A Plea for the Corset: 1894

A PLEA FOR THE CORSET.

It is the Root of Morality, Self-Respect and Health.

London Pall Mall Gazette.

A lady possessed of a more than usually trying husband, given to being pompous and overbearing, confessed that when her lord was more than her patience could stand she retired to her room and took off her corsets. It was equivalent to throwing up the sponge; she felt incapable of holding her own any longer, and gave way bodily and mentally to a stayless woe that filled those of her acquaintances to whom she imparted this characteristic habit with silent contempt, tempered with the pity one gives as an alms to all weak things. It is probable that if this poor lady had held on to her corset her pluck would not have deserted her, and the pompous husband would have learned better manners.

The corset (may its shadow never be less) is the root of morality, self-respect and health. It braces up the moral energies as much as it does the physical; and many a slatternly Blowsabella that we see lurching along the pavement in a slum would take an entirely different view of life and Its responsibilities if she were put into a properly built corset. All the diatribes that have been flung at woman’s best friend are each more absurd than the other; and it is pleasant to find that of late doctors are becoming enlightened enough at last to own that civilized woman’s body requires stays just as much as she requires a house to live in and a varied regime that would simply have horrified her primeval ancestors. Of course, if women choose to abuse the benefits of the corset, and, instead of reveling in the support and gentle firmness of outline which prevents petticoat strings, buttons or other details of underclothes from hurting the tender flesh, strive to attain the wasp-like abomination of a sixteen-inch waist, they are to blame, but not the innocent corset.

Abuse of anything, whether it be tea. tobacco or tubbing, beef or bicycling, rest or exercise, is always an inartistic mistake. Like Mr. F.’s aunt, we “hate a fool,” and the woman who squeezes all the lissomness out of her shape and becomes as stiff as a broom handle or a wooden image from the South Sea islands merits no other title. To those who seek to get the best out of every thing–what charms  there are in a well-made corset!  A woman in her corset and petticoat is a subject for a poet, as De Musset knew well when he immortalized “La Marchese l’Amegui.” But much depends on the corset, which may be as beautiful as the calyx of a flower, when it is created by such artists as Festa, of London, or Weiss, of Vienna, but also may be simply a box-shaped receptacle, when fashioned by indifferent hands. The chief matter is to see that the lines are kept as long as possible. The corsets that spread out suddenly above and below the waist convert a woman into something resembling a pilgrim’s gourd, and are of the kind which have given rise to the grewsome tales of livers being cut in two by tight lacing. With the long lines opening out gradually as the shape expands, the pressure is equally distributed, and everything kept in its proper and natural place, while the figure preserves that swaying, flower-like suppleness which is by far its greatest beauty and charm.

Corsets should never be worn of anything but satin or brocade. Of course, we are writing for the artist in such matters, the woman who wisely looks upon the inner mysteries of clothes as being of far more importance than the outer garb, which undergoes contact with the world at large, and, therefore, can, in no way, be considered as a sacred part of her personality. An outcry will, perhaps, be made as regards expense, but there is no need, for it is easy to buy in the bi-annual sales remnants of thick brocade (a yard and a half is sufficient) for a few shillings, and equally easy to get these remnants converted into the loveliest of corsets by a professional corsetiere. Besides, satin and brocade corsets not only last longer and keep their shape far better than the humble and un-ornamental ones in coutil, but the fit of a bodice is entirely different over a silken corset. The silken “friend” is lighter, softer, more pliable and everything slips over it as if over a skin. But let those of our feminine readers who respect their appearance avoid the corset of the middle class French novel; the corset of black satin which helped to cover Bourget with ridicule in the eyes of Parisian mondaines when he described, as part and proof of the riotous luxury of the heroine of “Mensonges,” a corset de satin noir. It is the only ugly corset; ugly in its economic suggestiveness. and uglier in the way it seems to the eye to cut a woman in two.

 

For daily winter wear the rich shades of warm color–orange, mazarine blue, cardinal, myrtle and many other similar ones answer admirably, especially if the silk petticoats are made to match, as they ought to be. Of course, for evening wear, or now that spring is merging into summer, lighter colors appeal irresistibly, and nothing is more lovely for corsets than “shot” brocades of tenderest green and pink, with a design of pink rosebuds in Watteau baskets, of pale blue and white covered with lines like fish scales in silver, of brilliant orchid color overlaid with sprigs of heather. A yard and a half of any of these brocades is not a ruinous expense, nor is the subsequent making, if once the right artist has been found who will cut the material so as to make the design meet and repeat itself with mathematical accuracy, for haphazard arrangement of the design means inartistic cutting.

The Indianapolis [IN] Journal 10 June 1894: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  It is striking that this plea for the corset should be written during the heyday of the aesthetic and dress reform movements. We have read before the testimonials for the corset by luminaries of the stage and the stars of the circus ring.  Although dress reform advocates railed against tight-lacing, many medical authorities felt, that while excess is to be deplored in all things, there was no harm and much good in a properly-fitted corset–not to mention the “charms” of a well-made corset. The author of the piece above was obviously a partisan enthusiast.

The corset de satin noir was a controversial subject. Some felt that it had its place in the widow’s wardrobe; others denounced it as vulgar, even in the context of mourning. Mrs Daffodil will say nothing of its other possible usages, particularly in Vienna. But the author’s idea of purchasing brocade remnants to give to one’s corsetiere is an inspired one and would help to cut costs and encourage bespoke corsetry.

Mrs Daffodil fields many comments on her “Facebook” page about how uncomfortable corsets must be and how difficult it would be to fit into that corset, etc., etc., etc.  What Mrs Daffodil endeavours to convey is that any ill-fitting corset will be uncomfortable. The corset should be made to fit the woman, rather than the other way round. And corsetry is not necessarily about a tiny waist, but about the entire fashionable silhouette and stance. Mrs Daffodil will recommend this instructive video from the Museum of London, which gives some common-sense historical information on the subject.

Morality, self-respect, and health aside, a corset might not only be a morale booster, but a literal life-saver:

HER CORSET

Saved Miss Ellen Stephens from a Violent Death.

St. Joseph, Mo., April. 1 Corset steel and wire in a bustle turned several bullets fired by George Meisner, a Burlington railroad clerk, at Miss Ellen Stephens, his sweetheart, last night at her home. Meisner had been jealous of the girl and shot at her because she permitted a rival to call at her home. Dayton [OH] Daily News 1 April 1901: p. 5

A CORSET STEEL SAVED THIS WOMAN FROM DEATH

Franklin, Pa., Oct. 13. Mrs. Elia Zone of Woodcock owes her life to her corset steel. She was on her way to Meadville and passed a man carrying a rifle. After he had gone some distance the man attempted to load his gun, with the result that a cartridge was accidentally discharged.

The ball struck Mrs. Zone in the side; she gave a scream and the man ran toward her. An examination disclosed the fact that the bullet had been deflected by the steel in her corset. But for that she would undoubtedly have received a fatal wound. Boston [MA] Journal 14 October 1900: p. 2

Now, if only the lady possessed of a more than usually trying husband, mentioned at the beginning, had had the pluck to stay the course(t)….

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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