Did poor women wear corsets?
January 20, 2008 7:18 AM   Subscribe

16th-18th Century (Western Europe): Did working-class women wear corsets?

I'm not talking about servants. I'm talking about washerwomen, prostitutes, thieves, etc. "The lowest of the low." I'm inclined to think "no," because how would such women have afforded a corset? But I've never seen a (non-nude) picture of a woman from these eras where she wasn't wearing a corset.
posted by grumblebee to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some prostitutes rented their finery. There's an excellent recent novel about such a woman, The Dress Lodger. Others were outfitted by madams.

Women who did hard physical labor did not wear corsets, but, depending on the era, their age and their position (orange-seller, etc.) may have owned them for special occasions. I'd consult a resource for the particular time period and country you wonder about.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:28 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


At least by the 19th century, working women wearing corsets was in fact a problem. I imagine this worked its way back as well, as urban women in particular often got their dresses from resale vendors, and those dresses didn't fit without corsets.

Here's a book on the whole history of restrictive undergarments, and a review. Another statement on more sensible women.
posted by nax at 7:35 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, they did. Corsets weren't just about waistlines - they also gave breast, back & abdominal support. Even very wealthy women didn't necessarily wear their most fashionable (read: extraconfining or uncomfortable) every day. Just like they wore slippers around the house if they weren't going out, they'd wear a less binding cloth corset with minimal boning. The women who cooked, cleaned, pulled water in from wells, etc would have worn one for the same reasons women of higher social classes did - particularly if it was a dividing line between looking like you worked in fields vs. working in a shop or in domestic service.
posted by Grrlscout at 8:51 AM on January 20, 2008


Grrlscout, how did these women, who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families, manage to buy corsets?
posted by grumblebee at 9:07 AM on January 20, 2008


An interesting aside to the corset problem was working women in the nineteenth century who insisted on wearing other fashionable safety hazards, including hoop skirts and ground-dragging skirt lengths. Female factory workers during world war 2 were targeted with public services campaigns to not wear trailing scarves and "Veronica Lake" over-the-face hairstyles due to safety concerns. Then there's modern retail workers who stand all day in 3 and 4 inch heels. Ah how we repress ourselves!

What's comparable on the men's side? (although they, of course, also wore corsets, with many of the same problems that plague women)
posted by nax at 9:33 AM on January 20, 2008


grumblebee: "Grrlscout, how did these women, who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families, manage to buy corsets?"

How do extremely poor women now afford to buy bras? But nonetheless even most homeless women seem to have one.

Poor women back then likely would have worn relatively non-restrictive corsets made of flannel or some other cheap cloth. They probably would have been hand-made. And a poor woman would probably have to make a corset last a long time, 5-10 years, unlike some of the upper class women of that time who had whole new sets of underclothes (usually with several corsets for different types of dresses along with petticoats, chemises, bloomers, stockings, etc.) made every year.

Corsets aren't inherently uncomfortable actually. I wore one for a play pretty continuously for about 4 months and had no complaints. It was the practice of tightlacing that made corsets dangerous and unhealthy.
posted by katyggls at 10:31 AM on January 20, 2008


What's comparable on the men's side? (although they, of course, also wore corsets, with many of the same problems that plague women)

Neckties are about the closest you'll find in the man's world. Oh how I hate them.
posted by Octoparrot at 10:42 AM on January 20, 2008


Corsets weren't worn until the 19th Century; from the middle of the 16th century women wore what were known as a "air of bodies", in the 17th century these became "stays". They were made at home, by hand, and were originally just stiffened or quilted bodices. Poor women often wore a shorter version of a quilted bodice. Stays began to elongate in the mid-century and a wood busk was inserted to keep them stiff, but working women didn't wear these, for the obvious reason that you don't want a piece of wood jabbing you in the gut every time you bend over. Quilted stays were worn by working women into the early 19th century, when corsets came into fashion.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:58 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cheap child sweatshop labor made steel boned corsets available to the lower classes in the 19th century. It's not like it is now where you buy a corset bespoke. Corsets aren't inherently uncomfortable or dangerous, as katyggls pointed out- I quite like wearing mine, and I'm working on a new one this week.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:04 PM on January 20, 2008


just saw my hideous typo uo above- it should be "Pair of bodies" not "air".
posted by oneirodynia at 4:13 PM on January 20, 2008


And a poor woman would probably have to make a corset last a long time, 5-10 years, unlike some of the upper class women of that time who had whole new sets of underclothes (usually with several corsets for different types of dresses along with petticoats, chemises, bloomers, stockings, etc.) made every year.

And, part of extending the life of corsets or "bodies" (in the days where they were worn for support and not for recreation*) was that women often wore thin cotton chemises underneath their corsets, against the skin. The chemise protected the corset from sweat and body oil, and was far easier to launder, and less expensive and less time-consuming to replace.

Today we support from above via shoulder straps, not from below via boning, and wearing the chemise equivalent under a bra would be muy uncomfortable. But back then, it was just like an undershirt.

* I realize there are folks who use corsets today as they were worn originally, but my point is merely that the chemise has gone extinct as the predominant fashion has evolved. NOT CORSET-IST.
posted by pineapple at 5:36 PM on January 20, 2008


They absolutely wore stays. As grumblebee said, "Corsets weren't just about waistlines - they also gave breast, back & abdominal support."

This is exactly why women who did hard labour (and the work that the average woman back then was truly hard labour) wore them: far from being a fashionable burden, stays with hard boning were extremely practical and functional garmet that allowed women to toil in the fields, carry babies and children, lean over cooking fires and washing pots and do other endless back-breaking work that would have otherwise been really too much without the back support gained from hard stays (richer women had whale bones, but wood was fine for poorer women).
If you've ever been to Plymouth, MA or Jamestown, VA, and ask the actors who recreate the lives of the earliest settlers about their corsets, they will tell you that love their stays. People back then were not stupid; women wore corsets because the daily grind of surviving and the heavy burdens of eeking out food from the soil and taking care of a family took an incredible toll on their bodies. Sure, corsets also exaggerated their figures, giving the illusion of a smaller waist, but more importantly, wider hips. Since most children didn't make it into adulthood, broad, childbearing hips that advertized one's fecundity were highly desirable. Add a bum roll, and women had both a figure that would make them stand out, and a handy shelf on their hips upon which they could rest babies, or washing baskets, or whatever. And during the summer, the whole thing helped serve as natural air conditioning: corsets and bum rolls would make their skirts fall away from their bodies, so when they swayed, they could cool off their legs.

They were so essential, in fact, that one of the big draws for people to come to the new world (and precisely the kind of person you are talking about-- poor lower class people who had nothing to loose and would therefore be persuded to chance the new world), was the promise that the company who ran the settlement would provide each person with an entire outfit. But one outfit. Textiles were expensive, only rich people had more than one set of clothing, and women certainly had only one corset. It generally didn't come off much, either. Rather disgusting by our standards, but they slept in them and generally kept it on all the time.
posted by buka at 6:53 PM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


katyggls said it best, I think - even the poorest women do what they can to care for themselves. Or conform to some sense of social normalcy, take yer pick. Fashion is aspirational by its very nature, but combine fashion with a real need (support) and you have a garment women can't live without.

Women were trained from childhood to wear corsets & the stiffened bodices oneirodynia talks about, and as such, I'd imagine their abdominal muscles would be weaker as a result. It's part of the reason midwives will advise against wearing pregnancy girdles unless unavoidable. If you were used to being encased in a corset, even if it wasn't as tightly as bodice ripper books & films would make you think, you'd feel weird and undressed without one.

I seem to remember that corsets weren't worn with that famously tight lace we think of now until the late 19th century, and even then it was a very limited kind of fad. Anyone know for sure?
posted by Grrlscout at 10:36 PM on January 20, 2008


Grrlscout: "I seem to remember that corsets weren't worn with that famously tight lace we think of now until the late 19th century, and even then it was a very limited kind of fad. Anyone know for sure?"

Well, I don't know for sure, but if you look at fashion plates and paintings, the waist to hip ratio doesn't seem to really get that unnatural pinched in look until the 1860's or so, and seems to disappear after about 1910 or so. I'm sort of basing this on a book of fashion plates that I own. And anyways, it was almost certainly a practice confined to the middle and upper classes as poorer women would have needed to wear a corset that did allow for a full range of movement. And as I remember there was quite a lot of people who were against it. Basically corsets themselves were seen as necessary for fashion and even health, but tightlacing them was seen by doctors, preachers, and dress reformers as unhealthy, vain, dangerous and silly.
posted by katyggls at 10:42 AM on January 21, 2008


Yes, tight-lacing (corsetry to radically reduce the waist) only dates from the mid-to-late 19th century.

Sixteenth to eighteenth century stays do reduce your waist, but only by a couple of inches. The desired upper body shape then was a sort of cone shape rather than the figure-eight of the Victorian era.

Pre-Victorian corsets.
Victorian corsets.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:52 PM on January 21, 2008


« Older Help a guy buy a swim suit.   |   What do I need to know to make a last-minute trip... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.