Monday, February 9, 2015

Corsets and Crinolines

by Sandra Byrd

Victorian Secrets

Most everyone has a picture in mind from the movies, a book, or a blog, of a Victorian woman grasping her dressing table while a servant or ladies' maid tugs the cords to her corset, hoping for that famously narrow waist.  Although corsets are often associated with the highborn, in reality they were worn by young ladies across the economic spectrum, and on both sides of the pond.  Good mothers ensured their daughters started young.  Sarah Chrisman, author of Victorian Secrets says, "Victorian girls had training corsets in much the way modern girls have training bras: simpler than their mother's garments, different in form, but kindred in spirit."

Fainting Couches

Were the mothers' garments always tightly laced? No. Sally Mitchell, author of Daily Life in Victorian England reminds us that, "Although Victorian corsets were usually boned and sometimes padded to create a fashionable silhouette, they were not necessarily tightly laced. Both physicians and feminist dress-reformers harped on the dangers of tight lacing."  Those dangers ranged from minor troubles, such as indigestion and skin irritation, to more substantial dangers including injuries to the breasts and ribs, as well as displacement of or damage to internal organs. Author Liza Picard, in her book, Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870, says that, "This unnatural constriction surely helps to explain the habits of Victorian ladies, of fainting, and preferring to lie on the sofa, to taking exercise."

Just after the corset came the crinoline. Victoriana Magazine instructs, "The word crinoline originally referred to a stiff fabric with a weft of horse hair and a warp of cotton or linen thread (the Latin crinis meaning hair and linum meaning flax). This fabric made its first appearance in fashion in the 1830s when it was used in women’s petticoats to support and shape the growing length and diameter of the early Victorian dress. Often a petticoat of this stiffened fabric was worn with up to six starched petticoats in an attempt to achieve the big skirt effect; these tangling petticoats were heavy, bulky and generally uncomfortable."

Indelicate, Expensive, Dangerous and Hideous

Liza Picard writes, "The most famous under-garment worn by Victorian women was the crinoline. It attracted so much publicity that the casual reader of fashion magazines might think everyone wore one. Queen Victoria never did. She even went into print on them, in a letter addressed to the Ladies of England; they were ‘indelicate, expensive, dangerous and hideous.’"

Little House in a Harness

Laura Ingalls Wilder
In America, restrictive, lady-like undergarments were not universally beloved, either. Beatrice Gormley, in her biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us the iconic All-American Victorian Girl didn't take kindly to corsets, which she referred to as horse harnesses. "Another thing Laura felt stubborn about was corsets, the undergarments ladies wore to pinch in their waists.  Before Mary had left for college, Ma insisted that Mary and Laura both start wearing corsets.  'You are young ladies now,' she said in her gentle but final tone.  Mary wore her corset meekly, even at night... but Laura rebelled...She never wore her corset as much as her mother thought she should, or laced as tight as other girls did."

Why did young women wear those tightly laced corsets night and day? "Before I was married," Ma warned, "Your father could span my waist with his two hands." Just like Chinese women with their bound feet, American and British women were bound, too, to attract a man. 

Fire Hazards

Crinolines posed one further danger beyond that done by contorting the body. One could conceivably bump into one of a dozen gas or candle-lit lamps about the home, catch fire, and be unable to undress quickly enough to save your life. 

Crinoline Cutaway, 1856
Sadly, this was the fate of many women. Fashion to die for, indeed.


For more information about Sandra Byrd's new Victorian Gothic Romance series, Daughters of  Hampshire, including the first book, Mist of Midnight, please visit her website:

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