They Maketh the Nose Red, researching corsets
Did pioneer women wear corsets?
I didn’t think much about corsets until I began researching my second novel, and my protagonist, a 19th century Utah woman, needed dresses and skirts and shoes. But what about corsets? Surely not, frontier women plowed fields. They built fences, shoveled snow off their roofs, planted gardens, plowed fields, hauled water, chopped wood, and scrubbed floors. It took a whole day just to do laundry and it was a backbreaking job. Who could perform those duties while wearing a corset?
Researching corsets: Good health and the moral thing to do
As it turns out, corsets were promoted as essential for work and play as they, reportedly, kept a woman’s back straight. Many women wore them. Besides, wearing one was the moral thing to do. It was the Victorian era and women had a standard to keep, whether they lived in the big city or the emerging west.
Who wore corsets?
Wearing a corset wasn’t governed by status, size or gender. High-brow women wore them. Domestic servants did. Even men wore them, until they went out of vogue in the mid-19th century and a man caught wearing one was ridiculed. Children wore them. Pregnant women did. Even women in prison and mental institutions.
What research tells us
How do we know? Women wrote about their corsets in letters and diaries. They recorded their purchases and sewed their own. Some packed their corsets away, and now they’re housed in museums and family collections.
Corsets could reduce the waist to a mere 15 inches. Some feared they would cause consumption, curvature of the spine, rib displacement, cancer, hysteria, hunchback, abortion, melancholy, epilepsy, nervous headaches, feelings of sinking, back aches, side pains, indigestion, poor appetite, short breath, imperfect circulation, tuberculosis, liver disease, cold hands and feet and yes, red noses. And yet, 19th century women still wore them.
Women in western society had, in fact, been wearing corsets or some form, for the last 500 years, with the sole purpose of molding their bodies into the “perfect” shape.
What about ultra-tight lacing, a practice that some physicians believed would cause severe organ displacement? A few researchers claim that lacing until your nose turned red was a myth, and that most women bought corsets according to their waist measurement and wore them tightened within reason.
Admittedly, a few may have gotten carried away, cinching their corsets as tight as they could, with a desire for a perfect hourglass waist. A woman, in a letter to the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine”, defended tight lacing, saying the corset was a necessity women had to get used to, the way a “barefooted Highland lassie” had to get used to shoes. The writer goes on to suggest that the secret to wearing the corset safely is to begin using it as early in life as possible. That way, growing bodies would adapt.
Some had health concerns
Ultra-tight lacing, or not, corsets were a health concern. In 1869, Thos. W. Love and Co. introduced the Health Corset, which was, according to the ads, endorsed by N.Y. physicians. The new innovative design claimed it made women not only perfectly shaped, but also happier and beautiful, as well as more amiable, sweeter tempered and affectionate. There you go. The seller probably hoped the supposed benefits would outweigh the fears. Most likely, not all 19th century women wore corsets all of the time, but the garment seems to have been widely accepted and was simply thought of as underclothing, the way we think of bras these days.
Sources and Links
I found a wealth of information about corsets and have provided links. My favorite sources are magazines, books and advertisements of the day, and also letters and diaries, where women wrote down their thoughts concerning the corset, a commonplace garment that would, in the future, grow out of fashion and become a curiosity or a fashion statement to many 21st century women.
“Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. On Tight Lacing”. March 1869. P 288. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Google Digitalized. Public Domain. All 1869 issues are available. Rich in social history of the time. Commentary on proper dress and health. Patterns. House plans. Games and puzzles. Stories and plays and more. Other years are available. Go to the index.
“Women’s Fashions. Clothing through American History: The Civil War through the Gilded Age,” 1861-1899. Anita Stamper and Jill Condra. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2011. 79-154. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9 Sept. 2016. Book includes a section concerning corsets and contains quotes from journals, newspapers, etc. Great resource. I got access through my county library.
“Too Close for Comfort: 500 Years of Corsets.” University of Virginia. Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Website.
“Cinching Up in the Victorian Era – Corsets!” Denise Winter, Victorian clothing designer and researcher. Website.
“Clothing the Saints. How to Dress a Pioneer Woman.” Liz Clark. Website.
“Crinolines, Crinolettes, Bustles and Corsets from 1860-80.” Website. Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design. London, England.
Books & advertisements
Following are books and advertisements published in the mid-1800s that 19th century women most likely had access to:
“Save the Women and Children with the Health Corset.” Advertisement. Thos. W. Love & Co. 1869.
“Coraline corsets.” Warner Brothers’ Company. Bridgeport Connecticut corset makers, not to be confused with the movie makers. 18-page advertisement. 1870s.
“The Corset and the Crinoline: a book of modes and costumes from remote periods to the present time.” Lord William Barry. 258 pages. 1868.
“Health and beauty; or, Corsets and clothing, constructed in accordance with the physiological.” Roxey Ann Caplin. 241 pages. 1864The Cholic. Engraving. February 1819.
George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsQuote: “Corsets have always been worn, will be worn, and should be worn.” 1869 Advertisement. Save the Women and Children. Thos. W. Love & Co. Fashionable: 19th Century Guide. Clothes for men, women and children.
Follow my Pinterest Board for 19th century fashion
Pinterest Board. Kate E Thompson Accessorize: 19th Century Fashion. Pocket watches, walking sticks, jewelry and more. Fashion extras for 19th century men and women. Pinterest Board.