Tag: Victorian fashion

Fashionable Discomfit

Fashionable Discomfit


For many centuries women lived in a state of fashionable discomfit. Restricted physically as well as socially, women wore strangling whalebone corsets (see bunnycorset.com.)

The feminine corset became popular for women in the French court of the 1500s but originated in Italy. Catherine de Medici is credited as the designer. The idea was to fine tune a woman’s attractiveness by making her waist as small as possible and flatten her stomach.

These undergarments choked their waists into tiny unnatural measurements to achieve the desired hourglass figure and fashionable discomfit.

For centuries, a woman walked in beauty but also in pain, just like the Japanese women who for centuries had bound feet so they would look dainty. Never mind that walking was torture. Hence the shuffled gait of traditional Japanese women. Victorian corsets were the Western equivalent of this Eastern fashionable discomfit.

The corset evolves

From the 16th century to the 19th, the corset became firmer in its vice like grip on the female form. Whale bones hardened the original firm fabric sleeve encasing the midriff. Corsets forced ribs down and compressed stomachs. Another word for a corset became ‘stays’ as the middle of a woman’s body was not allowed to move.

Gradually by Edwardian times, the corset became more of a support for the bust and was a shorter version of its predecessors. By then steel as well as whalebone provided the support of the corset fabric.

Layers of Fashionable Discomfit

In the Edwardian years of the early 1900s, a British woman needed time to dress. She had to plan the event and needed a maid to help. First there were layers of undergarments, a petticoat, chemise, and drawers or pantaloons.

Then the dreaded corset that would cinch her middle in its whalebone vice-like grip. Countless whales gave their lives so women worldwide could achieve a 55 cm or 21-inch waist measurement. The corset did not just clamp a woman’s middle section as it was laced but propelled the bust forward to balance the bunched bustle of the dress over the buttocks.

This bustle padded out the derriere to a shapely but large bump, something akin to the present Kardashian penchant for a large bottom.

The health effect of corsets

Long-term wearing of a corset deformed the ribs and misaligned the spine. All in order to have a more ‘civilized form’. The constriction also led women to have breathing issues, causing a woman to feel faint or swoon. Certainly, she could not overexert herself while wearing one as the ribs could not move to inflate her lungs for a deep breath. Such enforced shallow breathing can affect all organs and their supply of oxygen. An imprint of the corset could be found on the liver and kidneys on autopsy of females of that time period.

One woman jokingly wrote, “It is important to note, that pregnancy has a similar effect on displacing a woman’s internal organs.” Women loosened their corset during later pregnancy but this apart from sleeping was the only time in a fashionable woman’s lifetime. Even when corsetry went out of fashion during the Roaring Twenties or Jazz Age, most older women retained them as an essential undergarment.

But that was not the end of the fashionable discomfit. There’s more to come.

Garters and Hatpins Complete Fashionable Discomfit

Elastic garters burnt into a woman’s thigh to keep stockings in place. Tight high-heeled boots, often laced, encased her feet making walking painful. Just to add to the long process of dressing. Then ladies added a large wide-brimmed hat with lots of fluffy feathers, flowers or artificial fruit and a deadly hat pin to keep the decorations or accompanying veil and scarf in place.

Now, hat pins were dangerous, a hazard to passing pedestrians. Often people in crowds scored a hatpin when least expecting an aerial attack. A device called an acorn became fashionable to have on the end of the point of the pin to protect other people.

For fashionable ladies, readymade clothes were not available to buy in the shops. Most women ordered their outfits from dressmakers who required 18 personal body measurements, plus height and weight to fashion an outfit.

Handbags and Hankies

And what about handbags you might ask? Where did a woman keep her small change and hanky? Apparently, men kept coins in their watches which popped open at the back and women wore a muff chain that fastened around their neck. This chain extended through a furry sleeve or glove, called a muff into which the wearer could insert both hands. Inside was a small pocket where such items as coins and hankies could lodge. Mystery solved.

But I just have to share this fascinating snippet about the origins of the hanky or handkerchief. Bobby Pin Blog at Vintage Hairstyling.com cites Marie Antoinette as the inventor of the lady’s hanky. Marie, an Austrian princess was so upset on the long trip from her homeland to France to marry Louis XVI, that she tore a strip of lacy petticoat to dab her tears. And oh, poor Marie how, years later, did she stem her tears as she climbed the scaffold of the guillotine in 1793, as a victim of the French Revolution?

However, the vintage style blogger though, as rapt as me in this story, does admit that upon further research the hanky dates to Roman times when it was a multi-functional piece of rag to dab not just tears but sweat and well, whatever. Say no more. But apparently Marie’s royal husband decreed that hankies should be square, as wide as they are long, probably the most useful shape. Can’t imagine round or triangular ones.

Liberation from fashionable discomfit

The change in women’s corsetry reflects the changing status of women in society, so fashion is a part of our history. During WWI metal was in short supply. The steel casing of corsets was part of the drive for metal meltdown to make much needed weapons. The corset of the post WWI era evolved again to cater for the straight form fashion of the Jazz Age flappers. Suddenly a small waist was not desirable, nor a shapely bosom. However, corsets were stiff still to flatten a woman’s natural curves. Then due to women’s involvement in the workforce and fighting of WWII, such garments became less and less a staple of women’s undergarment fashion. Eventually, the corset evolved into the brassiere and a woman’s waist was finally freed.

But according to bunnycorset.com corsets are still fashionable for occasional wear. Brides like to wear one under their wedding gown or later as a tantalizing bedroom outfit. They certainly are sexy and accentuate a woman’s shape. Without the tight lacing at the back, they can even be comfortable.


Do you like Victorian or Edwardian history? Stories about real women? Then try my historical novel series about two sisters based on a true story. Whispers Through Time, Time Heal my Heart and Last Time Forever tell the story of the lives and loves of Francesca and Winnie in the era of The Titanic sinking, World War One and Two and beyond to 1950. Set in Sydney, Australia and Europe.

Before a woman could have a voice, she had to free her body. Every woman deserves a voice, and each voice is unique. Find your voice and use it for good. Many women through century have defied a man’s world to add their voice for changes to patriarchal society. I feature some on this blog. See website link below.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels; Whispers through Time, Time Heal my Heart, Colour comes to Tangles and The Last Hotel. See website https://joniscottauthor.com.



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