THE "SHOCKING" COUTURE OF THE 1800S
Corsets have been around at least since 3,000 B.C. in Babylonia but became really popular in the 1500s Europe. And both men and women have worn them at different times in history. But, in 1800s America, corsets took a strange turn toward the bizarre, even the fetishistic. The smaller the waist, the more feminine the woman! The ideal was that a man could encompass his hands around a woman's waist and touch his fingertips (15-18 inches, about the circumference of a toilet paper roll).
Few women could reach the ideal, but many tried. And they fitted their little daughters with "training corsets" too, in hopes they might someday attain such a level of beauty. Corsets were first made of whalebone (technically, baleen plates from a whale's jaw that were stiff but flexible), but could also be manufactured from wood, bone, or ivory. The corset was laced in back. Often a woman had to lie on the floor on her stomach, then an assistant would put his or her foot on the woman's back to get enough leverage to pull the laces tight. In 1844, a machine with cogs and cranks was invented in Germany that could tighten laces to extreme circumferences not possible with human assistance.
Ironically, corsets were primarily marketed as a health product. Worn from an early age, they "trained" the rib cage of a girl to deform into a narrow, elongated funnel that crushed the organs, spine, and midsection, causing kidney dysfunction and lung damage, impeded breathing (thusly fainting couches and smelling salts were needed for the "weaker" sex), compressed spinal discs, impeded digestion since the intestines were crushed too, skin irritation, bruising, could affect the heart and impede circulation, and were believed to cause premature death in women. Women also wore corsets during pregnancy, which often caused miscarriages, since a fetus could not survive, let alone grow in such cramped quarters!
In 1878, Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company and electricity was taking the United States by storm. It was a particularly fertile time for inventions and fashion was not exempt from the mania. Enter the Electric Corset, developed by Cornelius Bennett Harness. It was really magnetic rather than electric, supposedly with magnetized steel plates that brought immense health benefits to women, until Harness was exposed as a fraudster in 1893.
Many other ancillary products and industries were built around the corset market including lacing machines with cogs and medicines and restoratives to help breathlessness, fainting, weakness, headaches, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, reflux, indigestion, and miscarriages caused by extreme corseting; fainting couches and medical furniture to help relieve "female hysteria" that doctors believed caused fainting; and even medical surgeries to remove ribs. It seemed no measure or cost (in money or health) was too excessive to attain the female ideal of beauty marketers designated for women in the 1800s. Corsets reigned in the fashion world with an iron grip until the Roaring Twenties, when spirited young female "flappers" shed corsets, girdles, garters and other social constraints.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted June 9, 2019