Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on May 20, 2012
One of the biggest helps I have found in vintage photo shoots is wearing a corset! And no, my corset is not painful, dangerous, or suffocating like the old films may portray. The word “corset” might conjur up images of Judy Garland gasping for air as her on-screen sister tightens her laces in “Meet Me in St. Louis“, or you may remember Caroline Ingalls boasting, “When I was married, Charles could span my waist with his hands!” In actuality, the types of corsets worn for the old Hollywood films would have been quite comfortable to wear, and a 20″ waist even in Victorian times was extremely rare.
The 20 Inch Waist Myth
And when there was a 20″ waist, the rest of the proportions were quite different than what we know today – Sure, the actual waist itself may have been diminutive, but since everything has to go somewhere, any “extra” size would have been forced downward. Consequently, Butterick’s “Dressmaking, Up to Date” from 1905 listed a 20″ waist corresponding to 37″ hips. (In comparison, someone with 37″ hips today is “supposed” to have a 27″/28″ waist.) In the old paintings and photographs which survive from those days, a tiny waistline is almost always accompanied by a much rounder “middle” below. Corsets can make someone smaller in one area, but it will not make anything magically disappear! When I was studying historical costume in England, a seasoned costumier and fashion historian told us, “It has to go somewhere girls, and it does!” What is even more interesting is that old photographs of young women with “ideal” proportions show their Victorian faces with much more weight on their cheekbones than a girl of today with a 27″ waist would have. Victorian households ate gigantic portions of high calorie foods (clotted cream, voluminous cakes, mountains of red meat, etc.), so we needn’t have the idea that they were small in every dimension!
Wearing a Corset Today
When wearing a corset nowadays, it’s important to remember that we are not going for the same “look” that they had 100 years ago. Overall, the average trim person is in much better shape than we would have been in the 1800s. With that being said, it is immensely helpful for costuming (and even everyday clothing) to have a comfortable corset available! They help you stand up straight, suck everything in, and give you back support.
The “Danger of Corsets” Concern
Is it true that women could have injured themselves from wearing tightly-laces corsets in centuries gone by? Yes, absolutely! No matter what the era, there have always been women whose vanity outweighs their regard for their own health, and the results could certainly have been dangerous. However, let’s not forget that we actually see something similar in our own day and age, just under a different guise. In recent decades the rise of anorexia has been disturbing, and I’d like to think that Victorian women wouldn’t have killed themselves of starvation the way that some of our twentieth century celebrities have perished. Moreover, I used to know a woman who, while pregnant, had the scrawniest neck and most unhealthy appearance of anyone I’ve ever seen – and her reason was not a noble one! As a professional model, she placed the importance of looking like a toothpick over giving her baby a good start in life, and continued to eat virtually nothing while working out for hours every day into her third term of pregnancy. Since the dangers of skininess are just as real in our modern culture as they ever would have been in centuries past, we can’t really write off the 1800s fashion as the sole era of health problems!
The “Painful Corset” Myth
But let’s get back to a happier subject! The sewing patterns for corsets nowadays (particularly those published by the “Big Four” pattern companies) are extremely comfortable to wear! When I made my first corset some years ago, I was concerned that it might be a bad idea. Would I be able to breathe and eat in it? But after wearing it for a couple of hours under a modern-day dress, I couldn’t have been more pleased! When made with a thick duck/canvas or corset coutil, and paired with a good, firm type of boning, the corsets of today actually feel incredibly nice to wear. It’s amazing how much support it gives your back, and the firm cotton fabric helps you stand (or sit) up very straight. I’m sure the pattern companies today could be sued if they released a design that sucked you in seven inches, so there’s no need to worry about your health at all with the patterns currently on the market. In fact, I find my corsets to be infinitely more comfortable to wear than those synthetic material “shapers”, and they certainly work a whole lot better!
To further my point that corsets can improve the way a garment fits, I’m going to show a few pictures of dresses that were worn with them. Then later this week I will be writing on how to sew a corset for today – finding the right pattern, altering the fit, choosing the right boning for your project, and more!
Below is one of my favorite dresses of all times, where you can see in the back that the corset stops about halfway up.
Until next time, happy sewing!
P.S. All Sound of Music film stills are copyright by Twentieth Century Fox. Edelweiss Patterns makes no profit from their use on this website, and claims no ownership of them at all. : )
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