Back in 1900, men wanted women to have painfully small corseted waists, because thin wasn’t enough

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Thin wasn't enough When men wanted women to have painfully small corseted waists

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Do men really admire women with small corseted waists? (1902)

From The Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota) December 14, 1902

Some men are powerfully affected by a lovely face. They admire regularity of feature, charm of coloring, curve of thick lashes more than any of the other beauties which go to make up a fair woman.

Some men, on the other hand, attach only a secondary importance to the face, and think everything of figure.

The man who places the human form divine preeminent probably imagines he is truly classic in his ideals. But in nine cases out of ten, the proportions which he considers lovely are so only from the fashion-book standpoint.

Few men would admire any statue ever framed by the hand of a Greek sculptor if they met her suddenly come to life in the street. In a skirt, she would seem horribly fat.

Tightlaced Mademoiselle Polaire
Tightlaced Mademoiselle Polaire, aka Émilie Marie Bouchaud, a French singer and actress known for her very tight corset (“wasp waist”)

Speak broadly, most men admire comparative leanness. A few girls who are round and plump, but, oddly enough, it is the little girl that they generally admire fat.

But whether a man’s ideal girl be tall and thin or short and chubby, she is generally endowed with a small waist. Not that the average man necessarily admires the circumference depicted in fashion plates — he has generally enough of the saving grace of common sense to be content that it should be small in proportion to the shoulders and hips.

This is, perhaps, one reason why a short, plump girl scores; her waist looks smaller than it is, and if she has an average one of, say, 23 inches, it looks more like 21 inches.

Lillie Langtry portrait 1887
Actress and socialite Lillie Langtry (1887)

One may hear men theoretically condemn small waists by the hour, waxing unpleasantly physiological, and tormenting their unfortunate sisters by coming behind them unbeknown, and testing their belts by sticking in a finger. But most of them either fall in love with or marry women with exceptionally small waists.

Ask the ordinary man if he admires them, and he denies the accusation With scorn; but ten to one he will, within half an hour of his indignant tirade against them, point out some woman possessing an abnormally small one, and with the fatuousness born of ignorance, exclaim: “She’s got a good figure!”

MORE: Vintage Women Coloring Book #4: Victorian Fashion Scenes from the Late 1800s

Vintage actress Camille Clifford with a very small corseted waist
Vintage actress Camille Clifford with a very small corseted waist

There is a certain highly educated woman, a graduate of Vassar College, and all the rest of it. Naturally, she disdains what the less intellectual women think much of her personal appearance.

One day, she argued the point of waist with a young man some two years her senior. She poured vials of wrath on the silly girls who killed themselves by tight lacing, and grew appallingly physiological, until the girls all longed to stop their ears.

She advocated reform and prated of the rational figure, and then she said, proudly: “I never have compressed my waist. I would scorn to do such a thing.”

The young man looked at her so innocently and said: “So I can see; you’ve only got a middle line.” Oddly enough, she was quite offended.

ALSO SEE: Lillie Langtry: The life and loves of the scandalous Jersey Lily

Yes, there’s no use in denying it: the average man does immensely. admire a small, trim, round waist — one which his arm can comfortably span.

Not a stiff rigidity of whalebone, but a supple, yielding circle — a little bigger than the poetic ideal that two hands can span, but small enough to fill him with wonder, and round enough to deceive him into thinking it smaller by at least two inches than it actually is.

Someday in the future, when mankind has lost its conservatism, he may grow to dislike the small waist.

Polaire - Tiny waist - Belle epoque
Tightlaced Mademoiselle Polaire, aka Émilie Marie Bouchaud, a French singer and actress known for her very tight corset (“wasp waist”)

The width of famous actresses’ small corseted waists

From The Saint Paul Globe (St. Paul, Minn.) August 13, 1902

The influence of the stage on matters sartorial is undoubted, and we may also ascribe to it the death of the wasp waist.

A screwed-in waist is not compatible with ease and grace of movement, and, accordingly, unnaturally small waists find no favor before the footlights.

That graceful actress, Ellen Terry, whose movements (in spite of the fact that she is a grandmother) are still extraordinarily youthful, has a waist measuring 28 inches, while Mary Anderson comes a good second with 26 inches.

MORE: Elegant Victorian dresses from 1859, from antique fashion magazines – with authentic color schemes

Small-waisted vintage actress Marie Doro
Small-waisted vintage actress Marie Doro

Miss Kate Vaughan, whose waist is but 21 inches, is considered to have a quite remarkably small one for an actress.

The reason for the ample proportions of the ladies of the stage is that many of them dispense with their corsets altogether, at all events while acting.

Some say that they find it impossible to act emotional parts in corsets, for they cause a certain self-consciousness and stiffness which prevent full justice being done to their parts.

ALSO SEE: Vintage gloves: How to choose, wear & care for these elegant classic accessories

Dancers and singers alike find that a tightened waist makes it impossible for them to excel in their art, and the corset is generally looked on with disfavor by the profession.

Nowhere are more graceful figures seen than on the stage, and society women learned from actresses to find a wasp waist not admirable but hideous, and its vogue went out, it is to be hoped never to return again.

“The smallest waist of any woman in fashionable London is said to measure 18-1/2 inches.” – Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, New York), August 15, 1890

Vintage actress Camille Clifford with a very small corseted waist
Vintage actress Camille Clifford with a very small corseted waist

NOW SEE THIS: Victorian corsets: What they were like & how women used to wear them

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Comments on this story

5 Responses

  1. No thank you, coresets are a def no. Like how did y’all breathe in them thangs. Baggy T-shirts are soo much better.

  2. I find it quite telling that the article talks about what “men” prefer in “girls”.

    “Speak broadly, most men admire comparative leanness. A few girls who are round and plump, but, oddly enough, it is the little girl that they generally admire fat.

    But whether a man’s ideal girl be tall and thin or short and chubby, she is generally endowed with a small waist.”

    Talking about what men prefer in “little girls” is not a good look. It makes it seem like this is an article in some underground pedophile newsletter, it’s disgusting. I guess the author couldn’t bring themselves to use the proper term for an adult female: ‘woman/women’. Strangely, they seemed to have no trouble referring to adult males as ‘men’ and not ‘boys’. Curious, that.

    Another thing that should be noted but won’t be mentioned in an article from the Victorian/Belle Epoque period is that a lot, and I mean A LOT, of pictures of models and actresses and socialites and what-have-yous from this period are doctored to make their waists seem smaller than they really are. Not in every case, mind, but many are not as small as they appear. Couple that with the fact that under their dresses or skirts and shirts they wore literal padding to accentuate the ‘S-curve’ shape that was ideal before the columnar style eventually took over, and you have a recipe for either actually altered images or a false silhouette that creates the illusion of a smaller waist. There are also poses that create this illusion.

    Having said that, of course there were tight-lacers then as there still are now, for some reason. Corsets were never a necessary ‘foundational’ garment and it’s a great thing that no one is expected to wear them anymore. Good riddance!

  3. Thank you for saying exactly what I was thinking!!
    Only, I don’t agree with the last phrase. Corsets sort of just evolved into the modern-day ‘bra’. It’s basically the equivalent or a bra.

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