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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....

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