Victorian Corsets: Laces, Hooks,
and Boa Constrictors
copyright 1997 by Lady Melisande
One always reads about and sees pictures of
women being laced into corsets, but this was much less common
than you might think.
Every corset had fitting laces up the back,
but also most had hooks and eyes running up the front. Most women
put on a new corset, got someone else to lace it to fit perfectly
but comfortably, and thereafter got in and out by the hooks in
Now, the extremely fashionable, wanting to
skim off every eighth-inch and having maids with nothing better
to do, did lace and unlace. They wrapped the corset around the
torso, hooked it closed, then the maid (sometimes husband or
lover) pulled every bit of slack out of the laces. The corset
was so tight that the hooks strained at the eyes, and the lacing
was best loosened before these could be moved to unhook.
So you do not step in and out of a corset:
you wrap it around yourself like a belt. Also, if necessary,
a woman can very well get in and out of one unassisted. The knot
on the laces is at the bottom of the corset in back. The woman
need only be able to reach around to the back of her hips and
pick the knot open, then pull a few crosses loose. Alternately,
a corset may have one lace from top down to waist, with a second
lace below that, but the knots are still all in reach. The difficult
part of undressing solo is not the corset but the zillion little
buttons up the back of some dresses, such as survive on wedding
The charming and scholarly Janet Burgess is
a superb provider of books, shoes, hats, patterns, and dress
goods to re-enactors and costumers. She also can't resist using
her catalog for Amazon Dry Goods as a forum, as we use this web
page. She has dug out reliable evidence that those claimed Victorian
18-inch waists were often much larger.
Young women of the period had a penchant for
exaggerating the small size of their corsets, as some do about
jeans nowadays. Like jeans, corsets were sold in sizes: 18, 20,
22, etc. You must remember also how short people often were:
Queen Victoria was only four foot tall! Such relative midgets
might have an 18-inch waist at sometime in their youth.
Jeans have to be zipped (but you don't have
to sit down or eat in them). Corsets, on the other hand, can
be laced with more or less space between the edges at the back.
So if she left a four-inch space, a girl with a 22-inch waist
could boast that she wore "an 18-inch corset." Indeed,
it seems a six-inch gap was commoner, up to about eight inches.
Lest you inflate waistlines too much, we would
like to add the story of a twenty-year-old woman of our acquaintance,
5'2", who would be tall for a Victorian woman, a decent
height for many a Victorian man. She had a 24-inch waist by nature,
and had never worn a corset or girdle in her life (nor was she
anorexic or even given to dieting, nor a smoker or other drug-user,
and only got C's in Phys. Ed. -- she just stayed constantly busy
and grabbed a hot-fudge sundae whenever she felt like it). At
18, the coming-out age for many 19th century lasses, she remembers
she had worn nearly a size smaller clothes, which would have
made her waist about 22 inches. So with any sort of effort, she
might have been much narrower in the waist. Many Victorian finishing
schools not only ensured a course of constantly increased tight-lacing
for their lucky students, they also kept them on very short rations
so that they would not grow unattractively big and robust. With
smaller young women, they might have managed an actual 18-inch
waist. Such schools also had a certain number of deaths due to
"illness" every year: everything was compounded by
malnutrition and damage to internal organs from compression.
Photos can lie -- retouching was invented
early -- so look very closely at any in which the waist too nearly
approaches the neck in size. You will almost always find illogical
folds and gathers at the top of the skirt, indicating the real
waist was notably larger.
Corsets are an extraordinary experience the
first time. You hold your breath while someone laces you in,
or maybe you let it out to compress your rib cage. Your buddy
says, "All done," and suddenly you have to figure out
how to breathe, because all your breathing gear has been immobilized.
Tales of being suffocated by a boa constrictor race into your
Victorian doctors and anatomists claimed the
difference between men and women was so great that they even
breathed differently -- men with the abdomen (as you probably
are right now), women with the thorax. That, and all the "heaving
bosoms" in literature are your clue to survival. You inflate
your lungs by lifting and lowering your sternum.
You practice this, and now that you have air
you report it to your friends who are along for this experiment.
Then you want to see the difference it makes in your figure,
and run upstairs at your usual lope to use the full-length mirror.
And just about pass out at the top.
Not all those swooning damsels were faking!
There is a distinct limit to how much air
you can gulp in a minute wearing a full corset. Any real exertion
in very tight lacing may take you past the oxygen limit. Late
Victorian athletic corsets often had elastic panels, so that
while your flesh stayed compressed, you could get a little rib
action for deeper breaths.
Years of corsetting resulted in the muscles
of the torso literally atrophying. The claim that a woman could
not stand upright for more than a few minutes without a corset
was cruelly true: a woman who had always worn a corset could
not. And these corsetted ladies were the only women worthy of
the name and of study, to Victorians. Remember this if you have
a character who decides to follow dress reform. Many dress reformers
(who had gone through the process themselves) advised getting
an athletic corset, and then removing the bones or steels one
by one, every couple of weeks, allowing the muscles to develop
before finally abandoning the cloth compression months later.
So be kind to Victorian heroines in your thoughts.
If they are frail and fainting, incapable of physical exertion,
they have been made so since childhood by the demands of their
society. Give a couple of extra points to the ones who did manage
to be athletic in their corsets, too.
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