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An Analysis of Women’s Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status PT IV: The 19th Century

Sarah Andrews

The fashion of the 19th Century can be divided into four periods: the Empire Period (1790-1820), the Romantic Period (1820-1850), the Crinoline Period (1850-1869), and the Bustle or Victorian Period (1870-1900). The Empire Period is noted for its high waistline and translucent, clingy fabrics that revealed the body (Eubank, 210). The most fashionable of women embraced the freedom of the tubular, highwaisted gowns and went about uncorseted. Most women, however, continued to use the corset cut in a straight line so as to push the breasts out; the use of false bosoms made of wax or cotton is noted (211). In fact the corset prevails throughout the century, but shifts its focus in the Romantic Period. The stays become smaller as the waistline moves down and claims dominance. Women begin to wear drawers or bloomers underneath their skirts, which begin to blossom into fuller sizes shaped underneath by voluminous petticoats (222). The skirt can only be widened so far before a new mode of supporting it is necessary. The Crinoline Period is so named after the cage crinoline, which was worn underneath the petticoat. The crinoline was much favored by cartoonists at the time who found it to be an irresistible target of ridicule as women of fashion often found themselves in quite a predicament when it became necessary to board a trolley or carriage (240). Finally, in the Victorian Period, the crinoline gave way to the bustle which was suspended above the buttock like a cage between the skirt and underskirt (Contini, 252). The overwhelming feature of the 19th Century was the waist, which was whittled away by the corset into the space that could comfortably fit between the two hands of a man.

The traditional corset included a heavy busk, which was a piece of wood or whalebone that was inserted between the breasts and ran down over the stomach to insure perfectly straight posture. It was then impossible to bend the waist (Waugh, 132).

In 1811 this quote, describing the shift from the Empire Period to the Romantic, appeared in Myra's Journal, a popular magazine for women:

When the arts of sculpture and painting, in their fine specimens from the chisels of Greece and the pencils of Italy, were brought into this country, taste began to mould the dress of our female youth after their more graceful fashion. The health-destroying bodice was laid aside; brocades and whalebone disappeared; and the easy shape and flowing drapery again resumed the rights of nature and of grace. Thus for a short time, did the Graces indeed preside at the toilet of English beauty. But a strange caprice seems now to have dislodged these gentle handmaids. We see immodesty on one side, unveiling the too redundant bosom; on the other deformity, once more drawing the steeled bodice upon the bruised ribs (Waugh, 133).

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The author remembers a time when a more natural form was rejuvenated for a moment in fashion. However, the results of this brief respite was a fashion that swung far in the other direction culminating in the caged birds, which posed as women, beginning in the middles of the century. The exaggerated hourglass figure required that the waist be laced in so tightly that some women reputedly died from the strain. A waist measurement of seventeen to twenty-one inches represented the ideal (Yalom, 166-167).

The appearance of a fashionable lady is detailed in Modes and Manners by Fischel and von Boeke:

"In 1856 the underclothing of a lady of fashion consisted of long drawers trimmed with lace, a flannel petticoat, an under petticoat three and one half yards wide, a petticoat wadded to the knees, and stiffened on the under part with whale bones inserted a handsbreath from one another, a white starched petticoat with three stiffly starched flounces, two muslin petticoats, and finally the dress." There would presumably be a chemise and severe corset under all of that (Ewing, 69).

The weight of the underwear alone must have been over whelming. The most amazing thing about 19th Century fashion is how it consistently it defies the function of a woman in her society. She was to be a wife and mother and yet the waist was constricted to a degree whereby sustaining a pregnancy would be truly difficult. And yet that same tapered waist was considered the definition of womanhood.

The Victorian woman did not as a rule actually expose copious amounts of breast. What defined her femininity was a tapering wasplike waist. Whalebone stays were a most popular commodity which allowed the body to be reformed. The Victorian corset allowed for a flat line from just under the bust to the knee when viewed in profile. The derriere and hips were thrust out from under a woman's torso as the waist was whittled down to a size that a man might be able to circle with his fingers. (Waugh 109).

A body constricted in that manner is almost obligated to remain passive.

In 1892 Mrs. Eric Pritchard's The Cult of Chifon was published declaring the importance and beauty of underwear, "Exquisite lingerie forms the foundation of the wardrobe of a woman of refinement." She advises that a woman with a dress allowance of only 200 pounds (about 320 dollars, a very considerable amount for the time) should allot one fifth for lingerie and corsets (Ewing, 108).

This quote from Myra's Journal in June of 1882 illustrates the lengths to which women might go for fashion:

"Yes, the ladies do chose to be shaped by the staymaker, and in these days of wondrous corsets the ladies are, as usual, right; but right or wrong they will follow their own sweet will as surely as water runs down the hill- Well made stays which measure round the waist two inches less than the nude waist will generally be found perfectly fitting and pleasant to wear. Some figures require more hip room than the ready made corsets allow; in this case the wearers must either have their corsets made for them or else wear them a little open in the back. If the hips are not well developed it is not difficult to place a little cotton wool inside the corset and fill the space with this soft material" (Waugh 109).

It is interesting to note that this passage asserts that wearing a corset is the rational choice of every woman. Although her society is male dominated and her reason for wearing current fashion is probably directly associated with catching a man, in her literature she is assured that she has chosen her ill- suited garment irregardless of how constricting or unhealthy it may be.

In 1876 this poem was published in the magazine Punch,

"Lines Picked up at the Brixton Rink"

Upon the Rink the Lady sat,
Beside her lay her dainty hat,
All crumpled;
She looked the picture of distress,
So dusty was her pretty dress,
And rumpled!
"I can't get up, " in faltering tone,
She said. I thought that perhaps alone
She could not.
I picked her up. She was not hurt
'Twas but the tightness of her skirt-
She could not!

Obviously even people at the time could recognize the lunacy of women garbed as mobile tents.

The Queen- a recorder of socially acceptable fashion expressed this sentiment on the topic of fashionable clothing in 1880:

One sees, with a feeling of profoundest pity, the waists which would otherwise well-grown young women are not ashamed to exhibit in public places, to the amazement of all who know what compression has been by which they were produced. Waists, which ought to be 25 or 26 inches in circumference, are reduced to 19; and when sensible dressmakers objects (as sometimes is done), the answer is given, "Oh, you make the waist of so many inches, and I'll engage to get into it." How the 'getting into it' is effected, is one of the 'secrets of the prison house', which we are glad not to be called upon to divulge. But we do not wonder at nervous headaches, feelings of 'sinking' which call for strong tea or coffee, or sherry; backaches and pains in the sides, indigestion and poor appetite, short breath and imperfect circulation, cold hands and feet (and even red noses), not to speak of other maladies, of a less directly evident, a more painful and more deadly kind. One does not wonder at the sharp tempers of the young ladies with the wasp waists: but one is glad one is not obliged to associate with them. (Waugh, 145-146).

It is clear that young women were willing to sacrifice their health as they submitted to the cultural ideal of the weak, flowerlike woman.

Certain art movements began to question the beauty of these unnatural forms and pointed back to the Greek model of form following function. Behind this a movement began to improve the status of women and their attainment of personal freedom as well as political recognition. In 1880 Lady Harberton led the Rational Dress Society which promoted health, comfort, and sense in dress. It condemned tight lacing, high heels; all garments which hindered movement. It was specified that a total weight of undergarments should not exceed 7 pounds (unimaginable today). The Society also fought against changes in fashion, calling instead for a return to natural beauty. Society had gone so far in its dictates for fashion that people began to protest. They began to search for the natural, functional form of the female body, and for clothing that enhanced these ideals (Ewing 104). It is no surprise that these issues were being raised at a time when women were moving into the work place and the seeds of women's suffrage were being planted. However, in 1895, Mrs. Douglas in her widely read The Gentlewoman's Book of Dress, made her stance on breeches clear, "How could a mother in Knickerbockers inspire awe in the hearts of her peccant brood?" (Ewing, 105). In this case the function of the mother was considered to be impeded by functional clothing and indeed the thought of women being accorded the freedom of pants was considered

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Copyright Sarah Andrews. Reprinted at www.beautyworlds.com with permission.

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