From Eric Smith’s book “Lost Skills of the 19th Century“
Corsets were developed in the 16th century as a means of rearranging a woman’s natural body into a shape considered more attractive and fashionable, generally some variation on an inverted cone or an hourglass. They reached their greatest popularity in the latter half of the 19th century, when they were used to sculpt unnaturally tiny waistlines in women of all sizes and shapes. This desirable profile was achieved with baleen or steel ribs and heavy cloth or leather, pulled tight by a network of laces tied in the back.
Dress and How to Improve It, by Frances Stuart Parker, published in 1897, was part of a general call from many quarters for more sensible, comfortable clothing for women, who, in addition to the misery of over-tightened, unhealthy corsets, had to endure multiple layers of undergarments, dresses that constricted movement, and undersized, painfully tight shoes. Parker eviscerates the designers responsible for this widespread discomfort:
Could the shoemaker and the dressmaker change the order of creation, and give us another body with internal organs re-arranged to suit the garments they design, we could go on our wasp-like way rejoicing. As it is, the conventional is utterly at war with the natural, with the inevitable result that our clothing is neither comfortable, graceful nor beautiful.”
These were brave words at a time when the pressure to conform was much greater than it is today, and Parker confesses that her own dressmaker refused to even consider Parker’s design for an improved dress simply because it was contrary to the latest Parisian fashions.
Corsets did not truly go out of fashion until the years around World War I, when they were replaced by girdles and better-designed brassieres. Garments called corsets are still available today, but of a different, more comfortable and loose-fitting design, and worn more for fashion than correction, often as an outer garment.
Dress and How to Improve It was only part polemic; most of it was a how-to book for women who wanted to change the way they dressed. The following excerpt from the initial chapters explains how to break the corset addiction and restore the body’s muscle tone. Later chapters discuss newer, more comfortable under and outer garments and where to find them, or how to make them. You can read the complete book, without cost or login, in the Hathitrust online archives (at the link below).
From: Frances Stuart Parker (1897). Dress and How to Improve It. Chicago: Chicago Legal News Company. Page 3.
CONVICTION AND CONVERSION
This pamphlet is written as an answer to the numberless questions and letters received from women all over the land, the burden of whose cry is, “What shall we do to be saved” from the bondage of clothes? And it is an endeavor on the part of the writer to tell as plainly as possible what she has discovered during fifteen years of actual experimentation in adapting the conventional dress to changing convictions. This process has been necessarily a difficult one; it was not an easy matter to make a decided change from the accustomed to the unaccustomed in dress; the time had not yet come when a woman could make, not an evolution, but a revolution, and discarding her old dress, step forth clothed in the new, as easily as the butterfly does from the chrysalis.
Sixteen years ago, I had the good fortune to be a pupil of Professor Lewis B. Monroe, Dean of the Boston University School of Oratory. He was a man who thoroughly believed in physical culture and constantly strove to impress upon his pupils the necessity of a free and unrestrained use of every muscle in the body. He crossed the ocean seven times to study the methods of Delsarte and incidental to that study made himself thoroughly acquainted with all forms of physical culture.
Thoroughly familiar with the methods of the best French gymnasiums, a man himself of fine physique, he made everyone with whom he came in contact, a firm believer that — “Not soul helps body more, than body soul.”
The pupils in his school were instructed in gymnastics, practicing both with and without apparatus, and were given lectures in anatomy, physiology and hygiene. It was after listening to one of these, given by Dr. Helen O’Leary, illustrated by a manikin, that I went home and took off my corset, which seemed to my partially enlightened mind the root of all bodily evil. Then and there my troubles began.
It did not occur to me that my skirt band still remained, and that my dress was quite as tight as before, or that the weight of the skirts still remaining, pressed heavily upon the abdominal muscles. I calmly removed my corsets and deprived my weakened muscles of their customary support.
Either the lecturer did not see the necessity for a radical change of dress throughout, or my mind was incapable of so advanced a thought; at all events, I brought from the lecture simply a determination to discard my corsets and give my internal organs a chance to perform their functions.
In all my experience, I have never met a woman whose corset was tight. I think I must have been the one exception to womankind, for mine certainly was tight at all times, and I gave its strings an extra pull before donning my better gowns, and this had gone on without question from early girlhood to the age of twenty-nine.
That winter, I was wearing the costume universally worn at that time. It consisted, first, of woolen under-drawers and vest, white muslin drawers, fastened around the waist by a band; and, in regular order, chemise, corset, corset-cover, underskirt, bustle, dress-skirt, over-skirt and basque. Seven bands around the waist, besides the stiff, shield-like corset, which prevented the complete severance of the diaphragm, and lifted the weight somewhat from the abdomen.
If any sensible woman will turn her attention from the trim, well-rounded waist she now admires, long enough to consider the true inwardness of that waist, it will surely, as it did me, “give her pause.”
An aroused consciousness kept my interior conditions vividly before me — my floating ribs pressing into my liver, my stomach crowded out of the roomy home its Creator had given it, and endeavoring to make a place for itself in the room rightly belonging to the lungs and heart, and they in turn interfered with, and protesting as best they could by shortened breath and rapid action. This idea of heart, lungs, stomach and liver, all deranged at once, made me strong in my determination to restore to these much abused organs their natural rights.