Waist Management

If you can’t wait until spring arrives to throw off your heavy clothes you might like to examine what lurked under some of the layers worn by our predecessors. During the month of February, in our Fashion History classroom we are progressing through the 19th century and studying the “etiquette” of dressing.

Victorian Dress from Seneca Fashion Resource Centre

Although the last item you might have put on this morning would be your footwear, shoes and stockings were often donned first by fashionable Victorian ladies.  What was the reason for this order?  It was their dedication to the beauty culture of the time, and the quest for a fashionable body.  This fashionable body was one that clearly defined their feminine attributes and revealed the female and fashionable body.  It was tightly corseted, curvaceous and to us, curious.  Why, we might ask would anyone want to so manipulate their bodies to emphasize their femininity when doing so would actually have a negative impact on one of the defining characteristics of what it is to be female?  And that was to namely, bear children.

There have been many reasons given for this including, but not limited to, the approved career path of the Victorian woman.  To be a wife and then mother was the goal and to achieve this one needed to be as attractive as was possible.  And to be considered attractive meant the adherence to the socially defined beauty of the moment.  This beauty was fair of face, her hair was her crowning glory and her figure made it clear for all to see that she was feminine.  A tightly corseted waist that might be spanned by a man’s hands was the goal.

And this corseted waist is the reason why her stockings and shoes would need to go on first.  Once she was tightly corseted after stepping into her drawers and putting on her chemise, the strait lacing of her corset would make reaching her feet virtually impossible.  Of course, dressing in the Victorian style with the corset would have required the assistance of someone, be it a maid if you were wealthy or your husband– who might do this even if you were wealthy.  The corset might be perceived to be a “modern” chastity belt as it would require someone’s assistance to get into and out of it.


The next layer would be a corset cover that would help to smooth down any ridges that might develop as the stays of the corset would push into the breasts.  The corset is not a brassiere and does not have “cups” so an unsightly ridge might develop.  The corset cover would add an additional layer which, under the dress bodice, would create a lovely, rounded, monobosom effect.

Next, would be the substructure to add important fullness to the back of a Victorian lady’s gown – the bustle.  Pictured here is our modern, collapsible bustle that would allow a lady to sit with some degree of comfort.  When she sits, the hoops fold up and when she stands they drop back into place, adding just the right amount of support to her dress.  A wondrously convenient style!

Image from Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 – 1915, Sharon Sadako Takeda and Kay Durland Spilker, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Page 99

Image from Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 – 1915, Sharon Sadako Takeda and Kay Durland Spilker, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Page 99

Topping this substructure would be at least one petticoat.  And, if it happened to be February the choice might be a red one, as this was believed to add extra warmth!

Although this may seem like extreme lengths to go to achieve the fashionable body, consider what we do today to achieve the desirable shape: diets, body cleanses, abdominal crunches, personal trainers, liposuction and Spanx!   Maybe we aren’t quite so different in terms of our quest for the fashionable body.

If you happen to be in the Peel Region you might want to drop into the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA) and visit their temporary gallery where our friends from the Fashion History Museum have an exhibit entitled Waist Management on until February 16th.  In this exhibit are further examples of the types of undergarments women have worn to manage the fashionable body.


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