corset 1880s

This is the first item of fashion history I’ve showcased on  my blog. I’ve had rather an interest in women’s fashion from the Victorian era, as my novel Doppelgänger, which comes out in February, takes place in the 1880s and features an upper-class woman as a protagonist. I wanted the descriptions of fashion and clothes to be entirely accurate, so I did a considerable amount of research on the subject, and learned a lot that I didn’t know about what women wore in the late 19th century and the effect it had on them.

This corset dates from pretty late in the Victorian era, the 1880s. It’s mostly made of cotton and is laced with cotton cording, but stiffened, as almost all corsets were until the 20th century, with whalebone. The outer layer is silk. Judging from the style of this corset it was probably made in Belgium or France. The stitching is done by machine, which was very common at the time thanks to the impact of sewing machines on the industrial production of clothing. As corsets go this one is less Draconian than, say, the very constrictive lace-up corsets that prevailed from the mid-18th century to at least the 1850s. The scene in Gone With The Wind where Scarlett O’Hara hangs on to a bedpost while her servant tightens her corset strings is not that far from the truth.

People complain–and rightfully so–about the deleterious effects of projecting unrealistic body image expectations on women today, but this is unfortunately nothing new. The “hourglass figure” was highly prized and expected in European (and American) society in the 19th century. Skeletons of young women from that era show the horrifying effects of lifelong corset-wearing, where the bottom part of the rib cage is literally compressed in a very unnatural, and anatomically dangerous, shape. One of the reasons childbirth was so dangerous in the 19th century was that corset wearing constricted a woman’s organs and her birth canal, and a baby’s head could puncture the internal organs of a habitual corset-wearer much easier than the same can happen today.

This corset is on display at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England.

The photo of the 19th century corset is presumably owned by the Fashion Museum of Bath. I am uncertain of its copyright status, but I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use.