Women's Clothing Throughout Time

(70 Posts)
nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 12:45:32

As part of my HND fashion technology, I had to do a major essay on the history of the Corset.

(the module was historical and contextual referencing - we all wanted to make corsets, so in order to fit it into the course in a proper way, it was used as Historical and Contextual Referencing Module)

I wanted to talk about it.

I won't do a massive introduction, because I'm sure we all have our own ideas of why/when etc.

I'll start by:

Women have always been suppressed by men, right?
in fashion, it was one way that they could express themselves and men couldn't touch them.
(and we can discuss the whole thing about cloths etc too!)
in Mediaeval Britain and Europe, women were banned from showing their legs (calves and ankles), so they got round this "modesty code" by lowering their necklines. At one stage in the C13th, they had such low necklines that their entire bosom was showing.
one in the eye for the religious!

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 12:51:13

What did your course tutor say about corsets? If they said that they were an article of oppression, were uncomfortable to wear and were damaging to a woman's health (some common myths) then they are very ill-informed.

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:05:23

my course tutor said nothing about corsets.
the essay was our own work.
the course tutor was merely a fashion technology tutor, there to help us make the corset.

Do show your own workings on the subject - i did a lot of reading (and not from the internet - people didn't use it in those days), and i made up my own mind based on what i read.
but i know that feminists have taken what they know about the history of suppression of women, and suppression of people in general using clothes as an example (not a sole truth), and concluded that yes, in some ways, corsets were used as a tool of suppression (i'm not using oppression , because i think it muddies the waters on the subject)

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:05:59

ps: it's up to you now to prove those myths are unsubstantiated wink

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 13:16:49

Have you actually done your essay or are you looking for sources of information? I would have thought that someone who has researched the matter would already know that these are myths.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 13:22:57

Someone who has researched the matter would obviously know that corsets were only called corsets from around the C19th, which does limit the scope of such an essay to a specific period of time - so I take it that you are using the term 'corset' as a shorthand?

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:23:30


i did my essay 12 years ago! grin

I just find the subject fascinating, and since i did my essay, i've found out loads and loads more on the subject (not just corsets, but clothing in general throughout time) so it continues to fascinate me.

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:24:54

yes, using "corset" as shorthand.

because of the way the essay had to be structured, it was a history of myths and facts about the corset, in a bigger umbrella of history of women's clothing
(sort of, history of women's clothing focussing on foundation garments)

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:26:24

and shock Thistledew, you cynic!

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 13:31:08

I didn't mean to sound snarky so I'm sorry if I came across that way. It just sounded a bit like you were fishing for ideas or sources for something you were writing now, without coming out and saying so. I have to go off line for a few hours but will come back later to discuss further.

One thing to leave you with - given that women across all strata of life wore stays or corsets, and given the divergence in design between working class and fashion stays, do you really think it is the case that all stays were restrictive, uncomfortable garments? Does it not spring to mind that for the majority of women they had a utilitarian purpose?

nickelcognito Tue 18-Sep-12 13:38:55

oh, god, yes, they were completely primarily a foundation garment!

As i said, there is a lot of this coming from Feminists who made points over and over about them being used as a tool to keep women in their place.

And it kind of makes sense (ie you can follow their reasoning however spurious it may be), when you think about how they restricted movement and (okay, mainly from the pov of silly young fashion victims who tightened up too tightly!) breathing, and how the Church and rules of the hierarchy had dictated what clothes may and may not be worn. They were a Liberalist's dream!
And certainly, later on when they became unnecessary, that they were still used in the same way.
they (stays in general, not just corsets) were a very practical way of keeping the boobs in place, but at the same time, not a very practical garment on the whole.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 16:00:25

I would completely disagree that they are an impractical garment.

Firstly, when properly fitted they do not restrict breathing. Yes, they restrict ribcage breathing but they encourage diaphragm breathing, which anyone who has done any training for aerobic sports, or who sings, or who plays a wind instrument, is a far better and more efficient way to breathe.

Secondly, the 'restricting movement' point. A correctly fitted corset or set of stays will keep your back straight but will not restrict other movement. Correctly made, they don't dig into your hips or pelvis when you bend over. Think about how much more physical life was back in those times- even if you were only a housewife and did not work outside the home you would still spend hours bending over laundry, carrying pails of water, on your hands and knees scrubbing floors etc. If you worked outside of the home you could be doing this sort of work all day long. So tell me, would you rather do this work whilst wearing a garment which supports and strengthens your back or without it?

It shouldn't be forgotten that men would wear a girdle or stays quite frequently too- especially if they had back problems or were doing hard manual labour.

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 16:42:39

yes, good point about the diaphragm breathing - I don't know how well that would have been known before modern medicine (up to Edwardian times), and they probably would have felt the lack of ribcage movement and felt the diaphragm movement was a sign of struggling to breathe.

I wonder how well it would support - there is a term "muscular corset", that was coined by Victorian physicians who were trying to get rid of corsets, that they used to demonstrate that women were relying too heavily on the strength of the corset when they were working, and not developing good muscle strength. It seemed to make them weaker when they weren't using it.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 16:55:04

With respect, you seem to be looking at this with very modern eyes. Do you really think that millions of women went about their daily lives struggling to breathe because they couldn't expand their ribcages fully, or do you think that it is more likely that diaphragm breathing was just normal to them? All those housemaids and women working in agriculture being short of breath and struggling to do every day tasks, or that their clothing did not hinder them in their hard work?

If you speak to anyone who has and wears a properly fitted corset, they will tell you that it stops back ache, not causes it. I know several women who own properly made corsets because they work in various recreation or living history projects. More than one of them confesses to wearing her corset under modern clothing when she knows that she will be on her feet all day as means that her back will not be hurting by the end of the day.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 16:58:20

And I think your point about being "weaker when they weren't using" corsets is looking with modern eyes as well - this may or may not be medically true, but if you wear your corset every day from morning to when you go to bed at night, when does it matter that you will be 'weaker'?

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 17:06:05

i am looking at it with modern eyes.
but if it was so great to wear them, why was there so much effort to find something more suitable?
the ones that working class women wore were much more likely to be ill-fitting and most probably second or third hand, and most definitely wouldn't have been fully fastened.
there are records of doctors and physicians even in the 18th century who were rallying against stays.

and if we look at "they must have been comfortable" - there were plenty of jobs that certainly weren't comfortable, but people did them because they had no choice - picking turnips out of ice-hard ground by hand (with a hook knife) in winter; weaving would have given lots of splinters and blisters; digging; coal mining; laundry (oh, that could be very painful!); cleaning; lots of others - it's interesting reading Tony Robinson's Worst Jobs books - anything that was outside or used chemicals would have been very uncomfortable and painful to do.

modern eyes can see discomfort that history's hands wouldn't have dared to see.

anyway, I wanted to focus on fabrics and shapes of garments, too.
looks like it's just you and me for now grin

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 17:18:45

Where do you get the idea that working women would have had 2nd or 3rd hand stays and they wouldn't have been fully fastened? I am genuinely interested to hear your source for that.

There is evidence that stays were altered to reflect changing fashion or if the woman's shape changed but I would be quite hmm of an assertion that they were only semi fastened.

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 17:32:01

i get the idea from that fact that a large number of working class women wouldn't have had any new clothes.
not all, of course - there were a great many women who had enough money to buy clothes.
but i can't see how there would have been many who could afford to have stays made for them. or if they did, it would have been once or twice in their lives, and therefore wouldn't fit them properly as they changed.
like maternity clothes today - i borrowed maternity clothes when i was pregnant, and i'm sure that stays would probably have been borrowed if not adjusted heavily for pregnancy. surely it makes sense to borrow maternity stays for a couple of months?

sorry, when i said "fully fastened", i worded it badly - i meant they probably wouldn't have been fastened tightly - allowing more movement when doing hard manual work.

but i can't see how working class women (who didn't get wardrobe as part of their position) would have been able to afford clothes as fashion dictated. I can't afford to do that now, and I live in an age of surplus.

there are lots of photos from the turn of the century, and even up to the 60s, showing women (and girls) wearing clothes which obviously come from previous fashions, when pictured in street scenes alongside rich women in the latest fashions. it's easy to extrapolate from that that they aren't wearing first-hand clothes (otherwise girls would be wearing adults' clothes in order to still be wearing them when they fit)

TerrariaMum Tue 18-Sep-12 17:43:02

I own a properly fitted corset and Thistledew is absolutely right ime. I actually prefer my corset to most of the bras I have ever worn, but modern clothing isn't designed with those in mind so I can't wear it everyday as I would like to. Plus mine isn't that good for bfing in.

Funnily enough, DH and I were talking about this the other day. We both come from archaeology backgrounds so we were thinking about preservation. DH pointed out that the corsets that survive were the ones that were probably worn less as a result of being ill-fitting or uncomfortable while the comfortable fitted ones were worn until they fell apart.

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 17:48:11

well, that's true, modern ones aren't.

obviously designs changed a lot, but there are loads of different time periods where the stays didn't cover the breasts. some even that had soft fabric over the breast area, that you could feed in.

he's right, of course, the ill-fitting ones would have been thrown to one side.
(if they could afford to do that) although it's more likely they belonged to rich women who didn't need to wear the same garment for years.

i just don't believe that the same corsets the gentile ladies wore weer the same as the working class women's. they couldn't have been as strongly boned, for a start (cost being one thing), and i've seen lots of examples of leather girdles rather than stays being worn for manual work.

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 17:50:39

i wouldn't want to be in corset/stays all day evey day when i was working in a hot factory for example.
i did my HND on the finishing floor of a lace factory (not in the industrial revolution though!), and it was so boiling hot in summer that i just can't imagine women wearing corsets all day long in there, or at least not tight, tightly-laced, full corsets.
stays, yes, maybe, but not full corsets.

(my opinion is based on snippets of memory, though...)

nickeldaisical Tue 18-Sep-12 17:53:17

ooh, it's lovely talking about this subject with people who care grin

the one i made was very comfortable. not massively stiff, but very comfortable.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 18:43:40

It is a problem for historical costume researchers that very few items of clothing that would have been worn by working class people remain today, and also that there are very few detailed paintings of such clothing.

It is likely that all women wore stays. There are differences in design between stays worn by working class women and stays worn by women who did not work- the fabric would have been cheaper, possibly less boning, and more front-lacing designs that a woman could dress herself with.

It is also likely that items were remade and reworked. Boning taken out of something that could not be worn again and used for a new garment.

There are records of money being donated to homeless women so that they could buy stays, and it is quite probable that stays discarded whole by rich women would be taken apart for the valuable parts such as the boning.

It seems very extravagant to us to think of a working class woman wearing custom made-to-measure stays, but at that time all clothing was made by hand- something that seems to be a luxury to us today. There were ways of making it cheaper to have a corset or set of stays, and there would have been very few women who didn't have their own set made. It is much like us today with our underwear- no matter how hard up or frugal you are, there are very few people nowadays who will wear second hand pants, bras, or tights.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 18:44:32

What style/period was your corset, nickel?

alcibiades Tue 18-Sep-12 20:16:20

This is a fascinating subject and it's made me stop and think. I have worn a long-line bra in the past, and found that very comfortable and gave me a better posture.

I wonder how good bras were back in the day (or even if they existed in the form that's typical these days). It could be looked at as a kind of engineering problem - support from below via a corset or similar, or from above via shoulder straps?

If it was a laced corset, then it was probably more adjustable than modern-day underwear, and there might have been more variation in body shape/size throughout the year, especially for working women, according to the food available.

The aristocracy would have been a different matter, presumably. There fashion would have played more of a part than practicalities. Didn't Anne Boleyn introduce the French style of clothing to the English court?

So, I have more questions than answers. Which, I guess, is what attracts me to history (as well as science). The more I read, the more I realise I don't know, so I read more....

TunipTheVegemal Tue 18-Sep-12 21:18:34

As an ex-reenactor I want to back Thistledew up on this. A nice working class set of stays from the 17th century is way more comfortable than a modern bra. Posher clothes are generally less comfortable.
I find it really weird how people don't notice how distorting and uncomfortable the modern underwired bra is. I don't notice mine during the day but it feels nice when I take it off. My experience of stays is that unless you've got them laced too tight, there's less of the 'phew!' feeling at the end of the day.
Even the more restrictive posh clothes (eg the long conical tightly laced late Elizabethan bodice) help with posture so much that you feel comfortably supported.

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 21:39:23

From a feminist perspective I don't think it is at all helpful to perpetuate the myths that women couldn't breath, couldn't move properly, were fainting all the time etc when they were wearing bodies/stays/corsets. I think it undermines the hard manual work that working class women did- because if they were all struggling to breath and fainting all the time the work they were doing couldn't have been all that hard, could it?

SuperB0F Tue 18-Sep-12 22:00:25

This all sounds very interesting. Could somebody link to a picture of these practical 'stays'? I'm not sure I've ever seen them before. How do they support the breasts?

Thistledew Tue 18-Sep-12 22:08:41

Have a look at this site. The site belongs to a friend of mine. I don't profess to know a fraction of what he knows, but everything I know about corsets I know from him!

SuperB0F Tue 18-Sep-12 22:10:49

Brilliant- I'll enjoy that, thanks thanks

Empusa Tue 18-Sep-12 22:33:42

"I wonder how good bras were back in the day (or even if they existed in the form that's typical these days)."

This is interesting!

MmeLindor Tue 18-Sep-12 23:29:57

Marking place.

Must ask MmeGuillotine to come along to this.

TerrariaMum Wed 19-Sep-12 10:17:47

Aren't stays and corsets different things though? I could have sworn that they were. Similar but different?

RubyStolenBootyGates Wed 19-Sep-12 10:41:00

Hello! Another re-encator/corset-maker/costumier here:
I'm a 16thc. bod, and a properly made corset is a boon. Comfy, and helps you sit in an environment that is mostly stools without backs unless you're very posh. Also, properly constructed/boned underthings help to support very heavy skirts which would be desperately uncomfortable without it.

Look at those poor girls with their giant wedding dresses and sore hips. All because they don't wear properly constructed corsets/boned bodices.

RubyStolenBootyGates Wed 19-Sep-12 10:42:30

Recent developments in bra history here:

(There is a more scolarly article but I can't find it now)

nickeldaisical Wed 19-Sep-12 10:44:00

mine was a copy of one i saw in one of the books i used for research.
it was a full-bodied one, i can't remember the exact period, but i think it was mid-victorian. it wasn't stiff because i used rigilene boning and had to make my front bit from stiff interfacing because i couldn't work out how else to do it (one of the other girls on my course had some front ones made from steel!)

Thistle - i agree with that about having cast-offs and making new from them. i don't know why i didn't think of that one yesterday smile
and it makes a lot more sense than using stays that don't fit properly.

nickeldaisical Wed 19-Sep-12 11:03:51

when elastic was invented (and made useful), there was a corset that was made with elastic lacing.
some satirist made a cartoon in a newspaper about the fact that now a woman could have an affair without her husband knowing - he basically made out that elasticated lacing would be the ruination of marriage! grin

SuperB0F Wed 19-Sep-12 12:12:13

Ruby, you've answered a question I had there- sitting on stools! I was wondering why people ever though they were necessary at all! And would they help support the back if you were doing lots of lifting and manual work too?

I wonder why rich women's fashion didn't evolve away from them in that case? You know, like how it was fashionable to be pale as opposed to weather eaten like poor women, etc?

Thistledew Wed 19-Sep-12 12:20:31

Boddies, stays and corsets are basically different names for the same garment. In C16th they were called boddies, C17th and C18th they were mostly called stays, and from C19th they were called corsets. The styles and look of them did vary significantly as fashions changed.

SuperB0F Wed 19-Sep-12 12:23:14

Have you any thoughts on my question above, Thistledew? I loved your friend's site, btw.

Thistledew Wed 19-Sep-12 12:50:14

Corsets definitely provide support when doing manual labour. I typed a longer post about this yesterday at 16.55 - does this answer your q? I'm on my phone atm so would rather not repeat myself! smile

SuperB0F Wed 19-Sep-12 12:53:30

Ah yes, I see that now, thanks.

I still wonder why it didnt become a mark of the leisured classes to abandon the corset earlier though. Just thinking aloud!

Thistledew Wed 19-Sep-12 12:54:03

I'm pleased you like my friend's site. He is one of, if not the foremost authority on corsets in the UK and can usually date something to within a couple of decades! The pieces he makes are beautiful.

TunipTheVegemal Wed 19-Sep-12 12:54:12

I think even if you were rich you would still have sat on stools a lot - there are plenty of posh stools.

TunipTheVegemal Wed 19-Sep-12 12:58:53

I think the leisured classes differentiated themselves by making corsets more restrictive rather than abandoning them. Also appearance and fashion would have been more important for wealthy women and that would have been their other purpose.

There's also the issue of the firm foundation they provided helping to take the weight of the skirts and it's the rich who would have had the skirts with the most material.

RubyStolenBootyGates Wed 19-Sep-12 13:00:18

Posh stools, and very posh cushions. Good corsetry makes it all ok though smile

Thistledew Wed 19-Sep-12 13:00:44

On that point I think it is just that there isn't now and has never been a significant difference in clothing between wealthy people and poor workers. It was all on a continuum. You showed that you were wealthy by having your stays made out of an expensive fabric and by lacing them tighter than was really good for you. As someone else said up the page- they had a use even for wealthy women by supporting the heavy dresses.

I would also imagine that much of it is vanity- they do give you a very even, uniform shape. Why would you as a wealthy woman present yourself with a flabby tum and saggy boobs, when your maid servant was looking all neat and trim in her corset?

nickeldaisical Wed 19-Sep-12 13:25:07

i guess that a lot of posh rich women found it easier to lose inches by corsetry - it was unbecoming of ladeees to do any physical exertion (leave that to the working classes, they're uncouth).
there wouldn't have been any need to lose the corset because that's how you stay all nice and shapely and ladylike.

SuperB0F Wed 19-Sep-12 13:30:34

Good points, yes.

RubyStolenBootyGates Wed 19-Sep-12 13:44:43

And of course, the tighter and more restrictive your corsetry is, the less manual labour you can actually do. Thus tight corsetry is a mark of wealth. Although in the Tudor era I believe that most wealthy women still had a very hands-on approach to house-hold management, so early and mid-Tudor corsetry, even for the wealthy is relatively practical.

It's only towards the end of the period that very long busks imobilising the body become fasionable.

MrsjREwing Fri 21-Sep-12 19:50:24

I thought rich lady's wore a tight corset to prevent over eating.

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Sat 22-Sep-12 00:27:46

This is really interesting!

nickeldaisical Sat 22-Sep-12 10:40:52

MrsJR grin
yes, that does also help - have you seen what they served for dinners in posh houses? shock

TunipTheVegemal Sat 22-Sep-12 10:44:12

Do you remember that scene in Gone With The Wind where she's made to eat loads before a barbecue because it wouldn't be ladylike to stuff her face in public? grin

It's an interesting thought about women having to not eat too much. It seems like a very Victorian thing - I wonder when it came in.

nickeldaisical Sat 22-Sep-12 10:49:26

i would imagine that's when it came in.

the Victorian age brought in a lot of weird stuff. covering table legs, women not eating loads, being frowned upon for playing church organs for a living...
(that one was later, though. in the mid-1800s, there were more women organists than men, by rather a long way. they used to do blind tests so that the best candidate would get the job rather than the best male candidate)

TunipTheVegemal Sat 22-Sep-12 11:16:04

I've always been fascinated by the thought that if you were an early Victorian young woman you might see your Georgian granny as really uncouth, with her swearing, not covering her ankles up properly, going for walks by herself etc.

The way extreme gendering came in for both sexes is quite fascinating. In Georgian times both men and women wore silks, a range of colours, make up and perfume, and the men didn't have facial hair. Then in the 19th century not only do you get women more restricted socially, you get men dressing in drab colours with beards and whiskers.
I came across some interesting stuff about the advent of trousers for men as opposed to knee breeches. They were seen as practical but informal. At one point (1800ish IIRC) Cambridge colleges were marking students as absent if they turned up to formal hall and chapel in trousers.

nickeldaisical Sat 22-Sep-12 11:24:51

yes, and of course, in the Georgian period, they had those huge elaborate wigs too.

almost like the Victorians went "we'll have none of that thank you! <hoicks bosom>"

Mirage Sat 22-Sep-12 13:49:08

The Victorian ladies used to wear a detachable skirt to go out hunting in.There were so many cases of ladies being dragged by their long habits being caught up when they fell that detachable skirts were designed for safety reasons.If a lady did lose her skirts,a married gentleman or clergyman would be called to assist her.The rather lovely veils they wore were to protect their faces from scratches when flying over or through hedges.

TunipTheVegemal Sat 22-Sep-12 13:54:23

LMAO @ 'or clergyman'!

nickeldaisical Sat 22-Sep-12 14:04:06

clergyman not likely to look at her drawers wink

TunipTheVegemal Sat 22-Sep-12 14:10:32

This reminds me of a joke about a nervous young curate visiting an elderly parishioner. 'Winter draws on, eh?' he remarks. 'As a matter of fact I have' she replies 'though I can't see that it's any business of yours!'

RubyStolenBootyGates Sat 22-Sep-12 16:25:31


RillaBlythe Tue 25-Sep-12 19:17:07

Fascinating thread! So where does the Rational Dress movement of the late 19th c fit in? My great great grandmother was really into t, toured around the country speechifying & neglecting her husband.

TunipTheVegemal Tue 25-Sep-12 20:14:55

what a brilliant story Rilla!

I'd love to know more about Rational Dress. I bet it's really interesting.

RubyStolenBootyGates Tue 25-Sep-12 20:27:49

Oh Constace Wilde was a member wasn't she? She wrote articles about the aims of the movement too.

TunipTheVegemal Tue 25-Sep-12 20:30:03

ah, so Constance Wilde turns out to be more interesting than she is always portrayed as in films about Oscar Wilde.... No surprise there!

RubyStolenBootyGates Tue 25-Sep-12 20:32:47

Have you read her newish biography? It's very interesting. There are hints that she "helped" Oscar with quite a lot of his work.

TunipTheVegemal Tue 25-Sep-12 20:34:17

Wow, looks amazing Ruby. Someone needs to do a tv drama!

RubyStolenBootyGates Tue 25-Sep-12 20:39:32

I was thinking that the whole time I was reading it!

nickeldaisical Mon 01-Oct-12 12:43:41

i don't know much about Rational dress, but i know it was ridiculed at the time.
shame, because it made a lot more sense.

Have you got more information, Rilla ? especially stories she might have told?

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