Well, it appears that, courtesy of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and others that we’re heading back to the 18th century idea of tiny waists, so we had to take a quick peek at the 18th designs; not the best piece of news for those of us that enjoy our cakes and chocolate, or maybe an essential item!
These items of undergarments are often mistakenly referred to as corsets, so let’s begin this blog by correcting the term ‘corsets’. Corsets did not in fact exist until the 19th century, until that time they were known as ‘stays’ and were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe. The most fashionable stays were designed to pull the shoulders back until the shoulder blades almost touched. The resulting silhouette, with shoulders thrown back, very erect posture and a high, full bosom, is characteristic of this period and no other. They were used to support and create the fashionable shape of a woman’s body and to provide a rigid form on to which a gown could be arranged and fastened.
They were originally made from thick linen on to which cane or whalebone was sewn, thereby making the garment extremely rigid. The garment was so tight around the waist and rib cage that it’s no wonder women were prone to fainting as it must have been almost impossible to breathe. It was more common for stays to be worn in England than it was in France and this applied to all classes of society, although the ‘working classes’ usually only possessed one, often made of leather which was worn constantly without washing!
Getting dressed must have been quite a performance, perhaps the only saving grace was that knickers hadn’t been invented at that time. Not something we would advocate doing in polite society today, but apparently, it was not unknown for women to expose part of their breasts. It was socially acceptable to do this at that time, but to expose your calf could have had you expelled from polite society.
By the 1770s steel was being used in stay to increase their strength, but this, of course, made them even more rigid. This combined with tight lacing began to cause concern amongst doctors and others who voiced their concerns about this fashion – does that sound at all familiar?
The alternative to ‘stays’ was the use of ‘jumps’. These were less boned and much softer and comfortable to wear. They laced up the front but still provided support for the bust making them far easier for a woman to put on herself without assistance. These became very fashionable and were more accepted by the medical profession.
We came across the following publication ‘The enormous abomination of the hoop-petticoat, as The Fashion Now is‘ looking at the hoop petticoat and stays from the perspective of a gentleman who proclaims himself ‘not to be a woman hater‘, so quite why he felt compelled to write about this subject we have absolutely no idea!
His article written 1745, described how the fashion had changed over recent years with the petticoat getting larger and larger to the point where it makes it impossible to sit close to a woman as her petticoat had taken over all available space. The sight of the curved hoop, he said was ‘enough to turn one’s stomach.’ He went on to say
‘In general, can anything be more out of nature, grosser insult upon reason and common sense, than this monstrous disproportion between the upper and lower part of a woman? It is an old observation that women by their laced bodices, or stays, as they are now call’d, make themselves the reverse of what nature made them. Men are bigger about the chest and more slender about the waist than women: and there is plain reason for it, which I need not mention. Yet the females have skrew’d and moulded their bodies into a shape quite contrary’.
As always our blog would not be complete without a caricature or two, so we have a couple of 19th century satires, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Collection.
We end with a video showing an eighteenth-century lady getting dressed.