Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Victorian Dress Torture

Imagine walking around every day with anywhere from 20 to 88 pounds of constant pressure around your abdomen. That’s what the corset provided as it cinched women’s waists to as little as 17 or 18 inches. “It also restricted oxygen intake, crushed the internal organs, caused chronic fatigue and headaches, and created serious long-term medical complications,” explains Joshua Zeitz in his fascinating book, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and Women Who Made America Modern. A girl at boarding school related how the merciless tight-lacing was painfully intolerable, but that it was an inflexible rule, and the cruel laces not relaxed except during illness. One critic of the day said, “The effects of a tight cord round the neck and of tight-lacing only differ in degree… for the strangulations are both fatal. To wear tight stays is in many cases to wither, to waste, and to die.”

“The loudest defenders of the corset routinely used words like ‘discipline’, ‘confinement’, submission’, and ‘bondage’ and spoke favorably of ‘training the figure’ with a degree of pain ‘rigidly inflicted and unflinchingly imposed’.” One man said, “The corset is an ever present monitor indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint: it is evidence of a well-disciplined mind and well-regulated feelings.”

If they couldn’t move or breathe easily because of corsets, women were further hampered by crinolines. ”Built of flexible steel, whalebone, or wood, these contraptions were little more than hooped cages…. sometimes as much as 5 yards in circumference.” Wooden crinolines commonly caught on fire when women stepped too close to a fireplace or candle (i.e. within a couple of yards). One Victorian woman wrote, “Take what precautions we may against fire, so long as the hoop is worn, life is never safe… all are living under a sentence of death which may occur unexpectedly in the most appalling form.”

Appalling indeed! Is it any wonder that Victorian feminists felt that the fashions reinforced women’s subordination to men, keeping them quite literally imprisoned? “How can you ever compete with man… for equal place and pay with garments… so cumbersomely fashioned, and how can you ever hope to enjoy the same health and vigor as men, so long as the waist is pressed into the smallest compass, pounds of clothing hung on the hips, the limbs cramped with skirts?” asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wore comfortable “bloomers” in protest.

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