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Tiny Waists and Steel Corsets: The Tough Body Expectations of the 1900s

Waist Training & Tiny Waists in 1900s corsets

I love the blithe glamour of these vintage corset adverts. They remind me of the uber-glamorous Modess adverts of the 1950s (never before or since have feminine hygiene products been so aspirational). All of these adverts claim comfort (I guess that’s a relative term), and one even has a blissful cherub sleeping snuggled inside it – well that’s convinced me that it’s comfortable…

I’m no expert, but from what I can tell it was the Victorians who first started a trend for tightlacing (or waist training) which is the art of seriously reducing waist size by cinching the waist with a corset. Corsets in the early Victorian era (1840s) were steel boned and girls often had to start wearing (and sleeping in) them from as young as 8 years old. However as the century progressed a movement towards ‘rational dress’ thankfully emerged and, as you can see, lots of these corsets adverts which range from  1870-1900 are advertised as ‘healthy’.

Lots of medical conditions were attributed to the wearing of corsets, although I’m not sure how many of them were true apart from the obvious issues caused by wearing a corset during pregnancy – which was expected (!). It sounds like the main problems caused by tightlacing were actually minor complaints like indigestion and constipation (as well as the obvious discomfort) rather than anything more serious.

You can see why bright young things wholeheartedly embraced the freedom and boyish shapes  of the 1920s after nearly a century of tight-laced corseting!

Thanks goodness waist training isn’t expected any more – it’s great if you fancy it, but I’m glad I don’t have to sleep in a steel-boned corset at night..

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Images source 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and copyright: Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library

4 thoughts on “Tiny Waists and Steel Corsets: The Tough Body Expectations of the 1900s

  1. Betty Cooper

    In the 18 and 19 centuries appearance, social standing was more important than comfort. Hence tight corsets for women, high stiff collars for men etc etc.

    The late 19 cent corset ad emphasise comfort because women wanted both comfort ANd beauty.

    You say that you are glad we don’t waist train today, and that we don’t force tight corsets on young girls. But today, we do have pre teenage training bras, higher heels for young teenagers, make up lessons for 14 year olds?

    B

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Corset Lacing: History & How To |

  3. Bruno Frank

    Dear Mary. Correction to the 19th century: It was Jack the Ripper murdering in London around 1888/1891. He was never identyfied. The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter W. Sutcliffe, born 1946, was sentenced for his murders. See Wikipedia. Cheers Bruno

    Reply

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