In this blog we are going to look at the underclothing worn by women in our collections. Most of our collections cover the Victorian and Edwardian period but women’s underwear has a long and varied history. In the Victorian age women would wear a whopping number of layers to create a certain shape. The corset was used to create a tiny waist, and metal cages known a ‘crinolines’ were worn to achieve voluptuous skirts. Here we are looking at the histories of corsets, bras, crinoline cages, and knickers!
In the third part of our four blogs we are looking into the history of Victorian Corsetry and looking at the examples we hold in our collections!
The corset has a long history, but those stiffened with whale bones began in the late 1400s. Overtime they developed into tools to create fashionable silhouettes. By the late 1830s the new Victorian era created a frenzy for small waists and big skirts. More than ever before the corset was used to cinch the waist down to 16 inches, that’s the same circumference as a 5-inch pizza.
During this time corsets became easier to wear as a metal hook and eye clasp was added to the front of the corset, meaning it could be put on alone, done up at the front and pulled tight by the lacing at the back. Wealthy women could have corsets made of silk and lace, but most were made of cotton fabrics. Corsets were structured with metal or whale bone rods to ensure maximum support and control.
Tightlacing was a common practice throughout the 1850s/60s which involved tightening the corset to achieve a smaller waist. Done properly the waist would be trained to be smaller by tightening the corset a little at a time over many years until you reached the desired measurement.
Many leading medical experts at the time feared for the health of women, who they considered to be crushing their vital organs. Today, historians debate this damning verdict of these medical men, with some claiming the use of corsets was not as dangerous as they said.
However, for tightlacing to be effective practice had to start young, and one account from 1810 suggests that it was normal to see…
‘A mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and, placing her foot on her back, break half a dozen laces tightening her stays (corset).’
Other than being a truly horrific thing to do to a child, this amount of corset training could lead to the muscles in the torso to become so reliant on the corset that later in life many women were unable to stand up without one. Even more so as young girls were expected to sleep in their corsets for extra practice!
Many corsets were introduced to combat this including the emancipation waist which was made of breathable fleecy, or wool materials without boning. It intended to support the female figure without doing serious injury, but for many women it was unthinkable to ditch their usual corsets. Some women even had specially made corsets for horse riding that allowed more movement but kept the preferred fashionable shape.
In the early 1900s the desired figure was that of an ‘S’ shape, which was achieved with a corset that tightened the waist and pushed the bust forward and the hips back. The corset shape changed again during the First World War, as they favoured a slightly under the bust corset that went down to cover the hips. These featured in-built garter clips so stockings could be fastened straight onto the corset.
The first World War played a massive part in the downfall of the corset and we will explore this in our next blog in the series all about bras!