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

Victorian corsets What they were like - how women used to wear them

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More than 100 years ago, Victorian corsets were practically required for women — to emphasize certain parts of the body, and to minimize others.

Here’s a look back to what ladies back then were wearing!

Victorian actress Anna Held - small waist

The Victorian corsets of the nineteenth century (1893)

Article from The Buffalo Evening News (New York) June 16, 1893

In point of fact, the corps, or corset, was a boned bodice, and, differed, therefore, essentially from the corset proper, which did not come into fashion until the first years of this century.

Worcester Corset Co. 1893
Worcester Corset Co. 1893

But people soon tired of aping the maidens of ancient Rome, and little by little, a style of costume was adapted, that, while it savored but slightly of antiquity was as conventional as any that had gone before.

The plain, close-fitting skirts rendered it necessary to compress the torso, and therefore the first corsets were rather abdominal belts.

Toward the end of the Empire, they became much reduced in length. A reaction, however, was at hand, and after 1815, waists grew longer and longer, while at the same time the corset grew stiffer until it bid fair to imitate the cuirass of the 16th century.

Red vintage corset - American design - 1880s

The vast improvement of 1840

Finally, somewhere in the 1840s, a vast improvement was made in the manufacture of corsets — they were designed on a more rational basis; the double husk was invented and furnished with books, thinner bones were used and softer materials.

Variations in fashions have led to modifications, more especially in the length of the waist and the height of the bust, but the general outline has not been materially altered within the last 50 years.

The modern corset, although infinitely superior to its predecessors, is constituted on the same lines, the differences lying in minor details, important from a hygienic and artistic point of view.

R and G vintage corsets from 1800s

Victorian white leather corset from the 1880s

Victorian corsets and other classic corsets

Vintage corsets from 19008

FC Victorian corset

Model in a tight white corset

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles from 1886

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles from 1886

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles

B Altman vintage Victorian corset styles from 1886

Victorian actress Lillian Russell in a striped corset

Victorian actress Lillian Russell

Ball’s corsets with coiled wire spring Victorian corset

Ball's corsets with coiled wire spring Victorian corset

Victorian corsets from the 1890s

Corsets from fall and Winter 1890 1891 H ONeill and Co 2

Corsets Spring summer 1898 H ONeill Co NY 1

Corsets Spring summer 1898 H ONeill Co NY 2

Corsets Spring summer 1898 H ONeill Co NY 3

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American Lady corsets from 1903

Corsets spring summer 1903 Boston Store NY 2

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Jordan Marsh corsets from 1893-1894

Fall and Winter 93 94 Jordan Marsh and Company corsets 1

Fall and Winter 1893 94 Jordan Marsh and Company corsets 2

Victorian corsets and bustles

Corsets from fall and Winter 1890 1891 H ONeill and Co 1

Corset 1876 MOMA

Dr. Warner's Coraline Corsets

Late Victorian era corsets from 1902

Late Victorian era corsets from 1902

Late Victorian era corsets from 1902

MORE: 19th century clothes: How women’s fashions changed between 1802 and 1902

Antique photo of vintage actress in dress over corset

Antique photo of vintage actress in dress over corset

Dr. Strong’s Tampico corset
Dr. Strong's Tampico corset

Woman wearing corset vintage ad

Warner Bros Coraline corsets

Warner Coraline corsets 1870s

Antique corset cover style

1887 Wm. H. Burns Co. manufacturer of corset covers and muslin underwear

ALSO SEE: The weight, height & measurements of the ‘perfect’ American woman (1905)

Vintage actress Lillian Russell in a laced black corset

Vintage actress Lillian Russell in a black corset

Corset from 1868

Electric Summer Corset from 1888

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Bortree Manufacturing Company Adjustable Duplex Corset

Bortree Manufacturing Company Adjustable Duplex Corset

1869 Save the women and children with the health corset manufactured by Thos. W. Love Co NYC

Victorian corsets – Thomson’s patent glove fitting

Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo
Victorian corsets - Thomson's patent glove fitting. Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Weingarten Brothers corsets from 1895

Eureka Health corset

Eureka Health corset - Victorian clothing

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

Corset from 1890

Must-have corsets: Some facts about women whose waists need support (1888)

The Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota) March 4, 1888

There is something about the corset that fascinates both men and women. To a woman, the charm of a corset is in its utility, and man likes it for the company it keeps.

How often does one see on State Street or Wabash Avenue a group of men standing in front of a milliner’s or modiste’s window admiring the wax-work figure therein, as pretty as a picture and lacking only the breath of life to make it the sweetest of earth’s objects.

It will do no good to stop and inquire if it is the wax figure which the motley crowd so much admires, or the corset which is so well displayed upon the plump, well-rounded image.

As like as not, it is the contents of the corset rather than the corset itself; but the fact remains that the corset is one of the leading articles of commerce, and one of the most important adjuncts of modern civilization.

Fancy fashionable women from 1888 2

Corsets mean big business

Two hundred thousand women in Chicago wear corsets, and they buy an average of two or three a year each. Every day one sees women carrying their new corsets home in long, thin boxes.

Corsets cost all the way from 25 cents to as many dollars. A majority of women pay 75 cents or $1, while the best corsets in the trade are sold at $2.50 or $3. The more expensive ones are made to order.

With the women of the United States Spending $15,00,000 a year for corsets, no wonder the inventors and manufacturers have put a bewildering array of wares in the market. There are”fairy” corsets, “flexible hip” corsets, “bouton,” “comfort-hip,” “nursing,””abdominal,” “rose,” “glove-fitting,” “zephyr,” “oriental,” “French,” “aesthetic,” “ideal,” “duchess,” “watch spring,” “dermathistie,” “hygienique,” “spiral spring,” “Esmeralda,’ “beauty” and a score of others, says the Chicago Herald.

On behalf of the corset with watch spring stays, it is declared that it yields to every movement of the body, “from the faintest breathing to the most violent exercise in gymnastics.”

A great many corsets are advertised as being recommended by the medical fraternity, and others are claimed to be peculiarly adapted to the wants of lawn tennis players, athletic and romping ladies.

MORE: Victorian hairstyles: How to make some of the most popular styles of the 1890s

Vintage corset - British design c1870

Sizes and shapes

Some are said to be just the thing for fat women, and others are great beautifiers of their forms. One brand is said to “beautify the figure beyond power to describe,” while in the advertisement of Paris manufacturer, a little kitten is released from the bag. “Soft, patent regulators,” claims this ingenious Frenchman, “regulate any desired fullness and roundness of ideal beauty, so perfect and natural as to defy detection.”

This is impossible by any other corset, or by the unnatural pads, which are instantly detected. Thousands have worn it for some years with perfect secrecy.”

Another Frenchman, obviously a cold-blooded murderer, tells ladies how to reduce their waists two or three inches. Of course, it is his corset that will do it, and that without tight lacing, he claims, and simply by lengthening the bust.

Vintage skating corsets

This fiend glibly tells his customers to send him their waist measure an inch smaller than usual, adding that the second order may be an inch or two smaller still.

An Eastern corset dealer, who has in his time evidently written editorials for a circus, claims that his corset “makes any thin figure a vision of loveliness, baffling description, and defying exaggeration.” That, surely, would be a figure worth going miles to see.

The manufacturer of a corset designed especially for stout figures informs his customers that he takes their waists below the ribs, thereby securing greater length, by reducing the figure considerably, and also supporting it below the waist, which is most essential to those to whom nature has been more than kind.

There are corsets with shoulder braces, with straps and with all sorts of contrivances for securing comfort, improving forms, straightening up stooped figures and round shoulders.

Warner's Victorian corsets - 1880s

To corset or not to corset?

There are two radical ideas in the corset world just now, and both of them are making headway in Chicago.

One is dress reform, which dispenses with corsets by adaptation of substitutes, such as corset waists, jackets and other devices for holding the form in dressable l shape without discomfort or injury to health. Some of these dress reform goods are championed by Mrs. Jenness Miller, and are becoming quite popular.

In one of these substitutes, cords are used instead of stays, to make the necessary stiffness, and to furnish a support to the bust. Straps over the shoulders lend aid in this. For one of the waists it is claimed that “while fitting the form closely, it leaves every nerve, vein and blood-vessel free to act.” But even the dress reformers do not abolish the corset, only substituting something else, therefore a corset seems to be a necessity to a woman.

“Oh, I couldn’t live without a corset,” exclaimed a comely matron in a corset shop on Wabash Avenue. “I feel as if I was falling to pieces without one on.”

That is the way it is. And this being the case, a tribe of corset-makers is springing up in town — men and women who measure their customers’ waists, busts, hips, shoulders, etc., just as a tailor measures a man for a coat, and then make them corsets that fit like the traditional paper on the wall.

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New York vintage corsets

Corsets can be painful

“That is the secret of the corset business,” said one of these makers, a pleasant, intelligent lady. “A corset is a necessity, but it will do no end of harm if it doesn’t fit. You have heard ladies talk about the agony of ‘breaking in’ a new corset, haven’t you? Well, there is no other agony like it.

“Breaking in a pair of ill-fitting shoes is nothing by comparison. I’ve seen ladies in tears with the pain of a new corset. Nine out of ten of them will rush to their rooms as soon as they get home and take off the abominable thing.

“Add to an ill-fitting corset the tight lacing so common, and it is no wonder that physicians say women are killing themselves with their corsets.”

Physicians do say this, and a New York medical man recently spent six months experimenting with half a dozen women and tight lacing. He describes the results of his experiment in a medical journal, and tells us how much to an ounce the circulation of the blood is retarded, how much to an inch various bones, muscles and internal organs are forced out of place, and a lot more terrible things.

“Still, women will lace tight,” resumed this Chicago corsetiere, as the French put it. “There is nothing a woman will not do or endure in order to improve her appearance, and so I claim that the best thing that can be done under the circumstances is to make perfect-fitting corsets. Then, if they choose to draw themselves to death, the demise will be a less painful one.”

MORE CLASSIC FASHION: Antique Ladies’ Home Journal magazine covers & subjects from the Victorian era

Victorian corset c1885 – French design

Victorian corset c1885 - French design

Classic corsets and the health problems from tight lacing (1887)

The Lancet, via The Western Appeal (Saint Paul, Minn.) October 08, 1887

It has always seemed to us to be somewhat of a satire on the work of nature that the female form should be thought to require the support of a corset in order to make it graceful.

We observe, therefore, with satisfaction that ladies — and even young ladies — are here and there to be found who have, with equal courage and good sense, dispensed with this unnecessary article of dress.

Eureka Health corset - Victorian clothing

Among the majority who continue to wear it, there are also signs, though less pronounced, of the same healthy tendency. Tight-lacing is viewed with much less favor than formerly.

Women as well as men are coming to see that artificial slenderness is not beauty, and indeed the sham and unreason apparent in a figure wantonly contracted must create in all thinking persons a feeling of repugnance which effectually prevents the possibility of admiration. Victims of this hurtful practice and grievous error in taste are still, however, not uncommon.

Dr. Warner's Coraline Corsets

The danger of corsets (from 1887)

Only a few days ago, an inquest on the body of an elderly female revealed the fact that death was due to the direct consequence of her having the stays too tightly laced.

This is by no means the first instance in which the coveted fineness of waist has been thus dearly purchased. It is, in fact, impossible that this custom can but injure health, for what are its effects?

By tight lacing, which forces together the elastic ribs, and narrows the space within the thorax, free action of the lungs is obviously rendered impossible, the liver and heart are displaced, and the great blood vessels unnaturally stretched.

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Dr. Strong's Tampico corset

The unfortunate worshiper of a false ideal loses with free respiration the due effect of the most powerful force which aids the heart in driving its blood through the body — the force of thoracic suction.

Displacement of the heart, moreover, can only result in palpitation or severe cardiac troubles. Thus it comes to pass that every organ and tissue is undernourished, digestion is little more than a meaningless term, and healthy life in any part of the body is unknown.

This may seem to be forcible language, but it is nevertheless the clothing of facts which it does not merely envelop, but in many cases fits, with a strictness not incomparable to the firm embrace of the most fashionably straight corset.

The health/medical effects of tight-lacing corsets (1884)

Tight corset lacing - damage to ribs and organs - 1884


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