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

The history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Triborough Reference Librarian, Gillian Nunns looked  at the history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe in Chelsea Library’s Costume Collection.

In the Regency period, Paris was no longer the centre of men’s fashion that it had been – velvets, lace and satins went to the guillotine as fashionable gentlemen distanced themselves from the aristocracy.  Also, Europe was now at war, and as England became cut off from France a style of men’s tailoring developed in England that was to dominate the European fashion scene during the Regency period.  The Regency period in England gave birth to the Dandy, a style that has its routes in more practical and masculine pursuits than the French Court.

 The precursor to Regency men’s fashion in England was the Macaroni, a style that the Dandy reacted against.  Here is a great image of a Macaroni which we found in a book published in 1884 called Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield.

A Macaroni from 'Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency' by Lewis Wingfield
A Macaroni from ‘Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency’ by Lewis Wingfield

And here is another great example that we found in The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker.

Another Macaroni from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
Another Macaroni from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

The Macaroni’s fashion tastes were aristocratic and French in origin, with frivolous and extravagant styles: hair piled up high with small French hats on top, colourful short breeches, large and sparkly buckles and buttons and tightly fitting coats.  The Macaroni is part of a mood of extravagance that those with more robust tastes opposed after the French Revolution. 

The beginning of a more masculine style has its origins in the outdoor pursuits of an English country gentleman, for whom lace ruffles, powdered hair and embroidered coats were wholly unsuitable.  The influence of this style was spurred on not only by disorder in France but also by George Brummell, who made notable contributions to English costume, and was the original Dandy.  Here is a page from The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker, describing Brummell and the extent of his influence.  He describes Brummell’s dressing routine as

‘a mesmerizing performance of several hours that drew the Prince to the Beau’s home in Chesterfield Street.  The Prince was now the pupil and Brummell the arbiter of taste’
George Brummel at his dressing table from 'The Saville Row Story' by Richard Walker
George Brummel at his dressing table from ‘The Saville Row Story’ by Richard Walker

And here he is in an etching and mezzotint by Robert Dighton, 1805, that we found in Dandies by James Laver.

George Brummell- the original Dandy from 'Dandies' by James Laver
George Brummell- the original Dandy from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

The clothes of a Dandy are simple but impeccably cut.  Notable features include long trousers, which would previously have been scorned in the world of fashion, as well as impeccably tied neckties, top hats and coats that are practical for riding horses on a country estate.  This is the fashion that Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice would have been influenced by, as we can see in this illustration by Hugh Thomson in a 1894 edition of the book, depicting Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at Charlotte’s house.

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of 'Pride and Prejudice'
Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy- illustration by Hugh Thomson in 1894 edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

As well as in England, the style of the Dandy spread across Europe.  Here are some images of the Dandy’s style as interpreted in France, also in Dandies by James Laver.

The Dandy style from 'Dandies' by James Laver
The Dandy style from ‘Dandies’ by James Laver

As well as having a huge influence on fashion in the Regency Period, Brummell’s character has been popular ever since, and there are lots of anecdotes and satirical accounts of his activities such as in a story found in the February 1902 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, entitled ‘The King of the Dandies‘ by Charles Wilkins.

‘My dear fellow’ exclaimed Brummell, ‘Aw – where did you pick up that extraordinary affair you have upon your back?’
The Prince laughed good-humouredly as he added, ‘It is not your fault, mine goot sir.  You shall not be to blame because a devoid-of-conscience influencing tradesman deceives you when you purchase from him his delusive fabrics.’
 ‘Is there anything the matter with my coat?’ I inquired in dreadful confusion.
 ‘Coat!’ exclaimed Beau Brummell.
Coat! Cried his friends in chorus, all in extreme astonishment.
 ‘It’s no more a coat than a cauliflower-if it is, I’ll be d—d!’ cried Brummell himself, everyone continuing to scrutinise the garment.

After finding this story, we decided to have a look in the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1813, to see what a fashionable gentleman would have been reading about in the year that Pride and Prejudice was published.  We came across this article in the Abstract of Foreign Affairs in September, which is an article about what must be a very early submarine?

‘In the American papers it is asserted that ‘A Gentleman at Norwich U.S. has invented a diving boat, which by means of paddles, he can propel under water at the rate of three miles an hour, and ascend and descend at pleasure.  He has been three times under the bottom of the Ramilies, off New London.  In the first attempt, after remaining under some time, he came to the top of the water like the Porpoise for air, and, as luck would have it, came up but a few feet from the stern of the Ramilies […].’

The article goes on to describe how the diving boat inexplicably decides to use a torpedo to ‘perforate a hole through her copper’.

We were also interested to come across review of Emma, by ‘the writer of Pride and Prejudice in the Review of New Publications section in September 1916’s Gentleman’s Magazine.  It says that “… a good novel is now and then an agreeable relaxation from severer studies.  Of this description was Pride and Prejudice…” 

And goes on.

 ‘ […]If Emma has not the highly-drawn characters in superior life which are so interesting in ‘Pride and Prejudice;’ it delineates with great accuracy the habits and manners of a middle class of gentry; and of the inhabitants of a country village at one degree of rank and gentility beneath them.’

And finally, in a book called The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini, we found some great images of modern day Dandies.

A modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
A modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
Another modern day Dandy from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini

And even some advice for how to tie a good necktie!

How to tie a necktie from 'The New English Dandy' by Alice Cocolini
How to tie a necktie from ‘The New English Dandy’ by Alice Cocolini
Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns,  Tri- Borough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Reference Library

Bibliography

All these sources are available to view at Chelsea Reference Library:

  • Civil Costume in England from William to the Regency by Lewis Wingfield
  •  The Saville Row Story by Richard Walker
  •  Dandies by James Laver
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1813
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1916
  •  The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1902
  •  The New English Dandy by Alice Cocolini