What lies beneath part 2: the corset and beyond

We have a fantastic costume collection at Chelsea Reference Library and Gillian Nunns, one of our Triborough Reference Librarians has been taking a look….

In What lies beneath part 1′ I had a look at the bizarre story of the crinoline in the context of the changing tides of fashion.  Which brings us to the corset, which also has something of a bizarre, if not more sinister history than the crinoline.

The corset had gone out of fashion in the Regency period of the early 19th Century, when a natural figure and light muslin dresses were in fashion.  Although they still existed in various guises, it was in the 1870s when bustles meant that clothes were moulded to the body at the front of the skirt and around the hips that the corset came back into its own.  The corset industry received a lot of impetus, leading to a great variety of types of corset, and different inventions around their design were advocated.   Also, ladies’ magazines of the time began giving more descriptions of corsets and advertised them frequently, such as this one from the Giraud Company in the 1880s.

Corset advert from Giraud Company
Corset advert from Giraud Company

And here is an image that I found in Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, advertising the “Thylda” corset.

"Thylda" corset from 'Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel
“Thylda” corset from ‘Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel

The corset also became hugely controversial as it brought with it a trend for smaller and smaller waists, and the controversial practice of “tight-lacing” – a practice which involved systematically reducing a woman’s waist by means of lacing the corset as tightly as possible over a period of time.  The controversy is very well documented as readers of the time could now write to publications with their views, which make interesting (if not painful) reading as I discovered from looking through our Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine issues.  In 1867 one lady described the practice of “tight-lacing” at her school and described girls competing to have waists of 13 inches (which I hope was an exaggeration!)

 “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. Though I have always heard tight-lacing condemned, I have never suffered any ill effects myself, and, as a rule, our school was singularly free from illness”  

(From Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868)

But many thought otherwise, and The Lancet was one publication that regularly voiced concerns, here is one comment quoted in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1968:

 “The mischief produced by such a practice can hardly be overestimated.  It tends gradually to misplace organs of the body, while, by compressing them, it must from the first interfere with their functions.  The grounds upon which Tight-lacing has been recommended are diametrically opposed to the teachings of anatomy and physiology, not to say common sense”

Despite many speaking out against the practice of tight-lacing corsets, the practice continued, although alternatives were invented, such as this orthopaedic corset that we found an illustration of in a book called The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Orthodpaedic corset from 'The Corset; A Cultural History' by Valerie Steele
Orthopaedic corset from ‘The Corset; A Cultural History’ by Valerie Steele

Fashion only turned away from the corset apparently of its own accord in the early 20th Century, and almost overnight the hobble skirt and a more natural figure was all the rage, as depicted in this postcard of around 1911.

Hobble skirt
Hobble skirt

And here an advert for what might have been underneath, which I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

An advert from 'The Story of Women's Underwear' by Barbier and Boucher
An advert from ‘The Story of Women’s Underwear’ by Barbier and Boucher

And when the First World War broke out practical concerns played a crucial role in women’s fashion which perhaps hadn’t in earlier times.  No longer could women take up any fashion despite their practical drawbacks, and the sometimes bizarre undergarments that they entailed.   I was  interested in seeing illustrations of typical fashion in different decades of the 20th Century in a book called Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, including this one from the time of the First World War.

Wartime dress image from 'Changing Trends in Fashion' by Anne Tyrell
Wartime dress image from ‘Changing Trends in Fashion’ by Anne Tyrell

I also had a look at the future of the undergarment in our issues of Vogue from the 1920s and 30s, and noted the peculiar names given to types of undergarments using new materials that allowed for greater freedom of movement.

From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1936
From Vogue 1936

And how about this now-not-so-sensational shape advertised in Vogue 1978.

From Vogue 1978
From Vogue 1978

And a French advertisement from 1984 that I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

French advert, 1984
French advert, 1984

Perhaps we could say that the laws of fashion are not as strict as they used to be.  Here is a picture of a Lacroix evening dress in 1997 taken by Roxanne Lowit, which we found in The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Lacroix evening dress
Lacroix evening dress

I hope you’ve enjoyed these two posts and if you like to find out more do pop into to see the collection at Chelsea Library.

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns

Triborough Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

The sources used for this post are all available at Chelsea Reference Library.

  •  Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, 1986
  •  The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, 2003
  •  Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, 1998
  •  The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher, 2010
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868
  • Vogue, September 1923
  • Vogue, March 1936
  • Vogue, February 1978
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What lies beneath part 1: from crinolines to bustles

We have a fantastic costume collection at Chelsea Reference Library and Gillian Nunns, one of our Triborough Reference Librarians has been taking a look….

I was very interested to read our Local Studies Librarian’s post about the seemingly bizarre story of crinolines, which had me looking through our costume collection in search of stories of undergarments and their place in history and fashion.

As the crinoline fashion gradually subsided in the early half of the 1860s, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine reported as early as 1860 that

‘The iron reign of the “Crinoline” is undoubtedly, but gradually, coming to and end.’

And as it did so skirts morphed into into a narrower skirt but with a bustle at the back.  Here is an illustration from Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, October 1869.

Illustration from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' October 1869
Illustration from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ October 1869

 Which of course required different support. This became known as the ‘tournure”, involving different kinds of heavy support for each layer – steel, horsehair and whalebone were used, for example.  Here are some images that we found on a page of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine also from 1869.

Panier tournure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Panier tournure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Horsehair tournure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Horsehair tournure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Petticoat worn over a tonure from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Petticoat worn over a tonure from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869
Crinoline from 'Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' 1869
Crinoline from ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ 1869

The last is a sort of cinoline, but altered to emphasise the new bustle fashion, allowing for a straight front of the skirt with a big bustle at the back. 

We can always count on Punch to satirise such trends in fashion.  The first appearance of a crinoline in Punch is in 1856, and the fashion is described as “Crinolineomania”.

Crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856
Crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856

And another from the same year.

Another crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856
Another crinoline cartoon in Punch, 1856

In 1857 Dr. Punch considers of the crinoline that

‘If he were called upon to fix the spot precisely where the malady broke out, without hesitation he would point to Paris’.

Although I doubt that Dr Punch would have done, considering the amount of fun that the crinoline afforded him.  And in fact, I found out that many undergarment fashions might have been lost to history completely if it were not for publications that satirized them. 

The crinoline is described in Punch as a “depopulating influence[…]”

 “The mode now prevailing is one of such extravagance that it is continually demanding fresh sacrifices, and ladies have to choose between a fine dress and a family, for no income but a Rothchild’s can provide for both.”

 As I read more and found about later and earlier eras in fashion, I was interested in how the history of Western fashion is ruled by an obsession with the silhouette; so that when a desired shape comes into fashion, its boundaries end up being pushed to the extremes.  Norah Waugh makes an interesting point about this in her book Corsets and Crinolines.

 “This over-emphasis of line has given a curious underlying rhythm to women’s clothes and become an almost unwritten law of design.  A longer slender silhouette gradually begins to widen at the base, emphasis shifts from length to breadth, and when the greatest circumference has been reached, there is a collapse, a folding up, and a return to the long straight line”

This point was not lost in the pages of Punch in an article called “Philosophy of Fashion”

 “When hoops went out of vogue nigh on a Century ago, the ladies vowed that scanty petticoats were infinitely prettier; and they vied with one another in reducing their dimensions, until their skirts became so shrunken that they could hardly move their feet with the limited circumference.  So doubtless, will it be again, now Crinoline is doomed […] Already we see signs of the change approaching.  Ladies fresh from Paris startle our eyes now-a-days by appearing in what at first sight we may fancy are their night dresses.  Of course, when one tide sets in, all the female world will swim with it”
 
And in my next post we will see what happened next…..
Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns

Triborough Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

The sources used for this post are all available at Chelsea Reference Library except Punch which is available at Kensington Central Reference Library.

  • Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh, 1954
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, October 1869
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, September 1867
  • Punch,  August 1856
  • Punch, October 1856

A Brief History of the Crinoline

Dave Walker, our Local Studies Librarian  is the author of our extremely popular blog, The Library Time Machine. This showcases some of the amazing photos we have in our archive. As a companion piece to his blog post this week he writes here on the history of the crinoline. Over to Dave….

In my post on the Library Time Machine this week I have written about the first production of Arthur Pinero’s play Trelawny of the Wells. First performed in 1898 the play is set in the 1860s and for the author, producers and presumably the audience some of the comedy derived from the costumes and décor of a bygone age, specifically the actresses wearing crinoline dresses which to modern theatre goers of the late 1890s would have been inherently ridiculous rather in the way than modern taste regards previous fashion disasters such as the puffball skirt of the 1980s or even the flared trousers of the 1970s which we all wore quite happily for years and which vanished almost overnight in the punk era.

1898 version of the crinoline from Trelawny of the Wells
1898 version of the crinoline from Trelawny of the Wells

But the crinoline actually lasted for about ten years from roughly 1855 to 1865 so it must have had some advantages.

Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria in 1861
Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria in 1861

In the 1840s and early 1850s dresses and skirts became wider and needed to be supported by a large number of petticoats. The first crinolines were starched petticoats to which hoops of whalebone and cane were added for better support. The idea was to free women from having to wear so many layers of underwear. Developments in steel technology produced lightweight flexible wires which could be put together into a dome shape – the cage crinoline which at a stroke eliminated the need for heavy petticoats and freed the legs from those entangling undergarments. So the crinoline was actually a step forward in women’s fashion both in terms of mobility and affordability. It was one of the first fashion trends which travelled outwards from the middle classes and encompassed both upper class and working class women.

Mrs Fitzgerald wearing a fairly extravagant example of the new technology (1861)
Mrs Fitzgerald wearing a fairly extravagant example of the new technology (1861)
Miss Geralupo (1860) compare this with the dress worn by Irene Vanburgh in Trelawny
Miss Geralupo (1860) compare this with the dress worn by Irene Vanburgh in Trelawny

Of course crinolines were a little silly. The wearer had to navigate city streets in wide skirts, sometimes very wide if you look at Mrs Fitzgerald (above) and had to be skilled in sitting down without causing the whole apparatus to billow up and reveal what was underneath. Women took to wearing ankle length pantalettes or drawers in case of accidents which gave rise to later more decorative forms of underwear. The crinoline was a gift to humorists. Punch magazine satirised it unmercifully for many years, even creating urban legends in the process such as the notion that women boarding buses would remove their crinolines and that the bus conductor would hang them on the side of the bus as in this photograph.

Crinolines hanging from a bus!
Crinolines hanging from a bus!

Can we really believe this? Can you imagine having to remove a crinoline in the street without showing your underwear and then put it back at the end of the journey? The picture was probably staged. Along with the satire there were also scares over crinoline dresses which were accidentally set alight, or women in factories dragged into machinery. So despite the advantages of the crinoline perhaps everyone eventually got tired of the whole business. By about 1865 women were ready for a change. Crinolines changed their shape, became flatter at the front and sides and got pushed to the back in the form of the bustle. Here is Princess Victoria in 1876.

Princess Victoria in 1876
Princess Victoria in 1876

Ironically this elegant looking dress would have been tighter and more restrictive as far as walking was concerned. So perhaps the enlightened audiences of 1898 shouldn’t have laughed too hard at what their grandmothers used to wear.

Dave Walker
Dave Walker

Dave Walker Local Studies Librarian 

Pictures of Princess Victoria, Mrs Fitzgerald and Miss Geralupo from ‘Fashion in Photographs 1860-1880’ by Miles Lambert 1991. Just one of the many books on the history of fashion in the Costume Collection at Chelsea Library.