Kathy, it's hard to think of so many women being so restricted: surely so bad for them as well as curtailing freedom of movement.

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    2. The thing with corsets, at least the legitimate ones, is that while they did constrict, most designs mainly rearranged the body mass rather than compressing it or reducing it. Waist reduction corsets were actually in a minority - most corsets really only took the waist down by about four inches or so, which is not too uncomfortable - and it was what people were used to. The main role of corsets was to ensure a nicely formed figure, rather than to ostentatiously reshape.

      A lot of the corset myths actually also come from anti-lacing propagandists - sometimes it's hard to tell whether a story comes from a perv getting off on their own prose, or from an activist making up horror stories. In a way, corset propaganda, whether pro or con, has much in common with politics. Corsets-are-evil stories have a lot in common, at a very basic level, with, say, immigrants-are-evil or benefits-claimants-are-spongers type stories. By which I mean that facts pertaining to a minority are grasped on and taken to describe the entirety, particularly if it suits the storyteller's agenda.

      We accustom ourselves to a lot of things - even now, we curtail our own freedom in ways that we don't think of as actually doing so - and probably don't even realise we are doing so.

      Interestingly, having spoken to people who wear corsets, apparently things like church pews are MUCH more comfortable when wearing an old fashioned corset because you sit on them properly. We have to remember that in the past, things were designed specifically for the people who lived in that world, and that in years to come, people might look at our special office chairs and ergonomic keyboards and think how utterly bizarre and uncomfortable we must have been all the time to need such things.

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    3. That is all so interesting and informative Daniel, thank you. I'm so glad you are sharing this with us - it's good to have our thoughts challenged.

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  6. Sorry to be so late to this, but I also thank Mr Milford-Cottam for his very interesting information. I look forward to your post on his book on Edwardian Fashion.

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    1. He is so interesting isn't he? I hope you read his extra comment above. I intend to do his Edwardian book soon....

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  7. Interesting post, and I like to see properly researched articles. Daniel's post is quite correct too.
    But from someone who sews, has worn corsets etc and who wears antique and vintage clothing, there is what is known in the corset maker's trade as "squish factor"!
    It depends on your body shape, not all very thin women will have a waist for instance.
    I do because I'm a natural hour glass, some years ago when I was a bright young thing my natural waist was a 22, I could take that down to 18 with a corset without gasping, any further would have been going puce time!
    Even yet, much older and bigger, I could "squish" in quite a considerable amount if I wanted to, it's my rib cage and small stature etc. And I did find they gave support, and you sit better etc. It's getting one made for you and not lacing it to absurd levels that will give more comfort. I never found it uncomfortable to wear and certain older garments absolutely need them if you want to have the right look and shape.

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    1. Thanks LollyWillowes (love your name, love that book) for a most informative and interesting comment - there's nothing like personal experience.

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