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BOOK REVIEW: Corsets – A Visual History

Compiled by R. L. Shep, Corsets – A Visual History is a must for anyone interested in fashion history. As its title implies, this book provides a “visual history,” using images found in advertisements and catalogs from department stores and corset companies.

Museums are full of well-dressed mannequins dressed in anything from sumptuous ball and wedding gowns, to more plain everyday dresses. Seldom do we get to see what was worn underneath those dresses, which was absolutely essential in creating the fashionable look of the era.

Because our dress forms already conform to the “ideal hourglass shape” so many women were trying to achieve, museum curators do not always bother to dress our mannequins with the correct undergarments. Sometimes we do not even have appropriate corsets or stays in the collection anyway.

This book allows us to examine what was available at the time our dresses were popular, and how women achieved the coveted ideal feminine shape.

By its very nature, a book of this type is seen solely from a manufacturer and advertising point of view. It is not intended to show the reality of wearing a corset. But the “Notes” section in the very beginning does address the health implications of squeezing your body into an unnatural shape.

One illustration in particular compares the bone structure of a “normal” woman to one who has been “permanently remodeled” by a corset. The rib cage of the corseted woman narrows drastically toward her waist, compacting all of her internal organs in the process.

In addition to shallow breathing and a “remodeled” rib cage and spine, the book also addresses a less well-known physical side effect brought on by corsets. An illustration for the “uterine supporter” shows how it was used to treat a “prolapsed or sagging uterus.” The ad states that it is “made of heavy morocco with elastic strap….Hard rubber cup pessary, held in place by small white rubber tubing.” The uterine supporter would be worn during the day, with the rubber cup inserted to form a support structure for the uterus.

The book also comments on various movements to suppress the use of corsets, most of which were widely unsuccessful. Fashion can be very powerful, and most women were willing to sacrifice their health to conform. At the beginning of the book, three excerpts from popular period magazines explore changes in attitudes, including The Penny Magazine (1833), Harpers Bazar (1871), and Women’s Home Companion (1912).

Perhaps surprisingly, the 1833 article is against the corset, outlining the dangers of compressing the lungs, heart, stomach, and liver, with the conclusion that “almost every function of the body becomes more or less depraved.”

The latter articles boast the advantages of a more flexible corset, but do not go as far as to suggest that women should not wear one altogether. The 1912 excerpt preaches the importance of a good fitting corset above all else: “Let me tell you that the fat woman looks much better in a corset an inch or so too large for her, where her fat can sink down into it, rather than in a corset two or three inches too small which presses her fat up and out until it appears in many unsightly bulges and bumps….The woman who has perfect corset sense is she who wears a corset right in size, right in shape, and so perfectly fitted that the corset and figure seem one.”

In the 1920s, those rebellious Flappers transformed beauty into something unlike anything that had been seen before. With their straight hips, flat chests, dropped waists, and hemlines above the knee, the corset fell out of fashion. There was an attempt to revive it in the 1930s, but as Shep writes, World War II put an end to that.

There are few illustrations in the book prior to 1870, mostly because proper morals prevented the publication of an image of a corset, so research material is scarce. These undergarments were veiled in modesty, and were not something early Victorian women talked about. As the era progressed, more images appeared.

The book is divided into decades, with illustrations through the 1930s. It is a visual smorgasbord of images, but it does not feel overwhelming. Instead, you find yourself turning page after page, eager to compare prices, styles, and advertising slogans.

In short, this book is both an excellent reference book and a treat for the casual reader. It is a rich primary source that documents a previously “unseen” aspect of fashion.



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