From Eric Smith’s book “Lost Skills of the 19th Century.”
Corsets were developed in the 16th century to rearrange a woman’s natural body into a more attractive and fashionable shape, 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 rearranged 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 even to 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 girdles and better-designed brassieres replaced them. Garments called corsets are still available today, but of a different, more comfortable, and loose-fitting design, 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 how 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 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.
But with the removal of the corset muscular anarchy ensued. I felt as if my back would break in two. In addition to this, I became painfully aware of the weight of my skirts over the abdomen, while every one of these seven bands cut its way into my weak and unprotected back….
CHAPTER IV. DEVELOPMENT OF BODY
Great care should be taken when one has decided to make a change in dress, that too much is not exacted of enervated muscles, weakened through long lack of use. Put on the combination garment and the tights at once, but begin to remove the corsets by degrees. Take the steels from the front and button them; lace them at the back with elastic cord. Have an improved dress made that will allow you a quarter or a half inch extra breathing space, with the seams sufficiently deep to admit of further letting out, if necessary. If skirts are still worn, make button holes in the band and button them to the corsets or corset cover, allowing a quarter of an inch slack in the band, between each button hole. Gradually take out all the bones in the corset and at once cut it off at the top and bottom, removing by degrees all superfluous linings. While this is going on take breathing exercises three times a day (according to directions found in the chapter under the head of breathing exercises). Get a set of chest weights (No. 10 Narragansett Manufacturing Co.) and practice night and morning all the different chest weight exercises to be found in the little book that will be furnished with the weights. Get Guthman’s Aesthetic Gymnastics, Checkley, Kafler on Breathing, Lutzen on Respiration, or any other standard book on exercises. Begin to find out what muscles there are in the body, and to use them. Three-quarters of an hour a day, for regular exercise, will strengthen and develop unused muscles in a most marvelous manner; and headache, nervousness, and dyspepsia “Will fold up their tents like the Arabs, and silently steal away.”
If there is a good gymnasium near, a gymnasium where some attention is paid to measurements and a reliable physician in charge to prescribe the course to be pursued, enter it. If not, the books indicated will permit a person with a reasonable amount of common sense to accomplish the desired result. Never unduly fatigue a muscle. Stop exercising before you are really weary. Remember that it is short periods of practice, with frequent intervals of rest, that do the work. Do not expect to get strong in a day, and do not be alarmed if unused muscles ache a little. Richard Proctor said it took his muscles two months to recover their normal condition, after foolishly wearing a corset for three months. He was growing stout, and thought it would be an excellent plan to adopt the feminine method of disposing of superfluous flesh, but after a short trial discovered that there could be greater ills in life than that of extra avoirdupois, and so left off his corsets, but was two months, as above stated, in leaving off the pains they brought him. If it took him two months to recover from a three months wearing of corsets, a woman who has worn corsets five, ten, fifteen, twenty years can’t expect to recover from the results of violated law in a week or a month; but if she has perseverance and exercises a little common sense and patience she will find nature very ready to help and quick to accommodate herself to new and better conditions.
Some attention, indeed a great deal of attention, must be given to physical exercise by any one meditating a change of dress. Much of the successful wearing of an improved gown lies in the symmetrical body that the dress covers. Shoulders can be broadened, hollow chests filled out, shrunken arms and legs developed, backs straightened, until the misused body approximates to its human form divine.
Parker died at 51, a few years after her book was published. You can learn more about her life in this memorial book published by her friends and family: Frances Stuart Parker: Reminiscences and Letters (1907). Chicago, Privately Printed.
About the Author: Eric Smith has been a carpenter and contractor for over 30 years, and specializes in 19th and early 20th century home renovations. He’s also a former home improvement editor at The Family Handyman Magazine and the editor or author of numerous how-to books and magazine articles.
Lost Skills of the 19th Century is a wide-ranging collection of (mostly) useful arts no longer widely known or practiced, discovered in the pages of long-forgotten classics of Americana like The Practical Distiller, American Artillerist’s Companion, The Farmer’s Cabinet, The Orphan’s Friend and Housekeeper’s Assistant, The Ball-room Bijou, A Manual for Attendants in Hospitals for the Insane, The Prairie Traveler, Wilson’s Book of Recitations, Practical Hints for Furniture Men, How to Make a Shoe, Skilful Suzy, The White House Cookbook, and dozens of others.
Lost Skills of the 19th Century has valuable tips and information for homesteaders, craftspeople, history enthusiasts, carpenters, historical reenactors, and survivalists – but most of all, it’s a book to help you travel back in time to a younger and very different America.